I had lunch with a friend the other day. The topic of church growth came up, as it often does. He informed me of a trend in his church that has provoked him as of late. He has noted that the place believers gather together to offer praises in worship to their God, the place where the bold proclamation of God’s word is presented to the people, the place once known as a sanctuary is now simply being called an auditorium.
This isn’t an isolated occurrence. When my old church moved from their sanctuary into the gym (preparing for growth) the term sanctuary was dropped and it became an auditorium. Even the conservative baptist church I attend now calls it an auditorium.
My friend was so troubled by the terminology he confronted the pastor about it. He argued that the church has been referred to as a sanctuary throughout history and carries with it a sense of awe and reverence in the presence of the Holy that should not be changed.
In light of our discussion, a question has been hammering in my brain the past few days:
Is it wrong to call the place of corporate worship an auditorium instead of a sanctuary or is it much ado about nothing?
Let’s explore the issue in depth.
First let’s see what the good old dictionary has to say about the word sanctuary.
- A sacred or holy place
- The biblical tabernacle or the Temple in Jerusalem
- The holy of holies of these places of worship
- An especially holy place in a temple or church
A sanctuary is a holy place that holds a special significance to those who occupy it. The tabernacle and later Solomon’s temple was setup specifically for the worship of God. Levitical priests offered sacrifices, burnt incense and performed other prescribed acts of worship on the altars according to God’s specifications. The temple/tabernacle consisted of three sections. The Courtyard, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was also called the Most Holy Place. The Ark of the Covenant stood in the midst of it. The Ark represented the very presence of the Lord God himself. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies and that only at certain times. Nothing impure could approach God’s Holy presence.
Thus, in order to answer my first question, we must answer this one:
Should a church building (or at least the central place of worship) be considered a sacred or holy place?
Let’s first explore what sacred and holy mean in a biblical context.
The Hebrew word most often used for sacred and holy in the old testament is ‘qodesh‘ and its various derivatives. It is also the same word used for ‘sanctuary’.
A sanctuary is synonymous with that which is holy or sacred.
OK, with that fact firmly established from the scriptures, let’s move on.
What does it really mean to be holy?
The Greek word ‘hagio‘ translated in the new testament most often as holy means to be physically pure and morally blameless. It is also used to express the divine action to set apart. When believers are saved they become holy. Christ’s imputed righteousness makes us pure and blameless. We are then set apart for God’s divine purposes in our lives.
So how does all this relate to the topic at hand?
Let’s connect the dots. A sanctuary is a sacred place. Sacred means holy. Holy means purity and separation from that which is common. Historically, a church sanctuary has always been considered a sacred place where God’s people come together to worship Him in reverence and awe; in spirit and in truth. They separate themselves from the common everyday elements of the world in order to glory in God’s goodness.
Speaking of the term ‘common’, it is interesting to note that when the bible uses the word ‘profane’ it is often in contrast to ‘holy’. But profane doesn’t always mean corrupted or defiled. In Ezekiel 42:20 the length and width of the outer temple walls were measured. The reason they were built is clearly given: to separate the holy from the profane – the temple from the world. The Hebrew word used here is ‘chol‘. It means unholy or simply common.
Common everyday things in God’s eyes are dirty and defiled, because they are not set aside for his glory. The world is corrupted with sin, so everything that lies within is defiled and impure. But when God calls a person or a thing out of the world for his service, it is then transformed from profane to holy.
The word ‘church’ used throughout the new testament is the Greek ‘ekklesia‘. It means called out ones. The church consists of a people called out of the world by God’s effectual grace through the drawing of the Holy Spirit. The Lord separates us from the world, calling us to live very different lives. We are commanded to love not the world nor the things that are in the world. We are a peculiar people, purchased for service. We are pilgrims passing through a foreign land. A church building is a set apart place for the body of believers to come together and worship corporately. It is truly a sanctuary from the corruption and filth of the world; a holy place dedicated to proclaiming God’s word and for singing praises for His own glory.
So, what exactly is an auditorium?
In a nutshell, an auditorium is defined as a large room or building that accommodates an audience for public meetings or performances.
Well, some may argue, that is what a church sanctuary is! A church is a public meeting place.
So why fuss over the terminology?
In my friend’s conversation with his pastor, his defense of the term ‘auditorium’ went something like this: ‘Does it really matter? The true sanctuary lies within the heart. This is just another building. Monday through Saturday it functions as an office.’
These remarks troubled me for days. Should the physical church structure be considered just another edifice? Does not the Lord desire for us to consecrate it to Him, dedicating it for kingdom use and to bring Him glory?
I agree that every believer is a sanctuary. I’m certain my fiend’s pastor was making reference to 1 Cor 6:19 where Paul calls our bodies a temple of the Holy Spirit. I have no problem with that. But I think the logical extension of that thought is this:
If all believers are a holy temple unto God, doesn’t it follow that the place they gather to worship as a congregation should also be a holy place? A place where the common things of the world are excluded and forsaken. A place where no matter if we come during the week or on a Sunday, we should be able to focus our hearts exclusively upon the Lord of Glory and his kindness toward us unworthy sinners through the wonders of the cross of Christ. Remember that the place in the temple where God’s presence dwelt was called the Holy of Holies or the Most Holy Place. Does God’s presence fill our churches on Sundays? (If not, he should!) Doesn’t that make the place he presides a holy place? Our bodies becomes a holy place because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Our sanctuary becomes a holy place when we gather together for worship. Did the Holy of Holies become a common place every other day aside from the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest entered therein? So, neither should our sanctuary be called otherwise during the week when it goes unoccupied.
The term auditorium would seem to make allowances for it to be used for any purpose whatsoever, whether it be holy or profane. In fact, this is a common practice for many churches today. The auditorium is used for worship and preaching. But it is also used for a great many other things. Rock concert performances, dazzling drama productions and the like. Mega-church auditoriums are so well equipped with the latest technological gadgets that they are often rented out for secular use during the week. These things just should not be so.
I am reminded of Zechariah chapter 14 when the prophet is giving us a glimpse into the future kingdom after Christ returns to the earth in glory and power.
And on that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, “Holy to the LORD.” And the pots in the house of the LORD shall be as the bowls before the altar. And every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holy to the LORD of hosts, (Zec 14:20-21A)
There’s that word ‘qodesh‘ again. The same word used for sanctuary is now used for every common household item. For in the day Christ’s glory fills the earth, every common thing will be consecrated to God and made holy. Everything will be sacred and no longer profane because all the nations will honor and worship the Lord. So why should we, the chosen people of God, not be sanctifying the very place where we offer our worship? If common everyday cookware is declared sacred unto our God, how much more should we be sanctifying the very place we gather together to exalt the Almighty and extol his attributes. It seems ridiculous to me that this is even a point of contention with some people.
But I’m not naive to the marketing machine known as the Church Growth Movement. It is the primary reason for the relentless dereligifying (I think I just coined a new word) of American Christianity. The gurus of growth suggest to pastors several practical ideas to help seduce the unchurched into the pews:
- Steeples and crosses must come down. Religious symbols tend to drive seekers away. (What? Are they vampires?)
- Religious paintings and other Christ-centered artwork must be torn down and replaced with kinder, gentler neutral artistic expressions.
- Religious jargon must be altered or eliminated all together in favor of Joel Osteen style expressions of pure sunshine and joy.
- Doctrine must be dismissed. Difficult biblical subjects are swept under the rug and salvation is offered to all looking for direction, purpose and a positive self image. Bringing up the holiness and majesty of a supremely powerful God who righteously judges all people, demanding holiness and reverence is considered unwise for filling pews and offering plates.
A sanctuary, where holiness is implied in the meaning would make people squirmy and (God forbid) feel contrite and humble in approaching God.
No, auditorium is much less intimidating. The name suggests no stipulations upon those in attendance. Warm fuzzies, not reverence is the goal church growth experts strive to achieve.
God forgive us!
If you’ll recall, the pastor’s response to my friend’s question as to why change the name was ‘Why does it matter?’ Upon further reflection I find that statement ironic. If it doesn’t matter, why change the terminology in the first place. The word sanctuary has served the church well for 2 millenia. It’s meaning has not been lost on the congregations that gather there. A sanctuary is a sacred place of worship, praise and preaching. An auditorium is a profane place where any number of worldly activities are performed for the sake of entertaining the masses.
Some make think I am being Pharisaical, straining at gnats – so be it. I’m not going to leave my church over the issue, or impose legalistic demands upon the pastor and congregation. But I think we should look at these subtle linguistic changes as symptomatic of a much larger problem. Remember, a little leaven leavens an entire lump. If you witness these types of things going on in church, pray for God to sharpen your discernment to unveil other changes that could be far more damaging to a church’s spiritual health; changes such as a loss of reverence and awe toward our Maker, a dilution of the purity of the gospel message or a tendency to amuse and entertain audiences rather than equipping saints.
In summary, the answer to my second question is an unequivocal ‘YES!’ I absolutely believe we should sanctify and consecrate our houses of worship to the Lord. Soli Deo Gloria! So the answer to my first question is also ‘YES’. It is wrong to call a sanctuary an auditorium. God is big enough to not let terminology become an obstacle to stand between him and his people. The problem is the effect it has on his people. Brushing aside the sacred will eventually lead to distorted view of the majesty and holiness of God Almighty.
The total eclipse of God’s majesty is the church’s worst offense in this postmodern age. Like that old pop song from a decade ago intoned:
What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
This low view of God is slowly being adopted by modern evangelicals. After all, a God like that is easily approachable, a buddy we can chum up to. A peer on equal footing with us. This kind of God can be embraced by the masses.
John Hendryx of Monergism.com recently interviewed Dr. Steven J. Lawson, pastor and author of Foundations of Grace and The Expository Genius of John Calvin. Mr. Hendryx posed the question, “What do you think is the doctrine that is most foundational for the church of today to be solid on in order to be a healthy church?”
Dr. Lawson’s response:
“I believe that the most foundational truth for the church today, as well as in any generation, is the sovereignty and holiness of God. As one’s view of God goes, so goes the entire church. A high view of God inevitably leads to high and holy living. But a low view of God leads unmistakably to low living. A towering view of God in which He is seen in His unrivaled sovereignty and absolute holiness has the most dramatic and profound effect upon the church. Such a vision of God inspires transcendent worship, induces godly living, empowers tireless service, deepens spiritual fellowship, imparts supernatural joy, breathes abundant life, and motivates global outreach. The church will never rise any higher than her lofty view of God.”
I couldn’t agree more. God is sovereign, God is Holy. May our view of His glorious majesty match the revelation of him given in the scriptures. In light of a high view of God, I pray the holy people of God continue to gather together in the sacred place to offer him worship in awe and reverence.