Posted on May 21st, by Doug Ponder in Culture, God, Life, Mission. 2 comments


Written by on May 21, 2016

The Largest Places of Worship in America

The following is adapted from Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith.

“I would like to invite you for a tour of one of the most important religious sites in our metropolitan area. It is the kind of place that may be quite familiar to many of you, but my task here is to invite you to see it with new eyes.

As we’re still off at a distance, I want you to notice the sheer popularity of the site as indicated by the colorful sea of parking that surrounds the building. The site is throbbing with pilgrims every day of the week as thousands and thousands make the pilgrimage. In order to provide a hospitable environment and absorb the daily influx of the faithful, the site provides an ocean of parking. But the monotony of black tarmac is covered by dots of color from cars and SUVs lined up, row by row, patiently waiting as the pilgrims devote themselves to the rituals inside. Indeed, the parking lot constitutes a kind of moat around the building since there are no sidewalks that lead to the site.

We begin to wend our way toward the building that sprawls in both directions and seems to be rising from the horizon—a dazzling array of glass and concrete with recognizable ornamentation. The architecture of the building has a recognizable code that makes us feel at home in any city. The large glass atriums at the entrances are framed by banners and flags; familiar texts and symbols on the exterior walls help foreign faithful to quickly and easily identify what’s inside; and the sprawling layout of the building is anchored by larger pavilions or sanctuaries akin to the vestibules of medieval cathedrals.

We come to one of several grandiose entrees to the building, channeling us through a colonnade of chromed arches to the towering glass face, with doors lining its base. As we enter the space, we are ushered into a narthex of sorts intended for receiving, orienting, and channeling new seekers. There is a large map—a kind of worship aid—to give the novice an orientation to the location of various spiritual offerings and provide direction into the labyrinth that organizes and channels the ritual observance of the pilgrims.

The design of the interior is inviting to an almost excessive degree, sucking us into the enclosed interior spaces, with windows on the ceiling open to the sky but none on the walls open to the surrounding automotive moat. This conveys a sense of vertical and transcendent openness that at the same time shuts off the clamor and distractions of the horizontal, mundane world. This architectural mode of enclosure and enfolding offers a feeling of sanctuary, retreat, and escape.

The worship space is very much governed by a kind of liturgical, festival calendar, variously draped in the colors, symbols, and images of an unending litany of holidays and festivals—to which new ones are regularly added, since the establishment of each new festival translates into greater numbers of pilgrims joining the processions into the sanctuary and engaging in worship.

The layout of this temple has architectural echoes that hark back to the medieval cathedrals—mammoth religious spaces that can absorb all kinds of different religious activities all at one time.  And so one might say that this religious building has a winding labyrinth for contemplations, alongside of which are innumerable chapels devoted to various saints.  As we wander we’ll be struck by the rich iconography that lines the walls and interior spaces. Here is an array of three-dimensional icons adorned in garb that inspires us to be imitators of these exemplars. These statues and icons embody for us concrete images of “the good life.” Here is a religious proclamation that does not traffic in abstracted ideals or rules or doctrines, but rather offers to the imagination pictures and statues and moving images, offering embodied pictures of the “redeemed” that invite us imagine ourselves in their shoes.

These same icons of the good life are found in such temples across the country and around the world. The symbols and colors and images associated with their religious life are readily recognized the world over. The wide circulation of these icons through various mediums even outside the sanctuary invites us to make the pilgrimage in the first place. This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us. This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires and compels us to come not with dire moralisms but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life.

As we pause to reflect on some of the icons on the outside of one of the chapels, we are thereby invited to consider what’s happening within the chapel—invited to enter into the act of worship more properly, invited to taste and see.  We are greeted by a welcoming acolyte who offers to shepherd us through the experience, but also has the wisdom to allow us to explore on our own terms. Sometimes we will enter cautiously, curiously, tentatively making our way through this labyrinth within the labyrinth, having a vague sense of need but unsure of how it will be fulfilled. Having our sense of need, we come looking, not sure what for, but expectant, knowing that what we need must be here.

After time spent focused and searching in what the faithful call “the racks,” with our newfound holy object in hand, we proceed to the altar, which is the consummation of worship. Behind the altar is the priest who presides over the consummating transaction. This is a religion of transaction, of exchange and communion. And so we make our sacrifice, leave our donation, but in return receive something with solidity that is wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season. Released by the priest with a benediction, we make our way out of the chapel in a kind of denouement—not necessarily to leave the temple, but rather to continue contemplation and be invited into another chapel. For who could resist the tangible realities of the good life so abundantly and invitingly offered?” (James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 19–22)

Don’t Miss the Point

By now, no doubt, you recognize the “temple” is the shopping mall—but don’t miss the point. Those words were not written to convince you to stop shopping at Short Pump Town Center. They were written to unveil of the reality of what takes in place in malls—not to mention grocery stores and gas stations and restaurants and schools and churches. In other words, the author forces our attention on the dozens of details that demonstrate the strikingly religious nature of the mall, just like the rest of world around us. This is important for three reasons:

1. Everyone worships. No one gets a choice about this. To be human is to be a worshiper. Some people worship a deity. Some worship other people. Most worship themselves. But everyone worships something, because everyone desires something and loves something and is devoted to something, and makes sacrifices for something by giving their time and attention and effort and resources. That is what it means to worship; everyone worships something. And the world is filled with liturgies that compete for your fidelity. Every day you are assaulted with competing visions of “the good life,” each offering a unique set of promises and rewards. “Do this, and you will be satisfied” is the hidden, wordless message beneath them all. “Here lies the path to joy.” And you will take one of them. You can’t help it. Everybody worships.

2. What you worship determines who/what you become. It is built into the fabric of the universe that we become like what we worship, either for ruin or for restoration. For what happens to the person who thinks incessantly of themselves—how they look, what others think of them, whether they are smart, if they are important, how many likes they receive on Facebook and Instagram, how they can increase their comfort, when they will be able to buy that thing they have wanted, where they would like to live and so on? Such people do not become great lovers of others; they become radically, destructively self-centered. In other words, they become what they worship.

3. The only thing you can worship that won’t delude you or disappoint you or cause you to self-destruct is God. “Those who make idols become like them, and so do all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:8). “But we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). Augustine came to realize this contrast ‘the hard way.’ After years of self-destructive worship he finally realized, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Confessions, I.1).

Worship Christ

Many people, even many Christians, spend their daily lives worshipping something other than Jesus. They give themselves to a vision of “the good life” that has little room for Christ and his kingdom. In this way they desire, love, sacrifice, and devote themselves to something that can only let them down disastrously. They are living for what can never give them life.

Jesus offers you an alternative. He invites you to give yourself to the One who has already given himself to you. He knows that all worship involves sacrifice, but his yoke is easy and his burden is light. He says to you now, “Come to me all who are weary and heaven laden, and I will give you rest.” Or as Augustine rightly said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”