We're making big changes. Please try out the beta site at beta.ccel.org and send us feedback. Thank you!

How Space Matters

Spring 2005
PAGES 5, 6
[original publication]

The Geography of Worship in Christ

Praise God that Christian worship doesn't have to happen in a certain type of space. The only "geography" that is ultimately necessary is whether or not we worship "in Jesus' name." When offered in Jesus' name, our worship is warmly welcomed by our Father in heaven—whether we offer it in a military base, nursing home, workplace, hospital, summer camp, child-care center, homeless shelter, or an ornate cathedral. Acts 17 records how Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and announced, "The God who made the world and everything in it ... does not live in shrines made by human hands." And for 2,000 years, that text has prophetically kept every church building committee in its place. Just as no preacher or musician can engineer a moment of divine encounter, we don't build shrines or palaces in which God can dwell.

So at the seminary, as we have welcomed a renovated worship space, we have celebrated that God's presence among us doesn't depend on a chapel. Praise God that we don't have to walk down a long hallway to enter God's presence. Praise God that we could sing a hymn with the title "God Is Here" in any room on campus. Praise God that "he is indeed not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27), that he is present and active not only in chapel, but also in staff offices, classrooms, the student center, and the library. The same is true for you, wherever you live or work.

Reading a Church Building Like a Book

It is a glaring mistake, however, to assume that this fundamental theological claim means that it doesn't matter what our church buildings or worship spaces look like.

For our worship spaces are powerfully formative. They quietly, but persistently form us in certain habits of heart, mind, and body. Anyone who moves from a home in a neighborhood where everyone has front porches to a suburb where everyone has fenced-in backyards is likely to encounter quite a change in human interaction. Architectural differences shape human encounters. The same is true at church.

On top of that, church buildings also quietly preach messages about God. It was true for the Old Testament temple, and it's true today: Every church building conveys a sense of a congregation's implicit understanding of God and God's ways with us. And just as it was for the temple, you can read your church building like a theology book.

In particular, buildings convey messages about at least these six things:f

God's being and character.

Cathedrals point us to divine transcendence. Storefront churches point to God's intimate indwelling with us in our cultural location.

The nature of piety and participation in worship.

Gothic cathedrals suggest that worship is like "the ascent of soul to God"— an idea that many Reformed theologians have worried about. Churches that look like classrooms suggest that participation in worship is fundamentally based on what we learn there. Worship spaces that look like theaters invite us to watch a presentation, and thus are in high demand among churches that specialize in presentational evangelism. Storefront churches stress that true piety cares for the needs of the homeless and poor.

The nature of the church.

Some buildings imply that the clergy are the real church, while the people watch. Others stress that there are no distinctions in the body of Christ, or distinctions only in the roles that people take in worship. Churches with adjacent cemeteries (wonderfully) point to our unity with those who have gone before us (Heb. 12:1). Worship spaces (including the space for leaders) that are accessible announce that disabled persons are not only invited, but are hoped-for participants and leaders in worship.

What is most sacramental in worship.

All Roman Catholic worship spaces are built around an altar. Traditional Presbyterian churches are built around formal pulpits. And many Pentecostal churches are built around an area for a music team. All three are reliable indicators of where that tradition thinks God is most at work in worship: Catholics I in the mass, Presbyterians in I preaching, and charismatics in ' the music.

The posture of the church toward culture.

Paul challenges us to live on the teeter totter of being in, but not of the world. Some congregations tell architects to make their church buildings as indistinguishable from other buildings as possible. Others tell architects to make the church as distinctive as possible. Each approach celebrates one-half of Paul's famous paradox, and then quietly forms its people in that view of the church.

The nature of Christian stewardship.

Some buildings in the poorest nations of the world are beautiful, Mary-like offerings of extravagance (when willingly and eagerly built by the poor). Some buildings in those same countries are testimonies of churchly oppression and extravagance (when built by the rich on the backs of the poor). The expense of a building is just as symbolically complex in wealthy countries.

Our buildings, then, convey a lot of theology. And in a world where theology books are not exactly the bestsellers at Amazon.com, this theological influence is especially significant.

So whether you worship in a high school gym or a little architectural jewel, one instructive exercise for a church council or church education session would be to discuss what theological message your worship space conveys.

Work the Weak Side

One result of your discussion could be to "work the weak side" of your space, to recalibrate the message your church conveys in order to recover a biblically-shaped balance.

At one European cathedral, the ministry staff worked to promote a coffee hour after worship to make sure that their contemplative worship tradition was balanced by lots of community interaction. Conversely, a contemporary-worship-style congregation in the southern United States added a contemplative prayer service alongside their strong suits of community fellowship and presentational evangelism.

A wealthy congregation blessed with especially beautiful space might look to help a nearby less wealthy congregation that is looking to make its space more accessible, and then use the occasion to make sure that its own space welcomes worshipers with disabilities into full participation.

A congregation that meets in a church that looks like a fortress against culture or oasis from culture might need sermons about being "in the world." A congregation that meets in a church that looks like a theater or shopping mall might need sermons about being "not of the world."

All churches with the flexibility to do so might find ways of helping musicians find space that allows them the visibility they might need to lead worship, but without the subtle implication that the music is main event, the main way to encounter God's presence (a burden that, finally, musicians shouldn't have to bear).

Grateful Obedience

As Swiss Reformed theologian Jean-Jacques von Allmen once argued, a Christian worship space is not "a theologically pretentious place, a cage for God or a coffin for God. It can only be, in humility and thanksgiving, a framework in which the Christian congregation may meet to invoke the name of its Lord and to rejoice in the signs of his real presence."

So as the seminary has pursued this renovation project our focus has been not on the building as a dwelling place for God, but as a space for grateful obedience. This is where we obey God's commands to "pray at all times," to "sing to the Lord a new song," to "preach the word in and out of season," to "not neglect meeting together" and—when a congregation meets here—to "do this in remembrance of me" and to "baptize in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." This is a place where we can joyfully obey all those biblical commands and eagerly anticipate God's blessing for doing so.

The focus in designing this space has been to enable certain activities, scripturally mandated and very, very wise for any maturing Christian.

So here we can read and then preach Scripture. At the pulpit, we can speak— from a platform just high enough for a speaker to be seen, but accessible enough so that persons with disabilities can have access to this space.

Here we can sing. And with the flexibility that will allow us to sing in the musical languages of many cultures—some with up-front leadership that allows for visual encouragement, some with leadership in the back that creates no visual distraction.

Here, with careful attention to the second commandment, we can use visual arts (whether fabric banners or fitting media illustrations), not to depict God of course, but as means for proclaiming the Word and evoking our prayer.

Here we can pray.

  • Alone on a quiet day.
  • In a group of thirty people, in an intimate circle of chairs.
  • In an assembly of three hundred during a solemn prayer service the next time we face a crisis like 9-11 or a death in the community.
  • In exuberant praise, with enough light to see the people around us.
  • In quiet confession, with enough space between pews and chairs for us to kneel

Here we can celebrate Christian marriages and gather when community members die. Here we can show hospitality to new and emerging congregations who might rent the space, and we can host conferences and retreats for weary and battle-tested pastors and church staff members.

And as we do these things, we can wait expectantly for God to work through them. That's a biblical, Reformed theology of worship—that worship is an arena of divine activity. So maybe here God will humble or encourage a professor frustrated that the morning's class didn't live up to expectations. Maybe here God will confirm a student's sense of call to ministry. Maybe God will work in the life of a preschool son or daughter who will come over from the seminary apartments for daily worship and be awed by the sound of the singing. Maybe here God will re-energize a pastor attending a continuing education conference. Or rebuke a worshiper whose public and private lives don't match up. Or prompt someone to ask a sister or brother for forgiveness.

Also, note that sometimes spaces help us envision activities we can't even imagine yet. Bricks and mortar alone can never generate revival. But buildings can help us see things in new ways—and help us imagine new possibilities. Wouldn't it be interesting if this space prompted us to restore a psalm-based spirituality, where we would commit to sing or pray all 150 psalms over the course of an academic year? Wouldn't it be interesting if it prompted us to hold a prayer service each year for the church in each of the twenty countries represented in the seminary community? Or if it prompted us to have a chapel each year focused on prayer for the particular challenges of each area of the seminary curriculum, praying for wisdom about the particular temptations and opportunities in each area?

With this space, we won't become known as a community with the most ornate chapel space, the largest pipe organ, or the glitziest technology. But what if we became known as a place where Scripture was read (and listened to) with extraordinary thoughtfulness? Or as a place with the most fervent of silences? Or with the most fervent of Korean-style prayers, with everyone speaking out loud simultaneously? Or as a place that revives the practice of kneeling for prayer or preaching on themes of the catechism? Or as a place that cultivates personal evangelism and social justice simultaneously? Or....

I, for one, can hardly wait to see what God's Spirit might lead us to become in this place, and you in yours.

Related Book Sections