All buildings speak, and they speak in many ways. Sometimes they use written words. Drive through the Midwest and you see barns proclaiming, “See Rock City,” urging travelers to visit a massive natural rock formation atop Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. Sometimes buildings speak out loud. In the center of Indianapolis, when you walk past a radio station’s building, you hear what is currently on the air. Other buildings speak without words. An elementary school that shines with faculty and students working together has walls that whisper, “These children are special.” There is an ancient tradition that says structures—stones and bricks and locations—speak. They may not use words like humans do, but they do communicate meaning related to the events and experiences associated with them.
The buildings housing our congregations communicate. Even if the people themselves are silent, whether in prayer or in doubt, the stones cannot be silent. Buildings that express beauty and faith through symbols and design tell stories about how congregations’ facilities reinforce their faith identities.
One way to look for the message that a religious building communicates is to interpret the building in the same way one interprets Scripture. This looking includes seeing what the whole facility has to say. Discerning the meaning of Scripture includes looking at the history, the form, the context of the writing in relation to what is around it, what it does, what it intends, and the reader’s response to the passage. Discerning a building includes these same actions. Ask questions. What is the history of this sacred space? How did it come to this place? What does the shape of the building say? What do people do here? How do people respond to this room? What does our sacred space keep people from doing?
You may have noticed that when we say “sacred space,” we mean the whole building, not just the sanctuary or part of the worship area. That is because we believe that a sacred space is any part of a building used by a congregation or for programs hosted by a congregation. The term “sacred space” is not meant to confer a particular aesthetic or assume a particular theological perspective. Those are congregationally determined. The process, the resources, and the tools we describe can be applied to any aspect of matching a congregation’s physical structures with its goals and dreams. A congregational team may want to learn what their sanctuary communicates, or they may be trying to understand how their parking lot communicates the positive core of a community’s way of life. All aspects of a facility communicate, not just the obviously sacred ones. Even functional ones like parking lots and kitchens reinforce or fail to reinforce a congregation’s intentions.
Understanding congregational identity is essential to a building program. As your sacred space team works on building issues, you need to discern what is unique about your faith community. You also will want to think about how your facility communicates that uniqueness. The primary goal of discernment is to be more conscious about how the building effectively communicates your congregation’s distinctive identity.
Listening to Your Building
There are a variety of ways your sacred space team might discern your congregational identity by listening to your building. One way to discover the link between your congregation’s identity and your facility involves asking two key questions: “What about our facility leads people to deeper practices of faith?” and “What about our facility drives everyone crazy?” The answer to the first question shows where the congregation’s identity and facility come together in positive, faith-giving ways. The answer to the second question shows where gaps exist between the congregation’s identity and facility. These two questions are starting places for exploring the relationship between mission and building.
Another way to learn what your building communicates is to talk with those who experience the space. Every congregation has building stories. One way of getting at your congregation’s stories is to convene a group of about twenty-five people. The twenty-five then break into groups of two to four people. Each small group is asked to come up with a story about your congregation’s facility. The story needs to be specifically about an event in which the facility is the main character.
After the stories are heard, ask the group to think about these events. “What common themes did you hear in our stories?” “How would you describe the character of our building in the stories?” “What is our building trying to tell us through these stories?” You can also ask the two key questions named earlier: “What about our facility leads people to deeper practices of faith?” and “What about our facility drives everyone crazy?”
Using conversations like this helps a sacred space team discern ways their building matches their identity. Such conversations help people own, or discard, common stories about the facility and the mission it supports. They are a way to interpret the experiences people have with the facility.
Interpreting stories about their building does not tell a group what to do. Discernment involving a shared story does not furnish a group with an architectural design for a new community room or an elevator. Thinking together about such stories does, however, help congregations consider who they are and how their building shapes their character. It is one of the first steps for effective improvements to a sacred space. It also needs to be part of an ongoing discipline of discernment that shapes the sacred space process.
Another way a congregation can discern how its building communicates its identity is to take members on a building tour. Tours are not just for historic cathedrals! This exercise works best in a small group, like that of a sacred space team. The group takes a walking tour of their facility. At each room or space, the group stops and responds to these questions:
- What goes on here?
- How does this space help or hinder the activity?
- What is the best thing about this space?
Another way to do this without actually walking through the facility is to have people draw the building’s floor plan on poster boards. Then ask the above questions and write the answers in the appropriate spots on the floor plan.
Both of these exercises allow the building to tell the story of its usage. They are ways for the building to describe capacity issues, identify strengths, express the needs of upkeep, and demonstrate evidence of wear and tear. They encourage members to examine congruencies and gaps in what their building communicates in relationship to the congregation’s personality.
When a sacred space team from a Baptist congregation sketched their floor plan, a communal shout of affirmation rose. In unison they shouted, “It’s the basement; see, everything is influenced by the basement!” By looking at the whole facility, the group was able to see how problems related to their basement (too much moisture) were keeping them from moving ahead with other aspects of their ministry. This was a congregation wanting to be a beacon in their part of the city, and they were stuck underground.
Taking a close look at what their building was saying led Etz Chaim, a synagogue on the north side of Indianapolis, to a whole new place. They were part of the Sephardic tradition, Jews originally expelled from Spain. There aren’t many Sephardic communities left in the United States, and this congregation wanted to make sure their children understood the richness of their tradition.
The facility where they gathered was a former Lutheran church. As the years passed, Etz Chaim had to address structu
ral issues related to the building. While working on major maintenance issues, the sacred space team decided to think bigger. Etz Chaim wanted more than a repaired old Protestant building; they wanted a space that communicated their unique cultural, historic, and religious identity to the generations to come. Thus, they chose to build an entirely new building on a new site.
One way their new building communicates their identity is through the placement of the ark that holds the Torahs. When this community prays, they want to be praying east toward Jerusalem. In their old building, they had to face north. Now, in their new facility, all face east, toward the ark, toward the Torahs, toward Jerusalem.
They also have a new kosher kitchen. They are, as one member says, “a social congregation.” Now they are able to host gatherings in which the food prepared and served on site is kosher.
For Etz Chaim, building a new facility that matched their identity didn’t mean leaving everything behind. Just as they brought their traditions with them when they came to the United States, when they moved, they brought things from the old building, including several stained-glass windows, the ark, and the Torahs. They didn’t wipe away the past. They added a new chapter to an identity that stretches back in time and now, thanks to the new building, continues into the future too.
Adapted from Holy Places: Matching Sacred Space with Mission and Message, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute.
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