Category Archives: Architecture

The Visual Focus of Worship

As a follow up on my article regarding architecture and décor, let me make a few observations regarding the visual focus of worship.  What do I mean by “visual focus”?  As someone sits in the congregation (or audience), looking at the front of your sanctuary (or auditorium), what do they see?  What is the focus of the space based on what they see with their eyes?  Without any knowledge of the purpose of your building, would be obvious from what they see that you worship Jesus Christ?  Would there be any indication of the Trinitarian aspects of our worship?

This thought came flooding into my mind recently as I walked into the sanctuary of a church and was struck by something which was very instructive.  As we find in many churches in our western world, the platform had been transformed into a stage, complete with all the trappings of modern worship – sound equipment, drum shields, monitors, and a kind of drapery that was used as a backdrop.  This kind of setup is so common in churches, that it’s often a shock to find anything different.

But what does it say?  What is the focus?  Based on what we see, the focus is on the performance aspect of the service, and is not too much different than attending a concert.  The focus is the performers.  To underscore this, the pulpit (more like a stand to hold a book or notes) was moved to the side in order to avoid blocking the main focus on the performance of the band.

To top it off, as I looked at this particular sanctuary from the back, I noted an interesting twist.  There was a Bible located to one side of the stage, down on the floor level, almost in the corner.  It was displayed in a kind of “shrine” setting and almost appeared as a museum display.

Please understand that this church probably preaches from the Bible during its services.  I am not analyzing their spoken word, I am observing the unspoken words.  What we find, in church after church, is that many do not realize the message they are sending without words.  Yet, the Bible clearly teaches that speaking without words is a vital part of our communication as we seek to share the message of Jesus Christ (see Psalm 19).

What is to be done?  Clearly, most churches never consider the visual messages they are sending – except as they prepare PPTs or printed materials to present them in a professional manner.  In other words, they are concerned with the branding and image of their church, but not with the image of Christ as portrayed visually in their sanctuary.

It would certainly be refreshing to see a church holistically think about architecture, décor and visual messaging.  However, I’m afraid the trap of modern worship does not allow for this kind of holistic thinking.

Architecture and Décor Demonstrate Worship Focus

I have written previously on this blog about the visits I have made to church buildings that show, in their architecture and décor, the message of Jesus Christ.  Many sanctuaries in cathedral style churches are actually in the shape of a cross.  Some churches have paintings, reliefs, sculptures and stained glass windows that show specific aspects of biblical stories or doctrinal truth.  For more modern structures, one might see large metal sculptures on the grounds that depict various messages, such as Christ on the cross.  In addition, modern churches often have a “flair” that lifts the eyes heavenward built into the experience of the space.

Even though some of the congregations in these churches no longer proclaim the gospel, we find that the very nature of their buildings proclaim the good news.  Having been designed in this way, we realize that the designers and architects continue to proclaim the message of Christ – even many years after the building was completed.  The fullness of allowing the lordship of Christ show in their work has made that message endure.

In contrast to this, there continues to be a disturbing trend among churches today to make their spaces as common as possible.  For the last 40+ years we see church buildings looking more like warehouses, office buildings, and large corporate facilities.  There is little in the architecture that helps the passerby know what the buildings are used for, or who resides within.

Beyond this, there are many examples of church structures that continue to look like a traditional “church” on the outside, but upon entering one might discover that every attempt has been made to remove the “churchiness” that might be represented.  Black ceilings, covered windows, stage lighting, and an obvious lack of aesthetic display of Christian truth in any way is the trend of the day.  It seems that Christians want to do all they can to not appear to be Christians.

Of course, I know all the pragmatic points that are brought into a discussion like this.  A Church must be “inviting” for the visitor.  The sanctuary must be multi-purpose room.  The budget will only support things that are “practical” and useful.  Art is a waste of money.  On and on it goes.

What this really shows, however, is a significant lack of holistic theological understanding.  It does not take long to read through the descriptions of the Tabernacle or the Temple in the Old Testament to discover God’s interest in art – for beauty and creative expression.  The very nature of the design of these worship buildings was to say something without using words!

In a Christian Worldview, we must recognize the opportunity being missed.  Our architecture and décor can proclaim Christ in ways that we just cannot do with words.  Our faith is a full faith, holistically spanning every part of life, not just a faith of words and text and ideas.  This is a faith for our eyes as well, but we would never know it when looking at many churches today.

Worship and The Legacy of the Arts

So Moses summoned Bezalel, Oholiab, and every skilled person in whose heart the Lord had placed wisdom, everyone whose heart moved him, to come to the work and do it.”  (Exodus 36:2)

It was the middle of the week, and my family stepped into the church in the midst of a busy tourist town.  As we entered the church, I found it interesting – even strikingly so – that amidst the activity and noise of the street outside, the church’s interior was quiet.  In fact, I would certainly describe it as a “sacred” quiet.  As people entered the church, they whispered to each other.  Many would find a pew and sit, listen and observe the peacefulness discovered within the walls of the sanctuary.  Calmness permeated the place and everyone seemed to know that respect and dignity were found there.

The church had been built (and apparently rebuilt several times in 170 years) in the fashion of a small cathedral.  The entire sanctuary was notably shaped as a cross.  The entry was the foot of the cross, and as you approached the altar there were two “wings” with pews that shaped the arms of the cross.  Unlike our modern buildings, cathedrals and churches of ancient times were constructed to preach the gospel without words.  We can certainly see the reflection of God’s image in this human creativity when we consider that God, Himself, also preaches without words – for Psalm 19 tells us that the “heavens declare the glory of God” even though “there is no speech, nor are there words” (vss 1-3).

But it didn’t end there.  I began to walk about the building and look closely at the stained glass windows.  There I found bold, unapologetic statements of Christian doctrine and truth.  The doctrine of the Trinity – fashioned in glass – showing the truth of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three persons, yet one God.  Reminders of God’s power as experienced by Israel in various Old Testament stories.  Images from the medieval church reminding visitors of Christ’s work, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, the uniqueness of Jesus as the God-man, the stories of the four gospel writers, St. Paul preaching at Mars Hill, Zaccheus in the tree, and on and on.  I could have spent hours there and even my kids were intrigued as I began to explain the meaning of this artwork.

Just as Bezalel and Oholiab were chosen by God to build the Tabernacle, and commissioned by Moses, so those who infused the gospel into the structure of this church were expressing their faith without words.  From the comments of a local evangelical pastor, the clergy and membership of this church hardly stood for the gospel any longer – but were social activists based upon a liberal and ecumenical religious stance and political correctness.  Acceptance of the profane and immoral were the norm – all in the name of tolerance.

Yet, here the gospel was proclaimed faithfully from years past.  Those artists had built a message that stood strong against the social ills of this age.  And I wondered whether we were doing the same for future generations.  Does the structure of what we build – buildings for worship, worship services, musical forms and expression, recordings and videos – are these things really infused with the truth of Christ like that?  Not just words or the message, but the mediums and methods themselves?  Could they see or hear our Christian convictions if the words were silenced?

We must work and pray that it might be so.  We must work toward establishing artistic expressions in all of the arts that represent Truth deeply and concretely.  We must think further, clearer and deeper as we proclaim the gospel, seek first His kingdom, and share the love of Christ with those around us.

Our Father, help us in Your grace to honor You in ALL we do.  Not just by words, but in the very structure of what we create, as those created in Your image, and reflecting the creativity of the One whose voice is heard even without words.  Amen.

Architecture: Elements of Worship Series (Part 12)

The church is losing the significance of architecture.

The observations I’ve often made about the modern church in regards to its being enamored by entertainment are often generalizations.  I certainly understand that there are examples which are outside these trends, and I am grateful for many who think biblically and theologically before diving into the latest and greatest fads.

Another instance of an entertainment mindset is the nature of modern church architecture.   This area is not one most people would consider to be an “element” of worship.  Yet, if we desire for our worship to be holistic, we must also take into account the visual nature of our world and our understanding of how to redeem the visual.

In previous centuries the architecture of the church building was a message in itself, speaking the Gospel through its presence and design, as well as its decoration.  One can visit these structures and “see” the gospel in the artistic expressions of the stained glass, or the majesty of the spires.  Although the spoken word is silent from day to day, the “seen” word is proclaimed moment by moment.  (I explained this more thoroughly in the post titled, “Music and the Arts as Tools of Evangelism.”)

Yet, modern design is utilitarian.  The prevailing philosophy is one of high technology and practical spaces.  Buildings are designed for the best theatrical lighting and sound reinforcement.  The beauty of architecture and design is often foregone in order to spend money on “really important” aspects that are practical in nature – as well as to make attendees comfortable and at ease.  A practical building is important, but why must that be at the expense of beauty and message?  These buildings, as buildings, often say nothing of themselves.  We can have a worship service or a rock concert, a spiritual awakening or a sales meeting, because the space itself says nothing of its purpose or its message.  It is plain – and practical.

What can you do, even this week, to make your worship space more visually worshipful?


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