Over the years, I have spent a good bit of time thinking about sacred space. My doctoral work is in developing and understanding a modern visual theology, especially in the context of worship. I spent a great deal of time researching church architecture. For over eight years I was the director of a retreat center that offered a quiet and slow place in the midst of the loud and rushing world.
There is a convergence in me between this idea of a physical landscape and a sense of the holy and sacred intertwined together. In Celtic Spirituality this would be referred to as a Thin Place. A Thin Place is where the distance between the eternal and the temporal collide or at least becomes very thin. Where Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit intersect in the world and the presence of God is made manifest. We might call this the weight of His glory, God being felt and sensed not just in spiritual terms but also in a physical manner.
A Biblical Foundation
Biblically we could reference Moses on the mountain before the Burning Bush or Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration in front of Peter, James, and John as he is transfigured before their eyes and they behold the glory of the Son of God. Jacob awakes from his dream and declares, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’ He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’ (Genesis 28:16-17)
Thin places abound throughout the scriptures. People have visions, miracles happen, angels appear and all of these are moments of intersections between God and humanity.Thin places abound throughout the scriptures. People have visions, miracles happen, angels appear and all of these are moments of intersections between God and humanity. Click To Tweet
Thin places abound in the world as well. I have encountered the Lord’s presence on magnificent mountain tops, beautiful beaches and throughout creation. Romans 1:20 reminds us that God makes himself known in creation: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
One of my most profound encounters with the Lord of all Creation was in the Canadian Arctic where for the first time I saw the Northern Lights. Standing outside about midnight in arctic gear with the temperature hovering around -30F, it was pitch dark. Then like a whisper across the sky, brilliant colors of green began to emerge and spread like God was taking a paintbrush and lighting up the sky with color.
I know there is a scientific explanation for the Aurora Borealis but at that moment all I could think of was Psalm 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”
Christmas, the Incarnation, is the moment when Jesus, the Eternal Son of God took on human flesh, was born into this world as both fully God and fully human. Eugene Peterson’s The Message he says it this way: “The Word (Jesus) became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” Thin Places are incarnational moments where the presence of the Lord is made manifest for us to witness, feel and grasp.Thin Places are incarnational moments where the presence of the Lord is made manifest for us to witness, feel and grasp. Click To Tweet
In recent sociological and mission discussions and conversations, we have also talked about Third Places. Third places have existed for a long time but gained that moniker only recently. Third Places as a concept was first introduced by Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. He labels home as the first place, and work as the second place. Third places are public, social, community places. These third places are where people meet, connect and engage on a variety of topics and issues.
There are many third places. A prime example is Starbucks. They positioned their stores and wanted to be defined as the Third Place in culture; Home, Work, Starbucks. Early on this was the marketing strategy of Starbucks. So much so that they asked Oldenburg to endorse Starbucks as the Third Place (he declined).
I have framed and defined the 21st-century mission of the church in some of my writing and teaching as Third Places of Gathering becoming Thin Places of Encounter.
In this moment of the COVID-19 Pandemic, when we are forced to stay at home for weeks and months to bring an end to this deadly disease, there is an opportunity for a vibrant mission to be cultivated. Yes, we are learning to be home. We are also mining technology and the internet to become a Fourth Place of communication and interaction- the digital and social media platforms we’ve had for the past fifteen years or so. Our challenge? How do we take the digital platforms of social media and online video conferencing and invite the very presence of God to be made apparent to people?In this moment of the COVID-19 Pandemic, when we are forced to stay at home for weeks and months to bring an end to this deadly disease, there is an opportunity for a vibrant mission to be cultivated. Click To Tweet
We learn from the bible and theology one of the characteristics of God is that He is omnipresent, that is He is everywhere all at once or as the dictionary would say; the state of being widespread or constantly encountered. God is to be encountered in all places, including the First, Second, Third, Fourth, etc. places of our society and culture.
In the last month, churches were forced to close their campuses and buildings and quickly pivot to an online presence. Many churches have been streaming services for years but now out of necessity, we have moved the mission to a digital platform. That in itself does not make a ZOOM meeting or a Facebook Live a Thin Place.
We need to be proactive and take steps to cultivate Thin Places on the internet.
The first thing we must do is pray.
We invite the Lord to make himself known in this streaming technology. Be specific if you want, pray over the programs, apps, and bandwidth. More so, pray for the participants that as they log-on; for them to set aside the distractions, for them to know the peace and comfort of the Lord. When I begin a formal, liturgical service my prayer is, “Lord make your presence known among your people; let every word spoken, every prayer prayed, every song sung bring us into a deeper awareness of your love.” Should I do the same in a digital meeting? Yes!
I learned a long time ago from Leonard Sweet, we need EPIC moments. EPIC is an acronym for Experiential, Participatory, Image Rich, Communal. These principles become guidelines for understanding how ministry should function. I have used this and owned it for years as a way to gauge, evaluate and understand the mission and ministry of the church. I ask, Are we being EPIC? I believe we can easily apply this EPIC paradigm to digital platforms.
What experience are people having? For all of us, we want to experience the Lord, through worship, prayer, scripture, sacraments, and fellowship. The church gathered in whatever venue is about knowing the Lord more fully and deeply; learning as Acts 17:27-28 states, “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being.” Paul writes in Philippians that nothing compares to a knowledge of Christ and that our lives should be bent on taking hold of that for which Christ Jesus has taken hold of us. (Philippians 3:7-14).
Can people have this experience of the Lord, a thin place encounter, digitally? Absolutely- but we must bring that intention, prayerfully, as we step on the internet stage. What kind of spiritual formation, spiritual growth will be cultivated in these digital efforts? How will people come to know the Lord? How will we make disciples as we go about the internet sowing Gospel seeds? These are important questions we should be asking.
The church I grew up in could be described as a place where the minister ministered and the congregation congregated. Some churches in their Sunday morning services still very much practice this. “Participatory” means an active engagement, interaction, and an exchange. It is a movement from a passive posture to an active posture. When I look at digital ministry moments, I ask what are the people going to do? How are they going to interact? They can listen, sure. But can they do more? I think so. They can bring questions, music, objects, graphics, and art into the digital room. There can be planned activities, exercises, video clips that create discussion and conversation. There can be times of silence too.
In our “Brady Bunch” screen moments, take time to pray for each person as a group. With a large group of twelve or more, you can also set-up sub-rooms and divide up for times of personal prayer.
I believe that even in a digital space, a leader can lead in a cooperative fashion, inviting a deeper engagement for all the participants.
We have recaptured visual learning in the last one hundred years and this has rapidly increased with the advent of the internet as a part of our lives now accessible through our smartphones.
We live in an icon-ic, image-rich world. The digital world has its own tapestry. We live with icons and logos virtually everywhere. We open an app through an image interface. A text-driven form of learning dominated the educational landscape for millennia and will still be a prime way of accessing data and information. But now we readily have video and image in our pockets. We can stream movies and television. We can make our own movies, memes, and Instagram posts with each other. Ted Talks, webinars, think tanks: the world itself is at our fingertips.
Images abound within faith communities. Coming from that liturgical background again I can say confidently; symbols and images are important. In the Middle Ages when the majority of people were illiterate, stained-glass depictions of the biblical narratives were the catechism of the church. Yes, they could be beautiful to behold but they told a story as well.
In an on-line gathering, be visual to tell the story of the salvation found in Christ. Share a video clip, incorporate icons and images, symbols that have meaning and communicate truth. We can be graphic and craft a visual narrative.
We need to make the investment and learn from Christ, who displayed Kingdom of God principles in living stories of loaves and fishes, (a few times a miraculous catch of fish), a healing touch, fig trees, meals, weddings and more.
We gather together. If we have learned anything in the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us are missing people on some level. The call is to live connected lives, not isolated ones. The longing of the human heart is for intimacy, meaning, and purpose and we find this being truly with one another. In Christ, we are members of one another (Ephesian 4:25). We are joined and connected, brothers and sisters in the household of faith.
I have a weekly Zoom call with the Fresh Expressions team and it is a highlight in my week as we share a true and meaningful fellowship around the Fresh Expressions mission. I see these faces of friends I will spend eternity with and it makes me smile and feel the joy. It may be a ZOOM room but regardless, I am in a room with my friends.
I said earlier all of this comes as I intentionally bring my faith with me onto the digital landscape. I believe the Holy Spirit can fill the circuits and spread through the web with ease. That means I need to be proactive, seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance and direction as I venture into a digital platform.
This week I was recording a short devotional for my network of friends. As a priest, I often offer an apostolic blessing in a service and use the blessing from Numbers 6:23-27 (often referred to as the Barocha). The singer, songwriter, and scholar Michael Card put this to a nice melody that I know very well. I sang it acapella at the end of the reflection;
The Lord bless you and keep you, The Lord make His face shine upon you
And give you peace, And give you peace, And give you peace forever
The Lord be gracious to you The Lord turn His face towards you
And give you peace, And give you peace, And give you peace forever
I knew something happened at that moment. I sensed the Holy Spirit as I sang the refrain; And give you peace, And give you peace, And give you peace forever. I felt something was mediated in those lyrics. Sure enough, I had about a dozen people who watched it on-line respond by saying basically the same thing, “Something happened when you sang ‘give you peace,’ it was for me and I received His peace!” It became a digital Thin Place.
Use technology for communication, information, teaching and even for some fun. But let it also be a means of grace, a touchpoint of the Holy Spirit where the felt-presence of God intervenes and people are encouraged, inspired and given hope. Let the Fourth Place be a landscape where we see converts and true life-changing discipleship. Let us witness all of the technological platforms becoming sacramental; as an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace.
Let Thin Places abound in all we do!
The Rev. Jon Davis PhD is an Episcopal Priest, church planter, teacher, worship leader. He is on staff with Fresh Expressions as a mission strategist and is launching some Fresh Expression gatherings through the Abbey Mission in a NE suburb of Orlando. firstname.lastname@example.org