Sanctify what we do here: A Service for the Consecration of a Church Building

July 18th, 2023

This article is the twelfth article in a series we're calling "A Good and Joyful Thing: A series on liturgical spirituality." We hope this series takes you on an imaginative “travelogue” at various worship services in a local United Methodist church where the liturgy is treasured. We hope that these resources will accentuate how the Wesleyan “religion of the heart” can be fostered by liturgical experience in the richness of our liturgy, both for United Methodists and others who follow the deep flow of the church's worship history.

I am the church
You are the church
We are the church together
All who follow Jesus, all around the world
Yes, we’re the church together. 

The church is not a building,
the church is not a steeple,
the church is not a resting place,
the church is a people.[1] 

You grew up singing that, and you know it’s true. But you can’t help thinking about the building the people meet in as in some sense “the church.” That’s what we usually mean when we say it in ordinary conversation. 

As you prepare for today’s consecration of your congregation’s new meeting place, your mind drifts back and takes a walk through the educational wing of the church of your younger years. You can smell the paste in the elementary classrooms where you glued pictures of biblical characters onto carboard posters. You touch the soft felt board where many of those same characters came to life during a Bible story narration. You can taste the two Oreo cookies and bug juice, served almost quasi-eucharistically during many a VBS. You walk into the sanctuary where the afternoon sun filters through stained glass and splashes onto the pews. It’s not long before taking this mental tour brings to mind not just the worship and learning and fellowship that took place here, but the people who surrounded you there. The Church. You recall where saints of old used to sit in favorite pews. Sunday school teachers who prepared those felt-board lessons, or those who faithfully volunteered their time with UMYF. Pastors who came and went from the chancel over the years. Young and old baptized at the font. Or married at the altar steps. Or commended to God from that same place at funerals. The building helps jog your memory, for it is where the ministry happened. 

But today you are at the dedication of a new church, a new place for what the consecration liturgy calls a place “built for praise and prayer.” The bishop is present, along with the district superintendent, the pastor and deacon, a bevy of other pastors and ecumenical colleagues, and the congregation. They have all gathered outside the church doors. Before the throng steps in, the opening prayer of consecration proceeds: 

O eternal God, mighty in power and of incomprehensible majesty,
whom the heavens cannot contain,
much less the walls of temples made with hands,
you have promised your special presence
whenever two or three are assembled in your name
to offer praise and prayer.
By the power of your Holy Spirit consecrate this house of your worship.
Bless us and sanctify what we do here,
that this place may be holy for us and a house of prayer for all people.
Guide and empower in this place by the same Spirit
the proclamation of your Word and the celebration of your Sacraments,
the pouring out of prayer and the singing of your praise,
professions of faith and testimonies to your grace,
the joining of men and women in marriage
and the celebration of death and resurrection.
Save us from that failure of vision
which would confine our worship within these walls,
but send us out from here to be your servants in the world,
sharing the blessings of Christ with the world he came to redeem.
Now, O God, sanctify this place,
for everything in heaven and on earth is yours.
Yours, Lord, is the dominion, and you are exalted as head above all. 

All that happens sacramentally and by the teaching and proclamation of the Word must happen in a place. We, as finite, located creatures, must assemble. The church can still be primarily a people before it is a structure, but, the structure in church history would come to be more than only functional shelter. When early Christians began building churches in the fourth century, they adorned them with symbols that all pointed back to the local acts Jesus did: healing, teaching, feeding, dying, rising. There were soon paintings and mosaics of Good Shepherds and Greek monograms, saints and angels, crosses and descending doves.  We need not apologize for this material symbolism, befitting a people gathered around an enfleshed Word. The church is deep in history, not hanging around on the edges of it. It has participated, for good and ill, in the processes of historical development, and time brings on forms, institutions, officers, budgets, and buildings. 

And yet, the church is in perpetual mission, a people on the move through time, not here to bed down with other cultural institutions in a world of budgets and buildings. It needs to move nimbly to fulfill a mission to the world much too crucial to be preoccupied with what the new shingles should look like. 

And rightly so, at times in its long history, the church has wanted to literally clean house and have less to do with buildings and budgets. We’ve remembered the “church is not a building…the church is a people.” Recent attempts at this purging have meant a return to meeting in homes, apostolic style, or an urban missional “church in the park” or “bar church” or fellowship-oriented “dinner church.” All of this is good, and surely frees us up to do ministry so that the only time we’re calling roofers or plumbers is to invite them to church to worship, not to ply their trade.  

But you love the place. And the God of Eden and Israel, Mt. Sinai and the Temple, the God of the universe, seems to love places, too. One place God so called for was Noah’s ark, which provided a very stark contrast to the watery chaos the world had become. No wonder Christians found in that story an apt symbol of the church, and it has been part of Christian imagination since at least I Peter 3:20-21.[2]

That there would be a special place, a temple, a house of the Lord, where baptism and the Supper and proclamation and teaching, singing, praying, and fellowship happen because these acts are what Tillich called “matters of ultimate concern,”[3] seems fitting. Therefore, we need not apologize for a church being a church by doubling it with commercial, recreational, or even living space. Perhaps both models—the people meeting in a space otherwise than a church and the people assembling in a set-apart place—are needed. Two expressions of God’s mission in the world through the church. 

Churches should be places of beauty, too. There is enough ugliness in the world, and many people work on life’s underside: police at a murder scene, a caregiver in the dismal halls of a nursing home, an underpaid worker on third shift in a loud factory. Others must inhabit mundane, uninspired spaces. A church building can be a passageway to the transcendent, to the strange beauty of the gospel of the crucified, to the Lord who hides in all that suffering, and yet, knows the way beyond it. Sometimes church builders miss a good opportunity to inspire with their art. Other times they strike it just right. In this case, you are fortunate that your local church enlisted local artists to design banners and paraments, stained glass and woodwork, to adorn this holy house. In creating beautiful things to look at, they, in the words of the opening prayer:

Save us from that failure of vision
which would confine our worship within these walls,
but send us out from here to be your servants in the world,
sharing the blessings of Christ with the world he came to redeem. 

Just then you hear a loud knock. It’s the bishop, tapping her crozier against the door of the new church, an ancient practice bishops have done for centuries at church dedications. Someone opens the doors from the inside, and you and the rest of the great crowd enter in. 

Once inside, the service proceeds to very specific locations in the building, to furniture related to the means of grace: first the pulpit, then the font, and then the altar. We are a people gathered around story, bath, and meal. A Bible is set upon the pulpit, and the first sermon preached. Water is poured into the font, and someone is already scheduled to be baptized. The chalice and paten are placed on the altar, and the first communion there is celebrated. Everything else in worship surrounds these key divine acts. 

Perhaps in the future, many will walk through this church and remember their baptism at the font, or a sermon from that pulpit that spoke a word in season, or the refreshment of the Real Presence in the meal received at this altar. Or they will return again and again to this place to be refreshed and empowered for ministry in the world. Maybe a building can be a witness to the gravity of such grace, and can contain the presence of living saints and the living memories of one’s own spiritual formation. And so, it is a right and good and joyful thing to ask the Lord to “bless what we do here,” so that the gifts celebrated in this place may be multiplied like loaves and fishes. 

[1] United Methodist Hymnal No. 558. Words, music: Hope Publishing Co. 

[2] See also Tertullian, On Idolatry, Ch. 24.

[3] Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (London: Oxford University Press, 1964): 6-7

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