The pulpit front and center. Sunlight streaming through stained glass. Pews stretching from wall to wall with hymnals and offering envelopes tucked in the back, awaiting parishioners on a Sunday morning.

This is the traditional setup you expect to see when you walk into a church sanctuary. And it’s exactly what Zion Lutheran Church in Pittsfield, Mass., looked like—until a few years ago, when the congregation decided to set tradition on its ear.

“We chose to take our 1892 sanctuary—with its gorgeous ceiling and long strips of pine racing toward the gables; its maple flooring; large, vibrant stained-glass windows; and lovely acoustics—and make it all spectacular,” said Tim Weisman, pastor of Zion. “But if we did that, we felt we would have to use the sanctuary for more than two hours per week.”

Faced with mounting deferred-maintenance costs, zoning concerns and the necessity of making the five-story, 26,000-square-foot building compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, Weisman and the congregation bade farewell to their 46 pews and created a space to be used not only for praise and prayers but for company and community.

“Clarity came almost as an epiphany,” Weisman said. “If we are going to do something to this building—and we want to do something to this building—we have options: We can either throw money at the entire building, spend a lot of money and make it all very mediocre, or we can very thoughtfully invest in one particular thing, still spend a lot of money and make it spectacular. We chose the latter.”

The latter is what Zion parishioners and the entire Pittsfield community now have: a place to gather for more than just a Sunday sermon. The sanctuary, now called the Common Room, has hosted public concerts, theater rehearsals and farmers markets. In the room’s first year of existence, Zion has hosted 149 public, nonsectarian events and nearly 8,000 people have walked through its doors.

In a post on the ELCA Worship Blog, Weisman described an interaction with a community member who came to an indoor farmers market:

“I was asked with some amount of disbelief, ‘Wait a second—is this still a real church?’ (I replied with an emphatic yes!) But I’ll admit that there have been more than a few Sunday mornings when I’ve arrived to worship in a sanctuary that looks more exhausted than sacred. First, I gently remind myself that I don’t always look so good, either—and I remember that in our worship, our hearing of God’s word, our praying, and our singing, not only are we renewed to serve our community, but so is this Common Room. For that, I give extra thanks and praise.”

“I see this process, one that lasted years, as a one-to-one bumper car ride with the Holy Spirit. We want to go one way, and the Holy Spirit bumps us in another.”

As for the sanctuary’s traditional use, Weisman said the congregation’s response has been mostly positive—but he admits he wasn’t sure that would be the case. After all, the vision was to replace pews with removable chairs. Almost nothing in the sanctuary would be nailed down. The plan went through years of thought and meetings before becoming reality.

“I distinctly remember at least one or two committee meetings when we sat back in our chairs in stunned silence,” Weisman said. “I know that we were all scared.”

In the end, 95 percent of the congregation voted to approve funding for the $1.2 million plan, which included more than just the Common Room change. The congregation also added lighting and air conditioning, updated bathrooms, and fixed aging plaster and paint. Now it’s a matter of members getting used to the changes, even if this may take a little time.

“I think I can say that even the congregation members who aren’t particularly thrilled by this ‘get it’ now,” Weisman said. “For the congregation, the possibilities are nearly endless. There’s very little we can’t do in our space.  What’s truly magical is that, if a chair is in the way, you just have to move it. This makes all the difference.”

Weisman has seen the difference in the way his church is viewed by the congregation and community alike. He has taken calls from other pastors to talk through the changes—everything from “sanctuary chairs to capital campaigns,” he said.

Some people come to Zion just because they want to see the new space, he added. Former members who have moved away from Pittsfield are reconnecting with the church. Zion is getting more attention and recognition on social media. And it all started with a call for change, a plan and a prayer.

“In retrospect,” he said, “I see this process, one that lasted years, as a one-to-one bumper car ride with the Holy Spirit. We want to go one way, and the Holy Spirit bumps us in another. We go yet another way and the Holy Spirit bumps up against us again, over and over and over.”

Jay Saunders
Jay Saunders has more than 20 years' experience writing for television, newspapers and magazines. He is a member of Fox Point Lutheran Church in Fox Point, Wis.

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