The Significance of Sacred Space


Sacred space is something that many western Christians are not particularly aware of, yet it has an important place in our history and culture, and overlooking it can be to ignore a key tool in our missional toolkit.

Sacred space is where the divine intersects with our experience, where the transcendent becomes numinous, typically but not necessarily in a sanctuary or shrine of some sort.  It can also be in an unspoilt natural feature, such a hilltop, spring or seashore, but many sacred sites were ‘validated’ centuries ago by the construction of a religious building on them.

Our experience of God in such places is the reason why many of them have become a place of pilgrimage, and the value we place on these sites contributes to the ongoing spiritual power they have.  So for example, once one person was healed at Lourdes, others went there in the anticipating of meeting with the power of God which was already at work in that place, and this faith fuelled their anticipation even more.

Evangelical Christians have tended to play down the significance of such locations, partly as a reaction to what they have perceived as a superstitious belief in the power of holy sites or relics rather than a living faith in God, and partly because the significance they place on meeting God personally in our day to day lives, which can render a specific location redundant.  Yet in a simple way, any location can aid our faith.  My mother felt that praying in her local Anglican church was more effective than praying at home, since she felt that the cumulative weight of the prayers that have been said in that building for the last 800 years was added to hers.  That’s the significance of a sacred space for her.

A biblical example of a sacred space might be Bethel.  We don’t know why Abraham built an altar there (Genesis 12:8), but just a couple of generations later Jacob was sleeping rough there after he had fled from his home, and had a powerful encounter with God in a dream.  His verdict was “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it… This is none other than the house of God” (Genesis 28:16-17).  The place continued to have spiritual significance throughout the period of the judges and became a centre of idolatry in Israel when Jeroboam placed a golden calf there for cultic reasons (1 Kings 12:28-29).

Another example would be Zion, the place where God said His ‘Name’ would dwell.  This builds on the significance of the Tabernacle, which God commanded the Israelites to build so that He could dwell among them (Exodus 25:8).  That was God’s initiative, expressing a desire to live not set apart in heaven, but among humanity.  This, accompanied by the visual manifestations of God’s presence, led to sense of God literally dwelling in the temple, and subsequently in the church building – the house of God – and which will be eventually fulfilled when there is no temple at all because the Lord and the Lamb dwell among humanity (Revelation 21:3, 22).

So how does this understanding of sacred space help us with our missional endeavours?  Firstly, we can learn that we don’t need to be afraid of buildings, but can use them creatively to draw people into an encounter with God.  They don’t even need to be ‘religious’ buildings.  My own church is responsible for running the community centre in which we meet, and by our constant prayer, worship and incarnational service to the community in every part of the building we have invaded what might otherwise be considered ‘secular’ space to such an extent that people who come into the building remark “There’s a lovely sense of peace here”.  They may not recognise it, but it’s a sense of the presence of God.  The building has become a sacred space.

The other way in which we can use sacred space is to think about the messages we send with our buildings to those who are not yet Christians.  In many cultures, you can see the vestiges of a European definition of spirituality in pictures of a blue-eyed Jesus in India or church buildings with steeples in Indonesia.  Do the architecture, décor and furnishings in church premises speak of something that local people do not identify with sacred?  What can be imported from their culture which they would find familiar and would speak of sacred to them?  Would it be inappropriate, for example, to build a minaret on a church in a muslim country, or to have pictures in which Jesus looks like the people we’re working among?  Does the music we use for worship reflect our own cultural tradition when it might be more appropriate to use that of the local people group?

In my own city, one group is grappling with these issues as it seeks to create a culturally appropriate sacred space for a minority people group to engage with Jesus.  It uses furnishings, religious symbolism and music that would be found in their home culture.  They engage with the religious festivals of that community and embrace their culture.  In consequence, these people have found a safe and sensitive place to worship.  They do not have to cross a cultural divide in order to cross a religious one.