Most mainline Christians would balk at taking off their shoes in the sanctuary. Maybe at night, at home, we can slip out of our work shoes and into something comfortable. Or sometimes on an airplane or at the movies, when no one can see, we might remove our shoes to let our feet breathe. But in the sacred place at church? Not likely.
Yet in some of the fastest growing "new faiths" in the United States, shoes are prohibited in the sanctuary. For example, as some companions and I entered the Bochasanwasi Swaminarayan Hindu Temple in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, we took off our shoes at the entrance before treading on the flat carpet in the sacred space. A further departure from the outside world was the temple's division of its floor space into separate sections for men and women, who sat cross-legged in their respective places.
And when I joined in worship with the Islamic Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, we set our selves apart from the secular world have moved from one world by removing our shoes and bending our bodies in prayer ("Holy calisthenics," a Muslim said to me later with a smile). Again, the women worshiped in a screened-off separate section from the men.
At Temple Emmanu-el in Miami Beach, I could keep my shoes on and sit in a theater chair, but I was provided with special garb, a kippah and tallit (skullcap and prayer shawl). At all three houses of worship the boundary between secular and sacred was clear, and within each community the language of worship (Hebrew, Arabic and Gujarati) drew a verbal curtain on ordinary discourse.
With our shoes off, genders separated, bodies bent, ritual attire in place, we entered a separate holy world. Throughout history vital religions have found ways to set sacred space apart from the profane world. Since God told Moses, "Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Ex. 3:5), Jews and Christians have a biblical mandate for removing their shoes in acknowledge sacred place, but in worship. Although I'm not promoting a ritual of barefoot worship, I am impressed with the strength of those groups who clearly draw the line between their special, holy space and the commonplace, secular world. Catholics and Protestants, members of the culturally comfortable religions in the United States, have such low barriers between the sacred and profane that we hardly realize that we have moved form one world to another. As Catholics enter sacred space, they may anoint themselves with holy water and orient themselves to familiar symbols, like the stations of the cross--but these rituals, like Latin, are increasingly neglected.
Many Protestants have not for gotten the holy, but simply made it mobile. They bear Bibles like portable shrines and they call their place of worship an "auditorium" as a theological challenge to any notion of a sacred "sanctuary." In liturgy Protestants define time as holy, not the space. They begin worship with a musical prelude and a verbal prayer that is as transportable as the Bibles they carry. Such a portable holiness allows Protestants to move their churches at will, easily abandoning the cities and fleeing to the suburbs as new immigrants arrive. This mobile faith has sustained Protestants for generations, but is inhospitable to a theology of sacred space.
Despite our portable worship, we Protestants can develop deep loyalties to our sacred places. As a pastor I discovered the functional definition that anything is "sacred" that provokes a fight when you try to move it. People may not articulate why an object is so precious, but when asked they recall significant associations--it's the communion table that was there when we buried my father, or the cross that I saw when I raised my head from prayer. In liturgy Protestant worshipers create sacred time, while in memory they sustain sacred
objects. Their theology may not acknowledge sacred place, but in the pain of moving they know it exists.
In contrast stands one irony of our times: the secular, electronically sophisticated, scientifically educated generation of baby boomers is seeking the sacred. The research is unanimous, as reported by Wade Clark Roof in A Generation of Seekers (1993) and Dean Hoge et al. in Vanishing Boundaries (1994). "A resurgence of interest in spirituality is evident both in our churches and among the unchurched," say C. Kirk Hadaway and David A. Roozen in Rerouting the Protestant Mainstream (1995). They advise: "Reclaim the worshipful affirmation of the experience of God as the primary (not the only, but the primary) ‘business' of both congregations and denominational structures."
I do not expect a sudden surge of barefoot believers in traditional Christian churches, but we do need boundaries to claim our sacred space. We need a sense of holy place, where worshipers can gather apart from the common areas of daily lives--not to escape the world, but to be renewed in a community of faith and to accept more fully the gift of life.