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nondenominationalism: redefining sacred space

Formerly Washington Gladden Elementary School, Owego, NY
Formerly Washington Gladden Elementary School, Owego, NY
Robert Henrich

Pews and pulpits, altars and apses, soaring spires and inspiring bells – ask someone to describe a church and the description would most likely include these and other standard ‘church’ elements. Denominational approaches to statuary, stained glass and interior decoration may vary. But the understanding of what makes a church a church has remained essentially constant over the last several hundred years – that is, until the explosion of nondenominationalism in the 1970s.

Religion’s changing face

Estimates published by The Hartford Institute for Religion Research suggest that more than 30,000 nondenominational congregations – or about 63% of the total – have been established after 1974. With no ‘mother church’ to provide funding, many had to go in search affordable space: any space that would accommodate their numbers, but wouldn’t break their budget. In New York’s Broome/Tioga County area, buildings adopted by new congregations include two elementary schools, an archery store/range, and a photography studio. One has taken on the look and feel of a traditional church; another congregation that began meeting in the ballroom of a local motor inn has recently completed construction of a new space reflecting a modern church architectural style. The rest have not substantially changed their sanctuaries, which resemble auditoriums, with a large dais or stage as the focal point and seating consisting of comfortably-spaced rows of stacking chairs. No pulpits, no altars, no pews.

Religion’s changing space

So what defines sacred space for these new churches? What is important to the worship experience? According to Abide in the Vine Christian Fellowship Pastor Fred Hoover, it’s “music and technology,” especially for the congregation’s younger members. Services here center on a sizeable worship team of singers and musicians who lead the congregation in praise and worship singing while the songs’ lyrics and inspirational images are displayed on a large overhead screen. (Most nondenominational services Examiner has attended to date have incorporated a similar “music and technology” approach.)

Denominational Impact

And some denominational churches seem to be paying attention. In addition to their traditional worship service, Owego’s Church of the Nazarene now has a contemporary service that features a praise-and-worship music team, as well as overhead lyrics and image displays.

How does the nondenominational congregation make use of ritual? What does a ‘typical’ nondenominational service look like? Binghamton Religion & Spirituality Examiner will answer these and other questions in upcoming installments of its continuing report on nondenominationalism in the Southern Tier.


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