First Third Conversations

Holy Spacers vs. Holy Embracers

By Derek Tronsgard

 Earlier this week Mike King led a First Third Dialogue session talking about the power of space in our ministry and it got me thinking.

About a year ago a woman in my congregation cornered me on Sunday morning. 

“We need to talk,” she said.

Crap, I thought.

She went on to share her frustrations about my Confirmation kids' presence in Sunday morning worship.  The kids' behavior was just fine, she explained.  They were participating fully in the service and were engaged for the whole hour.  What bothered her was the fact that they were drinking Mt. Dew in church – something that shouldn't be allowed.

My gut reaction was to push back.  “Are you kidding me!?  We complain constantly about how kids never come to church and now, when they do show up (in the front row no less!), you're mad about sugar water?  And how is this different than the styrofoam coffee cups the adults have?  Why don't you pick on them first!?” 

Luckily, I kept my mouth shut, thanked her for her feedback, and shook more hands.

But I could tell that the Mt. Dew in church really upset her.  And the fact that she put this issue over the fact that kids were worshipping in church really upset me. 

My guess is that this conversation isn't unique – and if you're a ministry leader in any capacity, you've probably had a similar exchange.

And if you ask me, this conversation is about more than soda, coffee, donuts, and the Sanctuary.  It's about your own personal theology of holiness.  And where you fall on this theological holiness spectrum influences your thoughts on Sunday Morning Mt. Dew.

You see, I think that there are two big theological camps out there regarding holiness.  There are spacers and there are embracers.

Spacers would say that holiness is separate and consecrated – unique and distinct from the mundane.  For spacers, holiness can be found in a physical location set apart for worship, contemplation, communion, and discernment.  Space for aesthetics, silence, contemplation, and sensory experience are the name of the game. 

My guess is that my parishioner leans towards the “spacer” end of the holiness continuum where Mt. Dew and coffee take away from the distinct spacial experience of entering God's holy Sanctuary.

Embracers, on the other hand, devalue spacial locations while putting more value on the holiness of relationships.  This theological ethic sees holiness as primarily relational.  Holiness isn't about a space but, instead, the people in that space.

I'm more of an “embracer”.  On a camp-out with my youth, I have been known to serve communion with Cheese-Its and Grape Kool-Aid.  I am just as comfortable worshipping God on folding chairs in the youth room as I am in a Cathedral.  For me, God's holy presence is radiated from those gathered, not from the space we are in.  I believed that God (like me!) cared more about the fact that the kids were in church and couldn't have cared less if they brought in 12-packs of Mt. Dew.

Think about your own congregation.  Do you worship in a space where people dress up or where people wear jeans?  Do you have a sign on the door asking people to refrain from bringing in donuts or do you have cup-holders in the seats?  Do you have communion rails where lay-people fear to tread or can your altar move on Thursday nights for girl scout meetings?  

Your church set-up says a lot about where your congregation falls on this theological spectrum, too.

So who's right?  Spacers or embracers?

Neither.  And both.

In a wonderfully paradoxical way, God is simultaneously a spacer and an embracer.

In the Incarnation we see that God is a spacer because God's holy presence – God's Shekinah - is spatially located in the physical, biological body of Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus is a walking, talking holy-of-holies.  Jesus is portable holy-ground.

God is also an embracer because the physical location of God's presence makes relationships with people.  Christ isn't static.  He's dynamic, relational, emotional, able to suffer, and fully human.

So the spacer vs. embracer debate isn't really a debate.  It's not an either-or.  It's a both-and.

So if your church falls on the spacer side, how can you embrace your embracers?

And, if you're an embracer, how can you make space for the spacers?

The truth is that faithful church leaders must minister to both.

Join the conversation on!

Derek Tronsgard is the Pastor of Youth and Family Ministry at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Mound, MN where he lives with his wife and Golden Retriever.  He is also a semi-pro nerd who loves fantasy sports and comic books.  You can follow him on Twitter (@derektronsgard).

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