The Closet, the House and the Sanctuary

by Charles M. Olsen

Mr. Olsen is minister of First Presbyterian Church, Grand Island, Nebraska.

He wrote this article while an Ecumenical Fellow of the Alban Institute and College of Preachers in Washington, D.C. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 9, 1981, pp. 1285-1289. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Each worship setting is unique, and people need to have access to more than one. Let the sanctuary stick to its role of the public and corporate recital of the drama of grace. Then let us find ways to train sensitive lay leaders who can enable house worship. And let us also encourage and support those persons and groups that are providing spiritual direction for solitude,

After our local church’s session wrestled with the question of whether to ask the congregation to be quiet during the prelude, I tried to step back and review the sanctuary as a locus for prayer and worship. People, I discover, bring needs to express in worship and prayer which are impossible for the corporate sanctuary service to satisfy. We have promised more through the "go to church" admonition than we can deliver.

The locus for prayer/worship is threefold: the closet, the house and the sanctuary. Each has its unique place within the disciplines of the faith. Each has its own limitations if allowed to stand alone. And each offers reinforcement when exercised in concert with the other two.

Picture them as forming a three-legged prayer/ worship stool. If one or two of the legs are taken away, the result is a precarious balancing act. To overemphasize or place more importance on one of them will elongate that leg. To minimize, discredit, misuse or ignore another will shorten that leg. A tilted stool does not provide a solid foundation on which to trust one’s weight.

Since the professional clergy have such visibility and stake in the Sunday sanctuary setting, we should not be surprised at which leg of the stool has been elongated.

Jesus’ prayer/worship life extended to the primary, face-to-face group of Twelve (the house). Their worship grew out of their experiences, their feelings and their life as a community of love and trust. This corporate offering culminated in the Lord’s Supper and is projected in Jesus’ promise, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst."

The early chapters of Acts reveal some emerging patterns for the church. "They spent their time in learning from the apostles, taking part in the fellowship, and sharing in the fellowship meals" (Acts 2:42, TEV). For several centuries house churches served as the locus for small groups of Christians to pray, hear Scripture, sing praise, eat meals, celebrate the Eucharist and share offerings with the poor.

Jesus also celebrated in large crowd settings (the sanctuary). He taught the masses and healed their sick. He went to the synagogue ("as was his custom") and to the temple (he insisted that it be a house of prayer). His teaching about destroying and rebuilding the temple did not dissuade his followers from frequenting it; temple worship and festivals were central expressions of their Jewish faith. "The believers . . . met daily in the temple (along with other Jews) and had their meals together in their homes . . . continuing together in close fellowship" (Acts 2:44-46, TEV).

Toward the end of the second century, Justin Martyr describes the gatherings of Christians in house churches (25 to 45 members) and adds: "On the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in cities or the, country" (The Early Christian Fathers, edited by Cyril C. Richardson [Westminster, 1970], p. 287). This general, probably open-air, sanctuary type of gathering included the celebration of the Eucharist.

Being alone with oneself can precipitate anxious feelings. Silence conjures up both fear and power. Yet it is surely the path that the saints of the church have trod. Solitude is like a body of water at ease -- not a running stream or a wave-whipped lake but a reflecting pond. When allowed to settle, the sediment in the water falls to the bottom, making clear sight possible. The Scripture admonitions "Be still and know that I am God" and "In quietness will be your strength" suggest a way to pursue prayer in the closet.

As I look back on my own spiritual development, I see that the closet for me during my formative years was a large, open field in Nebraska. For 12 hours a day I drove a John Deere tractor back and forth, or round and round. In that enforced solitude I came to be comfortable with myself. I pondered sermons and Scripture that I had heard. I created and sang songs to the pop-pop-pop rhythm of the tractor. I pictured what creative ministries would look like. I clarified values. Although I did not realize it then, in my own way I was working out some of the basic disciplines of the interior life -- the journey inward.

The current interest in prayer and meditation, especially the recovery of those neglected disciplines that lie within our own Christian tradition, is producing an increasing number of persons who have the skills and insights to provide spiritual direction. Christians do not have to journey to the East for direction. Understanding those paths, as well as taking the wraps off our own Judeo-Christian tradition, has provided rich resources that can help a person go to the depths -- through the conscious mind, through the world of feelings, through the unconscious to deep wisdom and inner knowing.

Protestant pioneers include the Shalom Institute in Washington, D.C., under the direction of Tilden Edwards; the Institute of Advanced Pastoral Studies in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, directed by Jack Biersdorf; and the Journal Workshops and Process Meditation efforts of Ira Progoff. The Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., continues a strong emphasis on silence and solitude through the Day-spring retreat center. Of special interest to me is the participation of action-oriented people who are finding rhythms that link active and passive modes of being. Both inner and outer change are important to them.

Much has been made of the relaxation potential of meditation: lowering blood pressure, slowing the heartbeat, and changing the body temperature to cope with stress. I would not discount this factor but would say that the purpose of closet prayer is one of surrender to God -- of "letting go" of one’s agenda and concerns into the very heart of God.

Closet prayer is found not so much in doing as in being. While meditation paths may help one along the way, they are the structures for releasing.

The house includes those who have committed themselves to a loving and trusting community: to be the body of Christ, learning his love as they learn to love one another. It is a place for disclosure, for confessing -- telling how it is with me. It is a community of empathy, being "with" one another. "Weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice" (Rom. 2:15). Gifts are recognized and called forth. Support for ministry and outreach is maintained.

Community can be a scary place as well. People live with the paradox of having hunger for intimate community and at the same time fearing it. The house is the place of honesty, of teaching, of exhorting and even of rebuking. Here members are held accountable for their lives and witness. There are few hiding places; the masks are off.

Within the community, the prayers offered are distinct from those of closet and sanctuary. Here, the two or more who are gathered agree to ask in the Lord’s name. Here prayers accompany the laying on of hands for the healing of the sick. Here one is well enough known and free enough to ask for prayers related to a specific concern.

In one house church with which I worked, the participants struggled to identify their worship life. Their previous church experience had sent a message that real worship happens on Sunday, in a sanctuary, and under the control of a professional pastor. We began to identify the major components of sanctuary worship: praise, admission and release, thanksgiving, grounding in the Word and sacrament, affirmation of faith, offering of gifts, intercessions and petitions, and a parting blessing. Then I asked those present to identify what they did in house church -- even though loosely structured -- that was like the components of worship with which they were familiar. They were surprised that so much worship, in fact, was taking place!

House worship is more spontaneous, more oriented to experience/reflection. Participants learn to identify moments when confession, affirmation, call, healing, reconciliation or risk takes place -- then to lift the moment up for identification or reflection. In addition, some basic structures for "gleaning" the group or gathering up prayers of thanks, petition and intercession can be used. One-word prayers, simple phrases, or brief sentences allow all to participate. If a person chooses to release a concern to the group, it can be offered in prayer.

The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper has always been a moving event for me in a house-group setting. Is there something about the sacrament that makes it possible to experience the community as gift? Or does the love/trust covenant in which people have experienced brokenness and poured out self-giving love for one another make the sacrament come alive? Perhaps both. But let me observe that confining the Eucharist to the sanctuary and shut-in list denies its grace to the house groups. The Eucharist did, after all, originate in the setting of a table fellowship.

Some who object to this public recital say: "You are manipulating me and putting words in my mouth which I do not believe, have not experienced, or do not feel." I understand that and acknowledge the diversity within unity. Yet we do recite the church’s common beliefs. Pentecost Christians who are described in the book of Acts worshiped wholeheartedly in the public celebrations at the temple, even though they were a sect of Judaism whose views were at some variance.

The limitations of house worship come at the point of its potential for isolation of a comfortable elitist group that resists any impinging agenda from the outside. There are groups with great power for healing and growth, and there are groups with power for destruction, manipulation and oppression. The group that cuts itself off from the larger Christian community and sets its behavioral norms out of its own limited experience will be like the hand that is cut off from the body. Moreover, we have discovered that groups have life cycles. Many groups that become isolated fall victim to the death-and-decay end of the cycle, leaving their participants even more isolated and alone, often bewildered and angry that the group experience did not live up to its original billing.

People who major in small-group worship often miss the music of the sanctuary as well as the liturgical drama related to the church year and the celebration of the church’s festival days.

And the sanctuary has its limitations. It cannot provide the setting for solitude. Our attempts to create silent zones in corporate worship services have invariably been bombed out by the distractions of coughing, a fussy child, or shuffling feet. Attempts to counter the one-way communication patterns by introducing interaction among people also meet with resistance. For many, the "passing of the peace" feels like an awkward intrusion into worship. I recall the storm that brewed after a pastor invited people to subgroup into threes or fours to discuss his sermon. The pew-filled floor and front-facing layout are simply not conducive to fellowship interactions. The sanctuary cannot be the closet or the house.

If the worshiper does not experience house or closet worship elsewhere, he or she will bring certain expectations to the church and then, lacking fulfillment, will be frustrated or bored. The person who says, "I go to church to be quiet and get away from people," will feel invaded. The person who says, "I go to church for the friendly atmosphere," will leave incomplete. Unless these needs are met and developed elsewhere, the worship service will have a hollow ring.

My own experience testifies to the need for a balanced worship/prayer life. When I give an inordinate amount of time and energy to one of the three modes, I feel a greater hunger for the others. When they are experienced in concert, I discover that each reinforces and lends great energy to the others.

What does the closet bring to the sanctuary? It brings fallow ground! How many distractions, outer or inner, does one’s mind pursue in a typical corporate worship service? I would be afraid to count! But people who know how to let go, to release and center, are the ones who are in a position to listen. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear": Jesus suggests that readiness is the key to receiving. The closet frees one to give full energy to the corporate recital.

What does the house bring to the closet? It brings aloneness (in contrast to loneliness). Faith is always personal, but never private. The person in community belongs. One’s identity as person is established in community, contrary to the fears of some that participation in intensive group life will blur and diffuse one’s individuality. The person who belongs can risk going to the inner depths of the soul.

What does the house bring to the sanctuary? It brings the laboratory of honest life. The house is a microcosm of the church or, as St. Augustine suggests, "a church within the church." The rubber hits the road first in the intensive group. Reports from several house-church consultations in the early ‘70s revealed that significant issues for the larger church were first felt and identified in the house groups. The pain, joy, struggle and success of the house are immediate and visible for all to see.

The house brings the material -- the substance -- for corporate confessions, thanksgivings, intercessions and petitions, especially if the groups express the full marks of the church (including ministry).

What does the sanctuary bring to the closet? It brings to bear the rich tradition of the church, which becomes food for thought. Many of the meditative phrases or sayings which I attach to the rhythms of breathing come directly out of the Scriptures (especially the Psalms) and prayers of the church. The week-after-week rote recital of the liturgy often has its greatest effect in the closet of personal struggle. How well I remember author Gert Behanna’s personal story: broken by alcohol, unfulfilled by wealth and education, and disillusioned by marriage failure, she entered an empty Episcopal church to pray. Suddenly the words of the old confessional prayer which she had "rehearsed" years earlier came rolling off her lips. The sanctuary had entered into her closet with its purging and healing power.

What does the sanctuary bring to the house? It brings the unity of the church. The congregation’s power and effectiveness are not to be found in the size of its membership alone, but in the number and efficiency of the living cells within it. These cellular groups will come and go: be born, flourish and die. But like a body where cells live and die, there are some constants. There is a bone structure on which the cells hang and interrelate. There is a central nervous system, which correlates command and response, pain and pleasure.

Let the congregation see itself as the cathedral which gathers groups for celebrations and overall coordination. The rich diversity of groups can then function’ in unity.

Some churches have created worship teams to plan the service, as an attempt to counteract one pastor "doing unto" the congregation. But who is to say that a team of ten persons will not also "do unto" the congregation -- and even more so as they add up their creative ideas? Inviting such participation is really an attempt to rope the house and drag it into the sanctuary.

In any renewal, let the sanctuary stick to its role of the public and corporate recital of the drama of grace. Then let us find ways to train sensitive lay leaders who can enable house worship. And let us also encourage and support those persons and groups that are providing spiritual direction for solitude, seeing that their efforts are vitally linked to renewal of the total worship life of the church.