This is the seventh post in this series of twelve. In the past fifty years “church” our imagination about what it means to be God’s people has been shaped by imported models and by a variety of traditions — you can name the one you know — but those traditions themselves have been conditioned by the preachers, leaders, books and churches that have dominated the scene in the U.S.A. The most prominent of these, we all know, being Willow Creek.

We are now in the intriguing place of recognizing the limits of an imported imagination of ecclesial life. There are signs that the work of theology, and of mission, in place — in THIS place — and the interaction of these two, is being taken with new seriousness by Canadian believers. Thus this series of posts on the work of Canadian authors.

My last post considered “Plunging Into the Kingdom Way.” This time we’ll consider Bill McAlpine, Sacred Space for the Missional Church: Engaging Culture Through the Built Environment.

The publisher’s blurb reads as follows:

Sacred Space for the Missional Church examines the strong link between the theology and mission of the Church and the spaces in which and from which that theology and mission are lived out. The author demonstrates that the built environment is not incidental or even subservient to mission. Rather it is a key player in the fulfillment and the communication of that mission. The book begins with a working definition of the missional church, underscoring the connection between God’s mission (missio Dei) and the Church’s mission.

“The reader is presented with historical and theological frameworks for sacred space, and reminded of the pivotal role of the built environment in the fulfillment of the mission of the Church. The design and construction of sacred spaces are shown to be fundamentally a theological exercise and not solely a matter of function, pragmatics and fiscal astuteness. The author questions the uncritical application of blanket statements such “form must follow function,” and challenges the conviction that it does not matter where worship occurs, only that it occurs.

“The book addresses genuine concerns such as legitimizing the cost of church buildings and concludes with practical suggestions and essential questions that must be considered in posturing the built environment within the missional praxis of the Church.”

That is a fairly good summary but does not give a sense of the richness and complexity of the book. The book is based on McAlpine’s dissertation, yet it is not overly complex or philosophical, just more dense and less storied than say, Eric Jacobsen’s latest, “The Space Between.” John Drane, author of “The McDonaldization of the Church,” comments on “Sacred Space” —

“It was Marshall McLuhan who first coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message,’ and Dr. Bill McAlpine .. reminds readers that the gospel message is expressed not only in words but inescapably through the spaces in which Christians gather and worship. In a detailed and well-informed study that incorporates honest reflection on his own spiritual pilgrimage, he invites other Christians to reflect more deeply on what their buildings are saying about God.”

The introduction is penned by John Swinton. Swinton offers that, “Space not only provides the context for creaturely life, it also forms
the boundaries between us. Without space healthy relationships are not possible. It is as we meet in the space between us, as Martin Buber put
it, that we come to know who we are and what it means to love and be loved. In the same way, the church needs space in order that it can relate
to the world. Without it the church will lose its identity and collapse into the world.”

One of the contributions McAlpine makes through this work is to help us re-examine recent assumptions about the buildings we use. In light of the neo-monastic impulse, buildings and the investment we make in them is seen as poor stewardship. At the same time, we tend to see “place” as a neutral container for the life that occurs: neutral, exchangeable, and irrelevant. But this ignores both tradition and psychology, and maybe some implications of the Incarnation itself. McAlpine goes so far as to raise the discussion of sacred space through the work of Mircea Eliade. It’s time to give some new attention to these issues, because the influence of pragmatism can be legimated to strip the church of many beautiful things. It is this generation, in the waning hours of Modernity, that has a renewed appreciation for the power of symbols, and has opportunity to re-imagine the world as sacred.

Here is the chapter listing:

Chapter 1 Is There a Place for a Place Called Church?
Chapter 2 The Church, the Gospel, and Culture: Defining Mission
Chapter 3 A Historical Framework for Sacred Space
Chapter 4 A Theological Framework for Sacred Space
Chapter 5 The Significance of Place in Fulfilling of the Mission
of the Church
Chapter 6 Missional Challenges and Opportunities in the Twenty-first Century
Chapter 7 Where We Need to Be
Appendix A—Sacred Space Walk: A Guideline for Personal Reflection

The book opens with some reflections on secularization, with the help of Peter Berger. George Barna in the USA, and Alan Jamieson in New Zealand, come into play in reflections on the decline in church attendance in the West. This is a nuanced view, as the research of both these gentlemen would allow. A decline in church attendance does not necessarily equate to a decline in faith: and therein lies the challenge.

imageIn Chapter 2 McAlpine discusses the meaning and nature of culture, using the work of Michael Gallagher, Newbigin and others. He notes the dialogical nature of culture, then asks the question: “How then does culture relate to the significance of sacred space? A culture cannot be understood or fully appreciated without consideration of the built environments within it. The reverse is also true; an appreciation of built environments cannot be acquired in the absence of an understanding of the culture in which they are situated.” (16)

McAlpine then notes two distinct motifs in spirituality, referencing Gallagher again. “Michael Gallagher notes a similar distinction between older spiritualities, which he sees as “vertical roads of questing for God beyond this world,” and newer ones that “stress a this-worldly fullness of life, as an experience of Christian faith.” (19) This discussion proceeds with reference to Schreiter, “Constructing Local Theologies.” The chapter closes with a discussion of the Apostolic nature of the church and the missio Dei.

Chapter 3 surveys physical “church” buildings through history, their context and meaning. The Reformation marked a turning point, with a new suspicion of symbols and their employment, and McAlpine lingers in this section, exploring the roots of Modernity in Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican practice.
He focuses on the altar, the pulpit, and the font and their locations and use. The chapter closes with a consideration of multi-purpose buildings and megachurches.

Chapter 4 uses the previous chapters as the basis for some rich theological reflection. Yi-Fu Tuan, Rudolph Otto, Emil Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, and Victor Turner come into play here. This first part has a sociological and anthropological flavor. The latter part of the chapter considers sacred place in the Old Testament (tabernacle, temple and land), and the New Testament (Incarnation).

Chapter 5 focuses on “place.” McAlpine uses Gadamer and Rapoport to establish a framework for understanding place.

“Amos Rapoport developed a model used to conceptualize the design of various environments that includes the four variables of space,
time, meaning, and communication. I suggest a slightly different combination of five components that directly shape the nature and quality
of a person’s experience of any given place. The first two components are what a person brings to a place: an awareness of one’s identity and
an awareness of one’s preunderstandings or preconceptions. The degree to which these are understood or developed varies, but they nonetheless
influence a person’s experience of “place.” The other three components are an appreciation of others present, an appreciation of the setting itself,
and an appreciation of the activities that transpire in any given place.” (121)

Chapter 6 takes on missional challenges and opportunities. McAlpine wants to address two realities that could represent potentially significant arguments against the need for buildings dedicated to the twenty-first-century ministry of the church. Two phenomena in particular – the resurgence of the house church movement, particularly in North America, and the technological advancements of cyberspace. A related concern is the increasing concern over the legitimization of costs associated with the construction of buildings, a concern mitigated by a resurgence in spiritual interest in the wider culture. McAlpine writes, “The relevant question is not whether humans need to engage in ritualistic activity but rather why, how, when, and where ritual should be engaged in… Hine suggests that with the secularization and demythologization of Western society, the need for ritual and myth was distorted if not suppressed altogether. Evidence in the twenty-first century strongly suggests that such suppression or distortion has been relatively short lived.” (140)

McAlpine spends significant time on debating the merits of cyberspace. he notes that the interactivity promised by much of cyberspace is seen by some
as counterfeit to what humanity desperately requires, namely “deep participation.” (Cobb) “Deep participation” cannot be limited to cognitive activity
but must include the physical, the imaginative, and the experience of the physical environment in which we live. McAlpine reflects on both sides of the argument, as well as referencing the Orwellian nightmare, and Foucault’s panopticon.

Chapter 6 closes with a challenge: how do we regard our buildings? “as a tool for effective involvement in the missio Dei, a gift of worship to God himself, a fortress to harbor us from unwanted influences, or a memorial to the leadership and congregants themselves?”

Chapter 7 follows up this question with an orientation to praxis. Where do we need to be, with regard to buildings and sacred space in this generation? He discusses the types of space and the models that are currently impacting space design in Protestant settings (the mall being a significant new model – which may have missional value, but which obviates other needs and plays into the consumer mindset of our culture).

Sacred Space at Wipf and Stock

Previous posts in this “Made in Canada” series:

A Happy Ending, published by The Story in Sarnia, Ontario.
Beautiful Mercy, published by St. Benedict’s Table in Winnipeg.
The Cost of Community, by Jamie Arpin-Ricci in Winnipeg.
Where Mortals Dwell, by Craig Bartholomew in Hamilton
The Missionary Letters of Vincent Donovan, by John Bowen in Toronto
Plunging Into the Kingdom Way, by Tim Dickau in Vancouver