Spirit Alive: Where Is Your Church's Heartbeat?


Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog that looks at different aspects of mission and ministry throughout the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and beyond.

February 19, 2019

With Heart, Soul, and Mind:

Without a Heartbeat, There Is No Pulse....

"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

"We spend our lives shaping the places in which we life, and then those places shape us."

Frank Lloyd Wright

Several years ago, I went back to Claremont McKenna College (CMC) for alumni day. I graduated from this school in 1976, so it was good to see all the changes that had taken place there over the years. Like many college campuses, CMC has a traditional quad area that serves as the hub for the college's activity...and now that area has been transformed by a complex of new buildings that reflect a vibrant sense of energy, growth and modernization. Many college campuses have made similar kinds of updates.

One of the most fascinating buildings on the Claremont campus for me is the one that was built in the middle of the main quad. It is really the living room for the campus...and it is affectionately called the "Kube"...It serves as the center point for activity and social connection at CMC, much like Pioneer Courthouse Square does in Portland, serving as the "living room" for that city as well.

The" Kube," on the Claremont McKenna College campus, is made out of glass, with a reflecting pool surrounding it. The interesting thing about the building is that it serves as a constant visual reminder that learning, connection, and social interaction are at the heart of college life. In fact, as you walk to class you are able to see professors and students engaged with each other in that space. Nothing could tell you more clearly why you are at CMC than the Kube does. Simply put, it is about human interaction and the exchange of ideas and conversation...and you see this taking place right before your eyes. To learn more about the Kravis Center, the "Kube," and the concepts behind their development, click here...or here if you want to learn more about the construction company involved in this stunning project.

School mottos written on walls are nice...as are beautiful gardens, but to continually walk by a space, see what's happening inside, and be drawn in by the activity...well, you don't need to say anything more in order to get the message or be impacted by the energy.

Recently, Dr. Leroy Barber's office area...what is referred to as our innovation center....was moved to the third floor. I know this space well, because my office used to be located there a couple of years ago. I loved that space, especially because one of the walls was all glass...and another looked out over the city of Portland. Recently, after Leroy moved into this new location, I was involved in a meeting there related to campus ministry.

I loved the experience, as a small group of us discussed various options for future work related to college students and young people. Leroy has clearly worked hard to make this area open for innovative conversation, which helps to make that become a more likely outcome.

There is still that wall of glass and the view out the window...but now there are multi-colored balloons on another wall that light up....a carpet square on the floor that features streets, people, and buildings...a whiteboard...and multi-colored chairs. It is a small area, but the space has character...and energy.

And it helps as well that when I was inside this space, we were talking about important things related to the future of the church, what we are doing strategically with young people as an annual conference, and where we are headed in the future as a denomination.

I like that Leroy has written the phrase "innovation happens at the intersection of difference" on the glass and whiteboard, because it is a good reminder that we need a variety of opinions and perspectives in the room for innovation to occur and for things that really matter to rise to the surface.

Was innovation in the balloons on the wall...or the carpet square on the floor...or the whiteboard...or even in the glass wall? No, that is not where the energy and spirit lie. Instead, it happens, as it does for Elijah in the story in 1 Kings 19, whenever we find ourselves asking the questions: Why am I here? And...what am I supposed to do with my life? Of course, neither innovation nor God's spirit is present in particular places, but some places can make a difference in how we experience our own and other people's energy. This is also true regarding the people who are present, the topics of conversation that are being discussed, and the spirit that is alive there as well.

Discussions of innovation and the future of the church don't just happen in this location that Leroy has created, they take place throughout the conference center building in other meeting places and offices as well. But my point is that how space is designed and used makes a difference in what happens inside that space, otherwise space wouldn't matter at all...and people wouldn't frequently say that they most often encounter God while being outside, enjoying a natural wonder.

This all raises a series of questions for you to consider in your local church setting: Where is your church's heart beat located? How do you tend to it? How does it influence other things within the life of your community of faith?

Once you know the answer to these questions, it will be easier to figure out where everything else resides within the system...and it may help you put a finger on what keeps those things alive.

As you ponder this, you might say to yourself, "Well...the heart of our church is the sanctuary." After all, that's where we gather to worship God. But if that is the case, do you really feel the spirit alive there? In fact, is that setting so alive that it gives everything else its pulse? And...what do you do, both physically and spiritually, to help this be a reality? Or...is the sanctuary simply rows of pews that need dusting from time-to-time, so that people will appreciate that it is being cared for?

Or...perhaps there is someplace else within the congregation that so moves and pulsates with life that it  enlivens the rest of congregational life? What I'm saying is...Where is your community's "Kube," "living room," spiritual heart? What brings life to your congregation? Is it a location? An event? A feeling? A way of being together? Is it the weekly potluck gathering? Your leadership team meetings? One of your community outreach programs? Sunday worship?

Of course, we know from our faith that God's spirit isn't confined to a location per se, but that this spirit resides within us and among us. Remember in 1 Kings 19: 11-13, when the Lord says to Elijah to "go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by." And the wind, earthquake, and fire come through that space, but the Lord wasn't in any of those things. Instead, "after the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave's entrance. A voice came to him and said, 'Why are you here, Elijah?'" God's spirit spoke to Elijah then and there, but it wasn't about a magical place. It was about a mystical encounter with the living God.

Perhaps this is one of the mysteries of faith. God's Spirit both transcends time...and is fixed within it. And we realize this whenever our hearts are touched by this spirit. It is beyond words and even location. At the same time, we also know that this same spirit is incarnated in time and space, and we can recall specific places, people, and events whenever we feel moved in this way. In fact when our spiritual heart gets to pumping...then every place changes for us, because the heart and pulse of God is everywhere!

But space can also be controversial. I remember when I worked for Catholic Charities in San Francisco years ago. One of the programs I was involved with was called the Office of Parish and Deanery Development (OPDD). I was part of hiring an experienced church organizational development specialist, by the name of Roger, who served as the director for this work.

Roger was a thoughtful, gifted professional. I remember one time talking to him about his experience working with a church in San Francisco that was in conflict over their church building. He had been called in to help resolve the conflict, which involved the remodeling of the church sanctuary. The decision had been by the church leaders to create a theater-in-the-round style of setting instead of their current and more traditional style that was made up of rows of pews facing the chancel.

In his work, Roger always taught that organizational development happened in a who, what, how manner. He also taught that things fell apart in a how, what, who manner. In other words, you needed to know who you were as an organization before you could become clear about what you should do...and ultimately about how to do those things.

At the same time, when conflict arises within groups, Roger said that it generally starts with disagreements about how things are being done, and if those conflicts aren't resolved satisfactorily, then the conflicts become more pronounced and involve arguments over what we are doing. Finally, if these concerns aren't worked out at this level, then the conflict becomes about who we are as a group. This confirms the obvious: If you don't know who you are, everything else simply becomes more difficult.

In the case of the congregation he was working with in this particular case, Roger realized after meeting with them that half the congregation had a pre-Vatican II theology (a more traditional Catholic perspective), while the other half had a post-Vatican II theology (open, liberal, welcoming of diversity).

It was no wonder that this church was in deep conflict over the design and arrangement of their sanctuary. In fact, at the time, Roger said that "architecture is the apex of organizational development, because it is there that you fix in time and space what you believe in words and theology." Is it traditional rows of pews or theater-in-the-round? It all depends on who you are, what you believe, and how you choose to worship God. This church wasn't just arguing over a building, they were arguing over their very identity!

Space matters...it is both a physical representation and a spiritual expression of who we believe we are.

This also makes me think about why our own homes matter so much to us. They are expressions of who we are as people. For example, I love where Susan and I live because the things we value and the why things are arranged provide us with a place of refuge, a space for conversation and expression, a place to welcome and host others, and a location that serves as a workshop and base for our interests. It is why it feels like home!

But, friends, consider for a moment this discussion in terms of the current national debate taking place over the construction of a wall on our southern border. Like the San Francisco church situation described above, this wall has deeply seated emotions attached to it. I believe that this is true, because the outcome of that debate ultimately says volumes about who we want to be as a people. Roger was correct, "architecture is the apex of organizational development." And walls, like buildings, are a part of our national identity.

THOUGHT BOMB: This entire conversation means an entirely different thing if you yourself are a refugee living in a temporary camp somewhere in the world...or have no place to call home. Sure, place always matters, but for those without the comforts of a home, it is a luxury to think about how you'd like to arrange the furniture to begin with...or what style of sanctuary you'd like to worship in. A more critical question in these situations is: Where is my next meal coming from? And...will my family be safe tonight?

This entire subject reminds me of a poem I once heard about church basements. It goes like this:

I've spent a lot of time

in church basements.

There is a special funk

all her holy own

down here.

Perhaps that's why

it's so damn fertile.

Things grow-- amazing things--

from church basements.

In addition to the mushrooms

on the windowsills:

recovery grows in church basements.

Movements grow

in church basements: bus boycotts,

civil rights, sanctuary.

You can't take the light for granted

down here. Not in Chicago,

not in Memphis, not in Mondragon.

Her cool dank hollows

whisper solidarity with the bowels

of our stories, in a way the board room

cannot. Adding a preacher

or someone dressed in black

can help-- we call time of death.

Nowhere to go

but up! Perhaps the key

is to be underground, surrounded

by other moldy souls and dirt. Because there

in the quiet still of a world gone mad

eyes open, seeds awaken

and life begins.

(Written by Rev. Melissa O'Keefe Reed)

 I pray that you will  find the heart of your church in the days ahead. But more than that, I hope you discover all those places within you and around you where the spirit of God is alive and moving...Then ride that spirit into the quiet, still places, so that you are ready to confront a "world gone mad" with eyes open and seeds awakened...where life begins.


For...without a heartbeat, there is no pulse...and without a pulse, there is no life.

Let us walk in the light of God's love,


Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference. It seeks to identify where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities. Check out past editions, or subscribe to the email list.






Lowell Greathouse
Lowell Greathouse is the Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church. He looks for places to find where the spirit is alive and help them grow in vitality and fruitfulness. Share with him at lowell@umoi.org