The Meaning of a Place
And you shall make a veil of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. It shall be made with cherubim skillfully worked into it.
Built space is not a matter of theological or architectural neutrality. …does a building need to “look” like what it is used for? … If we are just rational beings and our greatest need is to feel good, then perhaps multipurpose [space] is fine, But if we are animated bodies—and if our being in bodies makes a difference, and perhaps, makes a huge difference, even a defining difference—then surely the space needs to be congruent with what we are trying to be and do in that space. A space needs to foster the kind of relating we hope to do in it…
Institutional Intelligence, by Gordon T. Smith
It is always interesting to reflect on the symbolism embedded into the tabernacle and the later temples. The place and building where Israel worshiped God wasn’t simply functional. They didn’t just use sand and rocks to keep it cheap. The building didn’t make anything sacred, and most of us might be tempted to call it a waste of resources. Put your millions somewhere else! But it wasn’t a waste. And at least with the tabernacle, the ornamentation was essential to the building. The tabernacle and later temple expressed not only function but beauty. They were stunningly beautiful and majestic. They were congruent with what Israel was trying to do in that space. It was God himself who planned it that way. This was the way God was to be worshiped.
In our day, we have swung to the exact opposite of the pendulum. There are two or three main things that have influenced church buildings so that the space doesn’t communicate much or so that the space communicates something other than the purpose of the church. The first is based on a book I quickly skimmed once called, ‘When Church Became Theatre.’ I’m only an armchair observer here, but I think there is something here. In the late 1800’s church buildings began to be built more like theatres (the study is by someone who went to the University of Minnesota). What is the purpose? I don’t fully know except to say that entertainment was a temptation then as it is today. Megachurch buildings all have the same plan for their sanctuaries nowadays, and they all highlight what’s happening ‘up there’ in an almost sacramental sort of way. We are merely observers of the sacred enactments on stage. Is it to our benefit? My pet peeve is with sound in modern auditoriums, and it is amazing how dead the sound is in new churches. The practical effect is that the congregation can’t hear itself addressing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord! Instead, the sound is deadened so that sound engineer can mix the sound perfectly from the sound booth, which over-accentuates what you can hear (the band), and under-accentuates what you cannot hear (the congregation). This highlights our very weird perfectionism. When my College Choir sang in the main auditorium at college, it was weird: it was made for radio, they had to amplify us. But when we sang in the smaller chapel, or perhaps in old cathedrals in Europe, no amplification was necessary. Perhaps you hear children, coffee mugs tipping over, and mistakes more clearly, but it is more real, the building allows for humans to use their voices in song in worship. This is also true of many other aspects of church buildings like, for instance, lighting. Just like the sound, churches built in a certain era in the recent past blocked all lighting to that they could control it from the light booth. How ironic it is to block out the radiance of the sun, which reminds us daily of the resurrection of our Lord, and to cast lesser lights in its place.
The second thing that has influenced church buildings I would say towards the negative is Pentecostalism. I can’t speak to the reason why, but since the advent of Pentecostalism, many of their churches met in storefronts and other non-typical church buildings. This is just as strong of a current as the entertainment styles that emerged in buildings. I would say it is possibly even more common, and I think it might be indicative of hyper-pragmatism. We’ll just use the space because it’s there. It’s cheaper to renovate a strip-mall than to build a more sacred space. Now this isn’t always the case, some Pentecostal churches are more traditional in their elements (or combine the sacred again with the entertainment issues of our day). Look up images of Angeles Temple, which has stained glass, but also has tons of sound baffles hanging from the ceiling to control the sound of the room. Others use simple buildings to be a part of the fabric of the neighborhood, to be contextualized. The point of these two comments is that we are not immune to the winds and waves of many of the currents in our society. As pure pleasure seeking and indulgence arises in these 2020’s I imagine some of our world’s values will be imprinted in the buildings we Christians build.
But we should also think about what might be a beneficial direction to move. Our church building bucked the trend of the theatrical church of the late 1800’s somehow, but what should a church’s space foster? I think we can remind ourselves what the church does when it gathers: it receives the teaching on God’s word. It gathers in a semi-public and larger than normal gathering (50, 100, 1000 etc.). It baptizes new converts and shares a communion meal regularly. We address one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs singing and making melody to the Lord in our hearts. We get equipped to go out and share the good news to the world. So a gathering space where a larger group can gather is essential. This is why churches very early on moved from meeting in homes to church buildings. Also, being able to hear the song of the church is almost essential it seems. So dead rooms are not ideal. Being able to see one another even just a little bit is excellent. A raised pulpit is great because it spatially reminds us of the importance of the proclaimed and read aloud word of God.
I appreciated some of the things my church growing up did. Maybe a lot of it is common. The pastor prayed his pastoral prayer on the ground, below the pulpit, spatially indicating I assume the fellowship of the church (even the pastorate). Most churches I’ve ever been a part of also do the same for the communion meal which is shared as brothers and sister who are one in Christ. I think the pastor also made sure that the sanctuary had windows (in both the 1991 building and the 2006 building) when many churches didn’t put windows in their sanctuaries. An Orthodox architect Ami and I once heard mentioned how protestants ideally have clear windows because the protestant church is evangelized and then goes out to share the gospel- the windows remind us to look out and not just inward.
At the end of the day, to have a building is an immense blessing no matter the form, and we acknowledge that the building is not the church itself. But as a church, we should always consider how best to build in a way that highlight the distinctive theology, mission, and work of the church. Just like the tabernacle represented the cherubim guarding the Garden in the veil, so too we should consider how to incorporate theologically true and beautiful elements into our place, even in a way that might seem wasteful to our hyper-practical selves. And we should remember that buildings and other physical things have meaning and effects. We are not disembodied spirits or nihilists: God created matter and human bodies, and so they have meaning.