03 Nov What Happened to the Sanctuary?
Dr. Earl D. Jessup
Recently, I was driving through the town in which I grew up, and I saw something that concerned me. I saw a sign on a church that supported my wife and me when we first went to Canada as church planters. The sign read, “New home for our ‘Worship Center’.” As I began thinking about it, I realized just how much we have changed. When I grew up in a small Baptist church, I was the typical little boy that enjoyed running and playing around the church. I was constantly warned about running in the “sanctuary.” I was reprimanded more than once by my parents, grandparents, other relatives or just someone in the church. There was a reverence for the place where the church services were held, and it was called “The Sanctuary.”
Times have changed. Somewhere along the way, we started calling the “Sanctuary” the “Auditorium,” and now it is called the “Worship Center.” I wonder if this change is helpful to the cause of Christ?
The word “sanctuary” is found 137 times in 132 verses in the Bible. All but four are found in the Old Testament. In Strong’s Concordance the word in the Old Testament is “miqdâsh miqqedâsh mik-dawsh’, mik-ked-awsh’.” It means “a consecrated thing or place, especially a palace, sanctuary (whether of Jehovah or of idols) or asylum: – chapel, hallowed part, holy place, sanctuary.” In the New Testament, the word is found four times in Hebrews. In Strong’s, the word is “hagion hag’-ee-on.” It means “a sacred thing (that is, spot): – holiest (of all), holy place, sanctuary.” I also looked up the word “sanctuary” in Webster’s Dictionary and found this definition: “A sacred or holy place, as a church, a temple, or a sacred grove; an esp. holy place in a temple or church, as the part of a church about the altar; the chancel; a place in which fugitives were formerly entitled to immunity from arrest; an asylum; immunity from arrest afforded by refuge in such a place.” I am sure you can see how the church is our place “in which fugitives were formerly entitled to immunity from arrest.” We are safe in Christ and justified by His blood.
I looked for the word “auditorium” in the Bible, and it is not there. I also looked for the words “worship center,” and they are not there, either. I found the definition for “auditorium” in Webster’s Dictionary, and it says, “In an opera house, public hall, etc. the space allotted to the audience; a building, hall, or large room used for public gatherings.” I did not find a definition for “worship center” in Webster’s, but I was using a dictionary with a 1973 copyright. I decided to go on-line and find a definition there. You should be able to find anything there, but I could not find a dictionary that had the term “worship center.” Maybe it is because anything goes when it is called a “worship center.”
I tried to find the origin of the term “worship center,” but could not find that either. What I did find is that the majority of churches using the term “worship center” are not Baptist churches and certainly do not hold to what we believe or practice in our fundamental Baptist churches. They are contemporary churches that are using contemporary methodology and a contemporary message to attract people. In the majority of these churches, they are doing all sorts of things to entertain people and hopefully “slip” the gospel in so someone might get saved or at least pray some prayer. Repentance and hard preaching on sin is not done. It is obvious that the word “worship center” did not come from fundamental Baptists, but now we find that some of our brethren are using their terms.
Why has this happened? First of all, we moved from the term “sanctuary” to the term “auditorium.” This should never have happened. We started this slippery slope when we moved away from a Bible term to a secular term. Now it is an easy move to a neo-evangelical term that they coined in order to get more people into their buildings. It sounds good, but do we want to be associated with those that coined the term and are openly promoting it? I certainly do not. Should not we move back to the Bible term for the place where we meet?
What are the problems we are facing because of this move? If we look back at the definition of the word “sanctuary,” we find that the church is a place that is set apart for a special purpose. When we moved to the word “auditorium,” we implied that the “sanctuary” is no longer set apart, but just like any other place you would go to be entertained. These places would include the civic center, the basketball game, the opera house or any other “large room used for public gatherings.” I believe this has led to the casual dress in our churches. Our people no longer see the church as a place set apart to meet with God; therefore, they dress as they would to go to any other entertainment venue. They are just going to the “auditorium,” or now the “worship center.” Those that promote the “worship center” make it quite clear that it is a “casual atmosphere,” and you can come dressed any way you like. Even the ministers (I hesitate calling them preachers) dress “down” so no one is offended.
This also affects the music in the church. Recently, I was in a southern state where a mission board was holding a meeting in a church. As soon as I got on the property, I could tell this church was headed toward a contemporary philosophy. The youth room where we met had a set of drums for the youth. The bulletin board promoted a youth beach activity with the term “MOP,” which stood for “Modest One Piece.” They also had a “praise and worship team” for the youth. This “praise and worship” term did not come from their fundamental Baptist friends. I attended the Wednesday evening service at the church, and the only man I saw with a tie on was the man sitting next to me. He had just come from work. Even the pastor was “dressed down.” After a word of prayer, the service was led by a man from the piano with a microphone half way in his mouth. I remember one of the songs being “Isn’t He Wonderful,” but the only way I can describe it was the way Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy. It was obviously sung in a worldly manner.
Another problem caused by this falling away from the term “sanctuary” is that things are going on in our services that should not be going on. We have lost the sense of reverence for the House of God. There will be those that argue that the dwelling place of God in the New Testament is in the believer, and I agree with that. However, Paul made it clear we are to be careful how we behave ourselves in the church. In 1 Timothy 3:14-15, he says, “These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly; But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”
Using the term “worship center” or “auditorium” does not make one a neo-evangelical. There are churches that are fundamental that use the term “worship center,” but what does the future hold for these churches? I believe it will be much easier for these churches to move in the direction of the neo-evangelical crowd when their present leadership is gone because of the association with them through this term. Their church members see the same terminology being used by those that are charismatic, contemporary and non-denominational. These churches have no distinctive name about them, simply using the name Christian, fellowship, community or some other non-descriptive name for their church. By using the same terms as these churches use, we are to some degree identifying with them.
What happened to the sanctuary? What happened to dressing up for church? What happened to our godly music? What happened to a reverence for the place where we meet? What happened to old fashioned preaching against sin? Maybe we should return to calling the church “The Sanctuary” which is set apart for the holy place or meeting with God. Maybe churches should change their signs to read, “New Home for our SANCTUARY.”