by Rev. Dr. Christopher M. Ritter

The most common category of question we get week to week on our weekend Communication Cards have to do with what is and is not displayed in our chancel.  Particularly, people seem to have strong opinions about displaying flags, Bibles, and candles.  Some have noticed these missing from time to time or are especially happy to see them included.  I thought I would take time to share how I think about these things.

There are some things that are traditionally included in a Christian worship space.  The cross is a symbol of the Christian Gospel and Christ’s sacrifice for us.  Protestants display an “empty” cross in light of Jesus’ resurrection while Roman Catholics tend to show Jesus perpetually crucified.  With the construction of our new sanctuary, we bucked the recent trend of not including a sanctuary cross and designed a very prominent one as a permanent fixture in our sanctuary. The pulpit is the traditional symbol of the preached word.  We also kept with the tradition of including the traditional signs of our two sacraments:  Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  We are blessed with a beautiful altar table, pulpit, and font that were custom built for our worship space.

Beyond these items, there are things that some churches have “accumulated” through the years.  You perhaps have seen Christian sanctuaries with a red lamp hanging in the chancel.  With some roots in Jewish worship, this tradition comes primarily from the Roman Catholic Church and is designed to indicate when the blessed communion elements were present in the church so worshippers could come and adore the “reserve host”.    This really has no place, theologically, in a Methodist Church where we believe the “Sacraments were not ordained to be gazed upon, or to be carried about; but that we should duly use them” (from Article XVI of Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules).  Some Protestant churches picked up the red light as a more general reminder of God’s perpetual presence.  I even know one Methodist church that decided to hang two red lights so the chancel would seem balanced!

There are many non-essentials.  Candles can be a reminder of the presence of Christ and some churches make much of the “entrance of the light” and “carrying the light out into the world.”  There is certainly nothing wrong with this.  Displaying a Bible is nice, as well.  I take issue with churches that prominently display a Bible while not preaching its message diligently or encouraging it to be studied daily and devotionally.  Very ancient forms of Christian worship include a processional where an ornate Bible is carried in ceremoniously by the priest and pre-designated passages are read from this Bible during the service.  Many liturgical churches include an Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, and Gospel reading in each service.  As our mission is to make disciples of Jesus, we must always test our traditions and ask whether they enable our mission or detract from it.  It is my judgment that including a lot of separate readings without explanation or exposition is of limited value and other uses of our time together are more effective in forming Christian disciples.  We focus on the preached Word.  I have respected colleagues who do things differently than I do and that is their prerogative.

I get emotional when I see our American flag.  As an American, I cannot help but remember the hard fought battles that secured our freedom of speech, assembly, and worship.  One of the greatest things our Geneseo community does is the “Aisle of Flags” in our City Park.  I am always deeply moved by it.  God, however, is not an American.  He does not get a lump in His throat when he sees our flag.  A church is not an outpost of a nation, but of the Kingdom of God which transcends nationality.  Our liberties are ultimately gifts of God not the state.  Some Christians feel it is idolatrous to display the symbol of their nation in the worship space.  Others feel that the national flag stands as a reminder to the nation that it is accountable to God.  I can go either way on this.  It is a non-essential.  I am not too worried about us worshipping the USA and I certainly don’t need to see a flag in order to worship God.  The “Christian Flag” came into use very recently in the early 20th Century.  Some denominations have their own flag.  Many national flags have crosses built into their design, but ours does not.  Jesus never asked us to fly a flag but said that people would recognize us by our love for each other (John 13:35).

John Wesley was fond of quoting:  “In essentials, unity.  In non-essentials, liberty.  In all things, charity.”  Candles, flags, and big ornate display Bibles are non-essentials.  When we make a non-essential out to be essential, we have allowed our Gospel to become crusted over with cultural barnacles.  I have no problem with all of us having preferences as long as we understand that is all they are.  I have things from my own spiritual upbringing about which I have very sentimental feelings.  I try not to foist these upon the congregations I serve because I realize they probably would not hold the same meaning if implemented today.   I would hate to think a believer attending our church felt like their worship was hindered because of the absence of some non-essential.   Our faith should be deeper than that.  Jesus warned against trading the commandments of God for human traditions (Mark 7:8).

The church worldwide is engaged in generation-long conversation about whether worship is best conceived as a Ceremony or a Celebration.  Processions, candles, clergy robes, organs, and the like belong to the world of the ceremony.  Drum sets, guitars, blue jeans, and stage lighting belong to the world of the celebration.  Our sanctuary is built for either and both.

An open Bible looks very nice on the altar table, I think, as do candles.  You can expect these to be present from time to time, and absent from time to time.  You can likewise expect flags to appear in the sanctuary on days when the pastors and worship leaders deem appropriate.  Our Creative Souls team will make sure our worship space is tastefully decorated and inviting.  We are especially interested in creating an aesthetic that is welcoming, fresh, relevant, and attractive to the rising generations while reminding us of the essentials of our faith.

Worship, ultimately, is not about us.  We are performing for an audience of One, and He is looking at our hearts, not our décor.  We are a big church and if we tried to constantly cater to everyone’s preferences, we would quickly become exhausted and empty.  If we come together to honor God, love each other, and focus on the essentials in the power of the Holy Spirit, we will be refreshed and God will be glorified.