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Does where you worship affect how you worship?
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Sunday worship services felt a little less sacred last year at St. Vincent de Paul in Albany, New York, when a renovation project kept the sanctuary off-limits.

During the five-month construction period, members of the Roman Catholic Church worshipped in their building's parish hall, working through logistical frustrations like homeowners would do in a kitchen remodel.

"It was a tighter space, which made any movement (during worship) a bit awkward, said Betsy Rowe-Manning, who has served as St. Vincent de Paul's parish life director for the past eight years. The makeshift sanctuary in the hall "was like the caterpillar before the butterfly."

The butterfly, in this case, was a redesigned worship space that wedded traditional high ceilings and stained-glass windows with a less common, circular layout. The remodel has rejuvenated Sunday services, inspiring members to be more enthusiastic during songs and prayers because they're looking into each other's eyes, Rowe-Manning said.

St. Vincent de Paul's remodel illustrates that the "where" of worship can be as meaningful to faith communities as the "how" or "when." As religious communities struggle to pay for the upkeep of church buildings or consider nontraditional locations to attract younger members, faith leaders must acknowledge how sacred spaces shape the practice of faith, architecture experts said.

"All faith traditions are very much linked to their so-called sacred space, whether it's a synagogue or a church or a mosque," said Richard Vosko, who has been helping churches and synagogues redesign their houses of worship for 45 years. "It's an expression of who the people are who worship there and what they believe."

The where of worship

On a basic level, any space is suitable for worship, as long as it keeps believers dry and warm, Vosko said.

"There's a practical reason to worship in a building: it offers protection from the elements," he noted.

The earliest Christians worshipped God in people's homes, waiting to construct dedicated temples or churches when they outgrew their humble beginnings.

Over time, faith communities invested more and more in their houses of worship, building architectural masterpieces like Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris or St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. Sacred spaces, often among a town's most prominent buildings, are now a core part of a congregation's identity, eliciting emotional responses like treasured hymns or rituals, Vosko said.

"These are the holy places (where) people find a sense of safety, security and familiarity," he said.

As a sacred space planner, Vosko works closely with the faith communities who hire him to envision buildings that are both functional and meaningful. He asks questions like, "What do you expect when you go to worship?" and "How do you envision God?" in order to design sanctuaries that fit spacial and spiritual needs.

"Places of worship are designed to put us in touch with the past, present and future all at once," said Vosko, who is also an ordained Catholic priest and serves as one of St. Vincent de Paul's ministers.

When he helped his own parish plan its new sanctuary, he looked for ways to commemorate the congregation's past experiences while also driving members to look into the future. The new space includes art that has hung on the walls for decades, as well as a display of Catholic saints, like Dorothy Day, who inspire social justice activism.

The design process required a lot of soul-searching, according to Rowe-Manning.

"It was like birthing an elephant," as are most decisions that are made by committee, she said, highlighting the extensive survey process used to elicit ideas from the congregation.

But it was also rewarding, because it helped church leaders understand what people really wanted in a worship space and paved the way for Sunday services that now feel like family gatherings, Rowe-Manning added.

Spacial influence

In the past 45 years, Vosko has witnessed a variety of sacred space trends come and go. The current push is toward nontraditional spaces, as historic congregations give up buildings too costly to maintain. New faith communities choose to make homes out of repurposed stores and other groups host gatherings in restaurants or bars to attract younger members.

As Rowe-Manning noted, transitioning away from a traditional space where parishioners sit in long rows of pews facing an elevated pulpit changes the feeling of worship.

The circular arrangement keeps everyone close to the communion table. It's no longer possible to lay low in the back of the room, she said.

People returning to organized religion after time away often respond well to unique spaces because the shift feels like a breath of fresh air, said the Rev. Kit Novotny, associate minister at First Congregational Church of Berkeley in Berkeley, California. She described how one 29-year-old church member used the church's casual Sunday service as a stepping stone back to personal faith.

"It was like a revelation. People wearing jeans and drinking coffee gave her the space to reconnect with God through the church," the Rev. Novotny said.

Worshipping in unique places like on the beach or in a park also helps people understand old rituals in new ways, she added.

For example, the Rev. Novotny recently attended a church retreat at a California campground. At the end of the trip, she had the opportunity to baptize one of the attendees outside, rather than at the front of the sanctuary in a normal service.

"Just being in a different space allowed people to experience this ancient ritual in a new way," she said. "It was really intense, and I wouldn't have done it any differently."

Value of tradition

Because of her love for innovative worship spaces, the Rev. Novotny now leads a weekly service for young adults in a small chapel that her church left unused for many years. She regularly rearranges the chairs, getting attendees out of their comfort zone.

However, the Rev. Novotny also recognizes the need for traditional sacred spaces, noting that she still attends her church's weekly service in the building's sanctuary, reveling in the beauty of the stained glass windows and the organ music.

"I love having both options," she said.

In the sanctuary, people feel "the weight of the liturgy," the Rev. Novotny added. "The solemn tone is estranging for some people. But for other people, it may be the only way they can access silence in a busy week."

Formal sanctuaries, with their tall ceilings and graceful design, have been shown to transport church visitors to a contemplative state, creating the same effect as meditation, said Julio Bermudez, director of the cultural studies and sacred space graduate concentration program at the Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning.

"When spaces are well-designed, people can find a connection to God," he said.

In a forthcoming study, Bermudez and his research partners at the University of Utah report that awe-inspiring spaces literally create the experience of awe. The team used brain scans to show that viewing pictures of "contemplative architecture" like the Chartres Cathedral in France quieted people's minds, which, in turn, reduces stress.

"In many churches, the environment will produce atmospheric conditions that propel you, invite you and nudge you into an alternative mental state," Bermudez said. In nontraditional sacred spaces, "you have to work a little harder to get that contemplative atmosphere."

Shifting spaces

Vosko acknowledges that every faith community is unique. Some will be best served by a formal sanctuary. Others thrive when they try something different and new.

What matters is for every church, synagogue or mosque leader to have a sense of his or her parishioners' needs and to plan sacred space accordingly, Vosko noted.

"It's important for all of us to keep in mind that the congregation matters more than the building," he said.

In November, members of St. Vincent de Paul will celebrate the first anniversary of unveiling the new sanctuary. Both Rowe-Manning and Vosko are pleased with how the congregation has acclimated, noting that the new space added vibrancy to weekly worship services.

"(Parishioners) sing better. They say the prayers better," Vosko said. "Everybody sounds better. It feels like we're a large family gathered around a table."

The circular layout also creates a sense of intimacy, making each of the more than 300 people who attend a typical service feel connected to the rituals taking place at the center of the room, according to Rowe-Manning.

"When the priest lifts up the chalice (which holds the wine during communion), he turns in a circle with it," she said. "I see reflected in that chalice all the people in the congregation. It's kind of a goose pimple experience."
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