Our joy and happiness on the Sabbath morning and evening should come not from the elaborate displays of outward means, but from the inward assurance of gospel peace. Lastly the worship that happens in that room should emulate these principles as well. Really all that should take place in a Presbyterian service are the means of grace: preaching, singing, praying, communion, and baptism.
We’ve all heard the jokes about Presbyterian’s being anti-fun, the so-called frozen chosen. The seen, but not heard denomination. The post you are about to read is going to sound like it came from the official spokesman of the “Presbyterians against anything nice” coalition. Maybe it’s true, maybe I am the grumpiest Presbyterian alive, but my goal here today is not to get hits or cause trouble. Rabble rousers are boring people. Men who seek out controversy don’t have enough to do and they aren’t really seeking to win converts to their position. They just like to see the fight.
At the end of the day I’m really a harmless little fuzzball who just wants Presbyterians to be Presbyterians, Baptists to be Baptists, and Anglicans to be Anglicans. Good fences make good neighbors. If you know where the other person stands it makes it easier to know where you stand.
The topic I’d like to get into today is about the meeting space. Some call it the “sanctuary”, others the “preaching hall”, and whatever you want to call it is fine by me. I’m not interested in getting into arguments over words. There are legit reasons why some people demur from the sanctuary term, and why others like it as a description of where we meet for worship. Christians who are members of long-standing congregations likely are used to a more traditionally-expressed term than church plants and/or younger churches. But regardless of where you meet or what you call it there are certain things as Presbyterians we should expect to see, and not see.
In this brief piece I want to talk about some of the reasons behind the austere look favored by the Reformed, where it came from, and why it matters. To be sure there is a sense in which in the New Testament it doesn’t matter where we meet with God’s people. As men and women who descend from Covenanters who hid in vales and caves to lift up the psalms to the Lord and be fed by His word we should acutely feel that. This is also a very American, if not Western, question. I’ve never been to the nations of Africa, but it is a safe assumption through pictures and the witness of native believers that what is expected in Malawi is different than what is to be understood in South Carolina. Part of the beauty of Presbyterian worship is that you don’t need a fancy place with a bunch of pomp and circumstance. All you need is a Bible and Christians. The Scriptures contain the text for instruction and the book of songs to sing, the people have the voices to raise to Heaven.
What more do you need?
Having set the stage let’s get to…setting the stage. One of the first things that marks a Presbyterian meeting place is that the pulpit should be in the center. The Reformers replaced the altar with the stand upon which the Minister placed his Bible. The symbolism was meant to testify to the fact that the preaching of the word was at the forefront of Christian worship. Having a split chancel (two pulpits up front, one to the left and one to the right, usually one larger than the other) usually grants the central space to a table. This is a return back to the Roman rite. As vital and important as the Supper is to the souls of believers we don’t believe it is the primary means of grace.