Incarnating Church:
The Liturgical Redesign
of a Small Mission Congregation

By Randall R. Warren

“The nave is yours and the sanctuary is mine,” said the Beloved Former Priest to the people. Not the priest immediately before me, or before her, but several priests ago. While I strongly disagreed with the liturgical theology inherent in that assertion, the architecture of the Episcopal Church of Christ the King in Lansing, Illinois, explained how one might make such a statement. It also explained why others would remember it.

Christ the King is a mission in the Diocese of Chicago, south of the city, on the Illinois-Indiana border. As a mission congregation, Christ the King is financially supported by the diocesan budget. I was named their vicar for congregational development to help the congregation move onto a path of growth. Originally designed by a Baptist pastor in the 1940s, the building was purchased by the diocese in the 1950s.

Pastor was definitely not an architect. Upon opening the front doors, one was faced with seven feet of steep and twisting stairs leading up to the nave. Not only did this make it difficult for mobility-challenged people to enter the nave, it also made funerals impossible because caskets could not be maneuvered through the entry. A narrower set of twisting steps led down to the parish hall, creating similar access problems for fellowship activities. The liturgical space seated about 60 people in faltering pews lined up in two rows facing the sanctuary, which was separated from the congregation by elevation and by an altar rail, fencing off not only the holy table but also a pulpit and a lectern. None of the liturgical furniture was in the people’s space and none of the liturgical action happened among them.

The only liturgical object placed with the people was a small, lidded baptismal font near the rear of the nave. Lifting the lid, I found that it contained not a bowl, as I expected, but a small, round silver tray. The tray could hold a few drops at best of water. I dubbed it the Baptismal Cookie Sheet.

The building’s walls are high-quality wood paneling that is warm and inviting. Large, clear windows admit a great deal of light. Sadly, the space was carpeted and the ceiling a pastiche of acoustical tile, stucco, faux wood beams, and ceiling fans. To put it bluntly, I had about 20 good people and a charming but seriously flawed space in which they could worship.

Honoring the value for past ages of the linear church and its portrayal of pilgrimage (down the center aisle from font to altar), it nonetheless seems to me that our world needs a different proclamation. Our church architecture should show that very different people can gather around one table; that is the possibility we proclaim in Christ.

Topic number one on people’s minds was how to attract more worshippers to the congregation. The members knew they wanted to create an accessible entry but had not even thought of changing the worship space. Rather than jumping immediately to possible solutions, I decided to help them more thoroughly survey the problem. We began having formal and informal conversations about our shared concept of church. I emphasized that in the past our culture taught people some basic ideas about Christianity. Because this no longer happens, we cannot count on potential parishioners quickly connecting on either an intellectual or emotional level with many symbols that to us are familiar or traditional. We began to think about what we unconsciously require people to know in order to successfully participate in our worship.

A turning point came when a founding couple of the parish described an experience when they were at the mall one day and saw a nun dressed in a habit. They said, “Good morning, Sister,” as they had been taught as children to do. The couple told us they felt critical of some children who raced past them and the nun without greeting her. “Now we realize,” they said with genuine surprise, “they might not have known what or who she was.” Their realization helped others begin to see that we are trying to evangelize a world different from the one in which they were raised.

A review of congregational records showed steadily declining attendance since the 1960s. It was clear to me that to attract more people we had to leave behind liturgical practices imposed on the congregation by their clergy either just before that decline began or during it. Such practices had already demonstrated their lack of evangelistic effectiveness.

Rendering of the new plan for Christ the King Church in Lansing, Illinois, by architect Matthew Joseph Kramer, showing the expanded entryway and seating in an arc around the holy table. Courtesy of Randall Warren.

We began to move the liturgical action all around the worship space. I preached from the aisle rather than the pulpit. We started to change the decorations and the liturgies by season and to bring fabrics for decorating the space. My immediate predecessor had begun the practice of having liturgy planning as the adult education session on a Sunday, some time before the next liturgical season. I continued this practice and did a great deal of teaching about liturgical history and theology.

At one such session someone asked, “Randall, can we get rid of the lectern and move the pulpit over to its place?” In my head I exclaimed, “Yes! Thank you, Jesus!” Aloud I said, “Sure. But tell me why you think it’s a good idea.” They noted that I didn’t use the pulpit, but others in the future might need to have a microphone. The only microphone was on the lectern side. They also said that the pulpit was more visually substantial and better suited their ministry of proclaiming the scriptures. My response was, “Let’s do it right now.” So rang the death knell of their old clericalist rule, “The nave is yours and the sanctuary is mine.” The people were beginning to conceive of the entire space as their own.

We began to use other spaces and seating arrangements for liturgy. The summer “Mass on the Grass” and quarterly guitar masses in the undercroft allowed us to engage in liturgy in the round. We also experimented with material from Enriching Our Worship (Church Publishing Inc., 1977) and A New Zealand Prayer Book. The fellowship time after these events encouraged conversation about what worked and did not work for people. We also began to have a midweek Eucharist with anointing for healing. I sat with the congregation for the Liturgy of the Word, and we laid hands together on those who were being anointed. Then we gathered around the holy table, standing for the Eucharist. At my suggestion, people began to donate Byzantine icons of our major feasts and festivals, thereby telling the story of Christ our King in a visual yet traditional form. All these activities gave the congregation experience with liturgical variability and experimentation.

Our Sunday attendance began to grow. We were having between 40 and 50 people, so the space was beginning to look full. This gave impetus for further conversation about the entryway and the need for more seating in the worship space. This conversation was a little less frightening because people now had some experience with liturgical variety. Of course, not everyone was happy about this. One extended family didn’t want anything to change at all. A member of that family actually told me that there was no need for a new entry. If people had trouble getting into the church, she felt that was their problem. I plainly told her that her position was inconsistent with Christ’s message.

At the next parish annual meeting we discussed liturgical change. Breaking into small groups allowed members to share what they found exciting or frightening about the idea of changing the worship space. I asked each group to identify their top three from each list and then share them with the assembled whole. Responses were collected and the two resulting lists were printed as a poster and put up in the parish hall. I feel that these lists helped us recognize that we were doing emotionally hard work without letting its difficulty derail the process.

We began to make field trips to redesigned worship spaces. I kept encouraging the congregation to think about how we were incarnating church and what we wanted to say with our space. A local architect was already drawing plans for a larger entry with gently sloped steps and an enclosed lift for handicap accessibility, but we also decided to hire an architect who specialized in worship spaces. He met with a self-selected group of parishioners to hear their interests and to point out architectural concerns. Then he drew some plans.

On one of our field trips we visited a church set up choir style with chairs facing each other in two large arcs, an ambo (a reading desk or pulpit) at one end, and a table at the other. People said they liked it but that it was not “formal enough.” They had a hard time telling me what “formal enough” meant to them. Over time, and in conversation with the architect, I began to realize they wanted all seats to face the holy table. The architect drew plans for our worship space accordingly.

At one session someone asked, “Randall, can we get rid of the lectern and move the pulpit over to its place?” In my head I exclaimed, “Yes! Thank you, Jesus!” Aloud I said, “Sure. But tell me why you think it’s a good idea.”

We presented the plan to the Bishop’s Committee (a mission congregation’s board of directors). The plan called for uniting the altar and the congregational seating on one level. The carpet was to be removed and the wood floors refinished. The ceiling was to be completely rebuilt, with recessed lighting, spotlights for our icons, and new air conditioning (no ceiling fans). A holy table (square, with legs, as opposed to a solid rectangle) would be placed on the south side of the space with chairs sweeping around it in an arc. Members of the committee loved the overall plan but had one reservation: that the chairs might not allow parents to squeeze a squirmy child between them. Our architect reported that the makers of liturgical furniture had heard this feedback before and now made movable benches. We decided to present the congregation with two drawings: one with chairs only and one with chairs and benches.

On the Sunday of the presentation, I preached about how church architecture says something to us and to the world about our relationship to God. Honoring the value for past ages of the linear church and its portrayal of pilgrimage (down the center aisle from font to altar), it nonetheless seems to me that our world needs a different proclamation. Our church architecture should show that very different people can gather around one table; that, I asserted, is the possibility we proclaim in Christ.

Following the liturgy, people adjourned to the parish hall to view the two drawings and some sample chairs and benches. If a group does not have a clear and engaging work to do, the members of that group will instead have an authority battle. So I gave the congregation a charge: their Bishop’s Committee and I needed to know three things from them: did they like the basic idea? If so, did they want all chairs, or chairs and benches? We also needed them to try out the chairs and benches and tell us which ones they preferred. By the end of the predictably long meeting, people said they liked the plan and chose chairs and benches. I felt there was a broad sense of ownership because of the work we did that day.

During this meeting, however, an old congregational dynamic reared its ugly head. I had not realized that the sample chairs and benches had price tags on them. My parishioners had noticed they liked the most expensive ones and were busily trying to talk themselves out of picking them. An old pattern in the life of this congregation is, “We have to save” and “We have to make do because we are a tiny congregation and can’t afford that.” This attitude goes back to the purchase of the building itself.

I said forcefully, “Stop! We asked you to tell us which furniture you liked, not what you thought we could afford. You pick what you like, and if we don’t have enough money, we’ll go out and find it.” 

This was the most nervous moment in the meeting for me. I knew the choice would create tension in their minds between a familiar (though barely conscious) pattern and a new way of group functioning. Could they bear the tension and take the risk? Or would they retreat to the old pattern? A venerated parishioner spoke up and articulated this tension in a way that allowed the group to move forward rather than backward. “Isn’t that just like these young priests?” she said laughingly. “Our old priests told us to save every penny, and these young priests want us to spend it all.”

“You got it,” I replied with a smile, and the room broke into laughter. They chose the chairs and benches they liked the most.

“For Lent we arranged the space choir style, with two long rows of seating facing each other across a wide center road, the pulpit at one end and the holy table at the other. This way we could consider Lent as a time that raises the possibility of changing one’s life from aimless wandering to prayerful pilgrimage. The idea of pilgrimage could be embodied at Communion by having people walk down the side aisles to the pulpit and then up the road to the holy table.” Drawing by Jeannie Pettigrew; source courtesy of Randall Warren.

Of course, their history of saving was helpful. Their savings, along with the sale of the unused vicarage, was enough to pay for the new entry. Prior to this stage, the couple who had told the nun-in-the-mall story had died, and their bequest could pay for the worship space remodel and new furniture. We could do this work and remain debt free. With support and permission from our diocese we collected bids and got to work.

The next big event was removing the furniture from the worship space. We scheduled that for a Sunday after the liturgy. For the homily, I told the assembly that in an age of change what spiritual people get to do is grieve what is going away even as they dream about what is coming. Since this was the last time they would see the church arranged as it was, I invited them to share favorite memories and experiences of the space. It was powerful. People shared moving stories and tears were shed. As we made our great thanksgiving for the gift of God in Christ, we added our thanksgiving for all that Christ had done in our congregation and our building.

After the liturgy we began taking the place apart. It felt rather like a barn raising in reverse. Strong people lifted heavy things. Less strong people swept and cleaned. Children ran relay races to the dumpster. One parishioner who had to work that Sunday sent chili and all the fixings so that people could eat. The day was, for me, a powerful image of Christ being present in community.

The work on the entryway started earlier than the work on the worship space, but they finished at about the same time. During construction we held our liturgies in the parish hall and sometimes jumped with both feet on each other’s last nerves. Overall, however, people supported each other very well.

The worship space was ready to be used on the Sunday of our scheduled visit from the bishop. On that day we had baptisms and the blessing of the space, followed by an open house so that friends from other churches could come and visit. Several proud parishioners left after the service and brought friends and family back to the open house to see the new space. Time and again I heard, “I can’t believe our little church looks so spacious and so beautiful.”

In an age of change, what spiritual people get to do is grieve what is going away even as they dream about what is coming.

I am happy with the process we used. A great deal of teaching and conversation, together with attending to the dynamics of grieving and dreaming, served us well. Even so, there was definitely conflict. It appeared most often with people who either did not participate in the conversations or who do not like the vision of ourselves as a family gathered around one table. And not all reactions to our work have been positive. On Ash Wednesday, a visitor from a local parish complimented our new entryway. When she entered the worship space, however, she stopped and with horror on her face and in her tone, she said, “You’ve made this a modern church!” I was proud of her for staying through the entire liturgy, but it was clear that she was very uncomfortable.

Some people left but others joined the congregation during the construction. Our average Sunday attendance is now about 35. Some mobility-challenged people have started attending now that we have a lift in the entryway.

I found out later that some of our people could not image what the space would look like from the architectural drawings. A three-dimensional model of the plans might have helped them. Without such a visual aid, their leaders and I stretched their trust in us without being aware that we were doing so.

Our practice of varying the liturgical space by season, which had been hindered by the altar rails and fixed pews, could now come fully to life. We stayed with the holy table on the south side and the chairs in an arc around it for the entire summer. At our Advent liturgy planning, I proposed placing the seating around the space (with the pulpit in its midst), leaving a rectangular plaza in the center where we would place the holy table. A parishioner volunteered to make four pedestals, on which the Advent candles could be placed, for each corner of the plaza. In this way, the entire congregation became the Advent wreath. This was an exciting idea, so we gave the arrangement a try. When it came time to plan for Christmas, people told me that they wanted to remain “in the round” because they enjoyed seeing each other. “Don’t we say it’s all about the community?!” they asserted. We continued with this arrangement through the Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany cycle.

For Lent we arranged the space choir style, with two long rows of seating facing each other across a wide center road, the pulpit at one end and the holy table at the other. This way we could consider Lent as a time that raises the possibility of changing one’s life from aimless wandering to prayerful pilgrimage. The idea of pilgrimage could be embodied at Communion by having people walk down the side aisles to the pulpit and then up the road to the holy table.

This Easter we returned to seating in the round. Being able to see and, especially, hear each other changes the physical experience of the liturgy. “Congregation” is now no longer a churchy word for “audience,” because we actually do gather around a common table to make Eucharist. The liturgy is now a communal act rather than a show performed by religious specialists. Our singing, which is mostly a capella, has improved significantly. I feel that through all of this we not only changed a building, we also changed people’s concept and experience of themselves as a congregation.

The Rev. Randall R. Warren, D.Min., is the director of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago Office of Pastoral Care. He is also the part-time vicar for congregational development at the Episcopal Church of Christ the King in Lansing, Illinois.


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