A number of years ago I was in a Lutheran church building near my hometown in Alberta, Canada. I was distracted for part of the service because there were banners everywhere with the same three letters on them, but I couldn’t figure out what the letters stood for. The banners were over the pulpit, over the communion table, over the altar railings, etc. I asked a few people about it, but no one else knew what they meant. At that point I thought, what’s the purpose of symbolism if no one understands it?
My passion for symbolism has been a growing one. On a personal level, I love ”symbolically” decorating our home according to the seasons, and when my husband and I exchange gifts, they are often small, meaningful things that are somehow symbolic of our relationship or connected to a certain experience or special memory together. But I also love to contemplate symbolism on a bigger scale, especially when it comes to churches and worship services.
A turning point for me was one year on a field trip for our World Religions class at Bible School, where we attended a Messianic Jewish synagogue in Calgary. I’m not sure if I have ever seen a worship service so alive and full of rich symbolism, expressed in banners, flags, prayer shawls, and rituals (one of which included honoring the Word of God by removing a huge Torah scroll from its box on stage – more like the ark of the covenant – and the leaders, in a processional, marching with it through the seats in the congregation). After participating in this service (and after the pastor explained a few things to our class), I thought, “wow, I’ve been missing out on so much!”
I left with a new perspective. Does it really matter what our church building looks like? Well, yes. What’s up with stained glass? Or crosses? Does it make a difference where we choose to put the baptismal tank and communion table, or where the worship team stands.? Yes, yes, and yes.
The church that I had been attending with my family for a number of years prior was a Baptist church in my hometown. Just before high school we embarked on a new building project, but I didn’t care much about it at the time and therefore wasn’t involved on the building committee or in giving input into the process. We ended up with a building that would seat twice as many people as our previous building but have no higher costs because of the structure. Economically seen, a good plan. But it wasn’t necessarily the most visually appealing:
Picture from FBC Homepage
In perhaps the opposite extreme, on my first trip to England I walked into this cathedral and was automatically filled with a sense of awe and reverence:
I have also, though, been to Africa and worshiped in a church that was a cold stone building with dirt floor, because that’s all they could afford. There, worship took place just as much, or perhaps moreso, than I have experienced it before in big, fancy buildings.
These experiences sparked my interest in looking more into the topic of architecture, and so I decided to devote one of my research papers at Bible School to focusing on the way we design and utilize worship space. The issue of economics and whether buildings are actually necessary or not is a huge topic that I intentionally chose not to focus much on, because it can be kind of abstract. Sure, we can talk about how we should sacrifice ourselves and our money and help the poor, but how many congregations in the West would actually forego a building plan for the sake of donating to some third-world charity? Church buildings are a reality – and a necessity. So with the assumption that we will use a physical place to worship, I looked at biblical, historical, and current examples of what that space could and should look like.
And the exciting news? I have now adapted that paper and turned it into an e-book, which is available for download when you subscribe to my blog by clicking HERE.
My main goal while writing was to raise awareness of the concept of architecture and space being able to speak. For instance, churches whose facilities are also used by the broader community throughout the week may intentionally choose to incorporate a gym or cafe or conference rooms. Other congregations may lean toward the church being a sacred space, set apart from the world, and therefore choose a design that reflects the beauty and holiness and otherness of God.
In my e-book I cover these sorts of topics, as well as the following:
- Does space matter to God?
- Who is the church building for?
- Is being lavish a waste of resources?
- How does our place of worship reflect our view of God?
Not all of us are architects, nor do we need to be. But I think there are practical things that each of us can do to raise this issue in our local congregations, and work together with our pastors to learn about the meaning of certain structures that are already in place. We all serve in various ministry contexts, and perhaps we can begin to make intentional decisions about the set-up, design, and decoration of our buildings, and help shape the space so we can better enter into communal worship.
What do you think? Have you ever been distracted by something during a worship service, or been drawn deeper into worship by a physical ”prop”? If you could change one thing about the church building your congregation currently meets in, what would it be? Share in the comments below!
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