The other day I was thinking about the Old Testament practice of raising stones to worship God, give thanks, seal a covenant, or name the Presence of God on earth. Specifically, I was wondering if altar-building should function as the dominant metaphor of worship for the missional church.
Here's a sketch of what I've been thinking.
Prior to the construction of the tabernacle and eventually the temple, the worship of God in the book of Genesis wasn't tied to place. Rather, wherever an encounter with God occurred that place was made into a place of worship, usually by raising an altar of stones. These stones commemorated places where the Presence of God was recognized and named. "God was here," the stones seem to say.
For example, the story of Jacob's dream at Bethel in Genesis 28:
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “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.”The raising of a stone in the story is Jacob's way naming the Presence of God: "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." And I wonder if that model isn't something that might describe worship for the missional church.
Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar...
During the time of the tabernacle and temple God was in a specific location. Thus, to encounter the Presence of God you had to go to a specific place, eventually this was the temple in Jerusalem. God's Presence was identified with a particular and immobile location. Kind of like how Christians view the church building. God is in the church--a temple-like building--and we go there to encounter God. Obviously, for the missional church--a priesthood scattered among the nations--this view of church and worship is a problem. The temple/church model doesn't fit the experience of the missional church in the world.
But here's the deal, the temple is no more. So where are we to worship? I'm wondering if we don't go back to the pre-temple form of worship: raising altars to name the Presence of God in the world.
Of course, I'm not saying we should start piling stones on top of each other in our workplaces or at the YMCA or in the frozen produce section at Walmart. I am simply suggesting that raising stones on holy ground, wherever we find it, is a better model of missional worship than the temple/church model. In temple/church worship you have to leave the world and go to a particular place. But in altar worship God is already in the world! The gateway of heaven is just around the corner. Holy ground just might be at the YMCA.
And if this is so, worship starts to follow the pattern of Jacob. As strangers and sojourners in the world we learn to name and commemorate the Presence of God in our daily lives. In our homes, our neighborhoods, and our workplaces. We stop, perhaps even today, to declare that we are standing on holy ground:
“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”