Locker rooms are quite the topic of conversation lately thanks to some comments caught on tape by Donald Trump in one several years ago. I am not addressing what passes for politics in our country, though. I am addressing the church. A couple of times in the last two weeks, I have heard the church, particularly the weekly Eucharistic celebration, referred to with a locker room analogy. I understand the basic idea of this metaphor — to prompt us to action outside the church — but it is a harmful metaphor.
First, it expresses a very low-church or non-sacramental view of what is occurring on Sunday. It reduces Sunday service to a sanctified pep-talk, which, honestly, is pretty much all it is at many churches. Too many services are nothing more than a pep rally for vaguely Christian living.
Our worship is to be more than that. Emotions are not the central focus. The liturgy can be intensely emotional, but it is not designed to “create a mood.” Our worship focuses on the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of the Eucharist. These are acts with inherent value, not just preparation for something else.
Second, the locker room image is not appealing. I’ve been in many locker rooms in my life and none are places I would choose to hang out in on a free day. They serve a purpose, but they are not inviting. They are not inspiring. A locker room is just an expanded communal bathroom. In our travels, my family has spent a fair amount of time in cathedrals and churches, but we haven’t visited one locker room. A well-designed church is a pleasure in its own right, which is why many are tourist attractions in Europe. There is beauty and majesty and a sense of transcendence present in the sacred space.
As we approach a sanctuary in worship, we are reminded of God’s presence. Our worship space is patterned after the temple, which, according to God, is patterned after his throne room. We are rehearsing for our eternal worship of God. Our worship, and the place it occurs, should inspire us to consider heaven.
Third, nothing central to a game happens in a locker room. Yes, players get dressed and may hear some words of inspiration or chastisement there. Some strategy is discussed. They clean up afterward to go home. But the game — the point of the whole thing — takes place on the field or the court. Our Eucharistic celebration is a central part of our faith. Yes, we also have responsibilities to the poor, those in prison, widows, and orphans, but if we only focused on worshiping God, we would be honoring him. Someone who only hangs out in a locker room is creepy.
If we must use athletic imagery for the church, the sacristy or vesting room would be the locker room and the sanctuary, the playing area, but that image makes worship passive for too many of those present. We gather to worship, not to observe it. Social action is important, but it is not the primary duty of the church or the believer. Worship is. Prayer is. We do other things as they flow from these. Some are called to do nothing but worship and pray. That is a high calling and while we may not all share it, we can all learn from it.
To call a church a locker room is to be out of balance. It is to elevate the second commandment above the first. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves, but unless that love is inspired by, given by, and spoken through loving the Lord our God with all of our heart, mind, and strength, we are just making noise.