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Not long ago I showed a visitor around Grand Rapids and brought him to my church. His comments about the sanctuary were intriguing; he saw the space differently than I did. I couldn't be objective, since what I have experienced there is more important than the space itself. And yet that space has shaped me, our congregation, and our worship, as all spaces do.
I have been privileged to worship with many Christians around the world who meet in very different spaces. Some aspects of those spaces were very familiar; others were strikingly different. In all of them I was privileged to join with brothers and sisters who are shaped in their faith by their worship spaces, sometimes due to influences from missionaries, sometimes due to economic or political restrictions, sometimes for distinctly cultural reasons.
I'll never forget the first time I entered a sixteenth-century Gothic cathedral; it was in Freiburg, Germany. There was so much to see! I could have spent hours meditating on the biblical stories depicted in the beautiful stained glass windows, and I was fascinated by the stone carvings. The dim interior space in the shape of a cross evoked reverence, awe, transcendence.
A week later I visited an eighteenth-century Baroque church in Ottobeuren, Germany. I was unprepared for the huge difference between the Gothic and the late Baroque style of architecture. Here bright light shone through clear glass, with paintings everywhere in brilliant color depicting all kinds of biblical and mythical scenes. This was very earthy, not transcendent at all! After Ottobeuren, I understood better the need for theological and liturgical reforms in the church that would impact architecture too.
Some reformers, including John Calvin, recommended round worship spaces, with people gathered together more closely around pulpit, font, and table, essential visual elements in the worship space. Word and table were to be at the heart of worship and not in competition with other visual elements. Calvin wanted to distinguish a church from both the rectangular lecture hall in Geneva where he preached and taught every weekday and from the large Roman Catholic spaces where Word and Altar competed with so much other visual richness.
Many recent church buildings bring people closer to each other and to the worship leaders as they gather around the Word and Table. But most often, older churches in Europe and in North America are rectangular, or cross shaped, with people sitting with their backs to each other, many far away from each other and from pulpit, font, and table. Those older spaces perpetuate the kind of worship where people are encouraged to observe more than to participate. The language of "auditorium" (rather than "sanctuary" or "worship space") and "stage" (rather than "platform") still infects our spoken language.
This past summer I worshiped in several Presbyterian and Reformed congregations in Ghana and Nigeria. Except for one church with rented space in Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria, all the other churches I visited showed basic continuity with the rectangular European Gothic model. They were large, seating three to six hundred people, with high ceilings and in the form of a cross. Many African churches reflect the spaces that the missionaries commended to them. The spaces were usually simple, with plastic chairs or wooden benches in many rows, and with little if any visual symbolism beyond pulpit and table, sometimes a font. One church in Mkar, a small rural community in Nigeria, had no electricity. The pulpit held two items: a large Bible and a flashlight so the pastor could see to read the Scriptures. The four hundred people sat very quietly to be able to hear. Another large cross-shaped church in that same small town was clearly influenced by South African architecture, from the days of missionaries from South Africa. In both churches there were high, raised pulpits along with another large table/podium where different worship leaders and elders stand to lead parts of the service.
There was usually a large space between the front row of chairs or pews and the pulpit area. In Ghana, this space was used for dancing! Everyone, young and old, danced their way to and from the offering basket in the front of the church. In Mkar, the people did not dance; the open space was used for choral groups to stand when singing anthems. Choral music was very important in all the churches I visited in Ghana and Nigeria, except for the church in Abuja, which worshiped in English, with microphones and a worship team similar to much contemporary worship in North America. They led us in mostly Western songs, with little from their own culture. In Mkar, the language was Tiv, and we sang both translated hymns the missionaries had brought as well as Tiv songs. Accompaniment was usually provided by an electronic keyboard and percussion instruments.
In Nigeria some worship spaces seat more than 500 people but are called "preaching stations" rather than churches, since the people cannot yet afford a pastor. There is a shortage of pastors for the fast-growing churches in many parts of Africa (which now sends more missionaries than it receives!). Some pastors serve several preaching stations, a difficult challenge.
Of the many different countries and cultures in Asia, South Korea has by far the most Christian churches. Neon crosses on top of red brick churches dot the entire country. Here the influence of nineteenth-century American Presbyterian church architecture is very strong. Many worship spaces feature dark wooden pews and a massive wooden pulpit and table. Choirs are given prominent space; one church I attended had different choirs for each of the multiple services on a Sunday. Since Koreans send so many missionaries around the world, some larger churches have many visitors, both for worship and for conferences. A few mega-churches have sections of pews providing headsets for simultaneous translation into a number of languages, including Chinese, English, French, German, and Russian! In contrast, churches in Japan are often very small and sometimes almost invisible to passersby. Since real estate is so expensive, churches may have a tiny bit of land and build upwards, with a sanctuary on the first or second floor, offices or meeting rooms on another floor, and perhaps a parsonage on yet another. In lieu of pew racks for hymnals and Bibles, Japanese churches often provide a small shelf behind each chair or pew for the next row of people to be able to place their hymnals and Bibles, or perhaps take notes on the sermon. The largest church I visited was in Kobe. This beautiful cube-shaped church was full of light, with new and beautiful pulpit, font, and table. Seating was in three sections so people faced each other. The acoustics were excellent, and singing was led by a tracker action pipe organ at the rear balcony. Organ music, particularly the music of Bach, is very popular in Japan.
In China, the Gang Wa Shi Christian church is one of only eight registered (government approved and monitored) churches in the city of Beijing—a city of some 11 million people. Their sanctuary, seating about five hundred, had a "split chancel," that is, two pulpits—one for Scripture and sermon, one for the liturgist. A cross was placed in the center space over a communion table decorated with flowers. A board on either side listed the Scripture and songs. Songs were led by piano and a small choir. This particular service, one of several that day, was filled to overflowing. But what really struck me was that the sanctuary held only a fraction of the people who came to worship. Many others were outdoors or in a small chapel, watching the service on closed-circuit television.
In addition to registered churches, China has thousands of house churches. I did not attend one of their services, but was privileged to meet with a number of evangelists who had gathered in Beijing for education and encouragement. I wonder whether they prepare their homes in any special way, given the fact that house churches meet secretly and illegally. Possibly not. After all, we can worship in many different kinds of spaces.
Next Sunday, take a look around your worship space. How has this space shaped your worship? Does it bring you close to the Word, uniting you with your fellow believers whom you can see? Or is it a space where observation comes more easily than participation? What kind of visual symbolism graces your sanctuary? Are pulpit, font, and table central? As you reflect on your worship space, consider ways to make it more encouraging to participate than to observe, to see as well as to hear, for you, your children, and all who come through your doors.