A View from the Pew: Worship Wars’ Next Battlefront—the Thermostat

Pew_smIf your church is anything like mine, there’s a battle being fought this time of year that impacts the quality of worship more than the music, length of the sermon, or the translation of the Bible used.

Of course, I’m talking about air conditioning.

By the time summer drags into the Dog Days, how to set the thermostat is the most pressing weekly conflict in the life of the church. The more hot-natured congregants desire an arctic blast while the cold-natured layer on clothes typically reserved for winter.

Age plays a role as well, both in terms of the buildings and the members. Churches with aging buildings struggle to keep air conditioning units functioning. Churches with aging members have to compensate for cold rooms with throw blankets and shawls.

There are undeniable and unavoidable truths when gathering people for worship. As shallow as it sounds, comfort is high on the list of things a church must get right. Like padding on pews, air conditioning allows worshippers to focus on the presence of God and making an appropriate offering of heart-felt worship. It affects every aspect of the service.

If the sanctuary is too hot, hymns for which the congregation stands seem too long. Squirming children seem too distracting. Lights seem too bright. Sermons seems too harsh.

Failing to adequate cool the space does more than turn up the heat on sinners in need of repentance. It replaces the members’ thoughts of the divine with preoccupation of time and temperature.

The old adage “you can’t please all the people all of the time” is no truer than when applied to church air conditioning. Although the perspective of this monthly commentary comes from the laity, it needs to be said that often it’s the pastor, musicians, or worship leaders who suffer when the sanctuary is too hot.

They are physically exerting, sometimes in robes, under the glare of bright lights. The sanctuary can get too cold for the members who are sitting still because the temperature is set to keep the ministers from passing out. The philosophy in most churches is that it’s better to err on the side of too cold. Members can always add clothes, but when it’s hot, there are limits to what can be removed to experience comfort.

Temperature is a tough balance to figure out, particularly when you factor in the noise the AC units make. Our chapel-sized worship center can sound like the tarmac at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport when the units kick in during a particularly sensitive part of the service.

I distinctly remember one Sunday when our pastor was introducing the discipline of silence. Before leading the congregation in prayer, we sat without a spoken word or musical note for only 60 seconds, proving how restless and distracted we are with constant stimulation.

About 35 seconds in, the reverie was broken by the rumble of the AC unit, which came to life shaking the rafters and rattling the windows. It took all the discipline I could muster to stay in the moment.

The financial impacts of air conditioning are also enormous. It costs a lot of money to cool the buildings, and the units are often running long before they are occupied. It is often the responsibility of a building manager or a dedicated volunteer to arrive early in the summer to make sure the air is on in time to cool the building down before the people arrive.

And how many deacons’ meetings have included a diatribe because the youth minister left the AC on after the lock in. I have known some lay leaders to literally count the hours the air conditioning is running as a part of the annual budget calculation.

So why do we complicate our church life over the temperature of our air? Human nature.

Some of the darkest days of my lay leadership in a church came about a dozen years ago when I was chairman of deacons at a church in central Georgia that lost its main sanctuary AC unit in late July. Because of the location of the unit and layout of the highly prized landscaping, it took until October before the appropriate committees could agree to cut down a tree and replace the unit.

Our solution to the AC problem at first was to relocate to the chapel, emphasizing each week how “close” we were becoming as a church body. But when a baby dedication brought us all back into the sanctuary in August, only a sermon on the negative consequences in the afterlife could take advantage of that sweltering service.

That experience taught me that basic human comfort was necessary for Americans to be able to participate in worship. I say “Americans” because we’ve all heard missionary tales of people in tropical climates traveling for hours or days over mountains and through jungles to attend a service in a thatched-roof building jammed to the rafters with eager worshipers enduring sweatbox conditions.

Yes, the Spirit can move in such situations, but in the southern United States in August, your church better have a good air conditioner.

Lance Wallace_for_webLance Wallace is a Baptist layperson who works as Director of Communications for the Georgia Tech Research Institute. He previously served as Director of Communications with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Lance blogs at newsouthessays.com.

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