Exegeting The Building

At this point, you may be thinking to yourself, So what's the big deal? Who cares if the first-century Christians did not have buildings? Or if church buildings were patterned after pagan beliefs and practices? Or if medieval Catholics based their architecture on pagan philosophy? What has that got to do with us today?

Consider this next sentence: The social location of the church meeting expresses and influences the character of the church.'' If you assume that where the church gathers is simply a matter of convenience, you are tragically mistaken. You are overlooking a basic reality of humanity. Every building we encounter elicits a response from us. By its interior and exterior, it explicitly shows us what the church is and how it functions.

To put it in the words of Henri Lefebvre, "Space is never empty; it always embodies a meaning."'" This principle is also expressed in

Ibid., 129, 133, 134. Some churches have built-in baptistries behind the pulpit and choir. In the Catholic tradition, candles were not commonly placed on the altar table until the eleventh century (Jungmann, Early Liturgy, 133). White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 120, 125, 129, 141.

As 1. G. Davies says, "The question of church building is inseparable from the question of the church and of its function in the modern world" (Secular Use of Church Buildings, 208). ■ Leonard Sweet, "Church Architecture for the 21st Century," Your Church, March/April 1999, 10. In this article, Sweet tries to envision postmodern church buildings that break out of the old mold of architecture, which promotes passivity. (ronically, Sweet writes from the old paradigm of viewing church buildings as sacred spaces. He writes, "Of course, you are not just putting up a building when you build a church; you are constructing sacred space." This sort of thinking runs quite deep.

the architectural motto "form follows function." The form of the building reflects its particular function.'"

The social setting of a church's meeting place is a good index of that church's understanding of God's purpose for His body. A church's location teaches us how to meet. It teaches us what is important and what is not. And it teaches us what is acceptable to say to each other and what is not.

We learn these lessons from the setting in which we gather— whether it be a church edifice or a private home. These lessons are by no means neutral. Go into any given church building and exegete the architecture. Ask yourself what objects are higher and which are lower. Ask yourself what is at the front and what is at the back. Ask yourself in what ways it might be possible to "adjust" the direction of the meeting on the spur of the moment. Ask yourself how easy or hard it would be for a church member to speak where he is seated so that all may see and hear him.

If you look at the church building setting and ask yourself these questions (and others like them), you will understand why the contemporary church has the character it does. If you ask the same set of questions about a living room, you will get a very different set of answers. You will understand why being a church in a house setting (as were the early Christians) has the character it does.

The church's social location is a crucial factor in church life. It cannot be assumed as simply "an accidental truth of history.""0 Social locations can teach good and godly people very bad lessons and choke their lives together. Calling attention to the importance of the social location of the church (house or church edifice) helps us to understand the tremendous power of our social environment.

To put a finer point on it, the church building is based on the benighted idea that worship is removed from everyday life. People vary, of course, on how profoundly they emphasize this disjunction.

Senn, Christian Liturgy, 212, 604. The auditorium-styled church building turns the congregation into a passive audience while the Gothic-style scatters it through a long, narrow nave or into nooks and crannies. A quote from Gotthold Lessing (Lessing's Theological Writings).

Some groups have gone out of their way to emphasize it by insisting that worship could occur only in specific kinds of spaces designed to make you feel differently than you feel in everyday life.

The disjunction between worship and everyday life characterizes Western Christianity. Worship is seen as something detached from the whole fabric of life and packaged for group consumption. Centuries of Gothic architecture have taught us badly about what worship really is. Few people can walk into a powerful cathedral without experiencing the power of the space.

The lighting is indirect and subdued. The ceilings are high. The colors are earthy and rich. Sound travels in a specific way. All these things work together to give us a sense of awe and wonder. They are designed to manipulate the senses and create a "worshipful atmosphere."'

Some traditions add smells to the mix. But the effect is always the same: Our senses interact with our space to bring us to a particular state of the soul—a state of awe, mystery, and transcendence that equals an escape from normal life.2"

We Protestants have replaced some of the grander architectural embellishments with a specific use of music intended to achieve the same end. Consequently, in Protestant circles "good" worship leaders are those who can use music to evoke what other traditions use space to evoke; specifically, a soulish sense of worshipfulness."' But this is disjointed from everyday life and is inauthentic. Jonathan Edwards rightfully pointed out that emotions are transient and cannot be used to measure one's relationship with God.2"

This disjunction between secular and spiritual is highlighted by the fact that the typical church building requires you to "process" in by walking up stairs or moving through a narthex. This adds to the sense that you are moving from everyday life to another life. Thus a transition

White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 5. White, Worldliness of Worship, 79-83.

Plato was fearful of exposing the youth to certain types of music because it might excite the wrong emotions (The Republic, 1398). White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 19.

is required. All of this flunks the Monday test. No matter how good Sunday was, Monday morning still comes to test our worship.2"

Watch a choir don their robes before the church service. They smile, laugh, and even joke. But once the service starts, they become different people. You will not often catch them smiling or laughing. This false separation of secular and sacred—this "stained-glass mystique" of Sunday morning church—flies in the face of truth and reality.

In addition, the church building is far less warm, personal, and friendly than someone's home—the organic meeting place of the early Christians.2" The church building is not designed for intimacy nor fellowship. In most church buildings, the seating consists of wooden pews bolted to the floor. The pews (or chairs) are arranged in rows, all facing toward the pulpit. The pulpit sits on an elevated platform, which is often where the clergy also sits (remnants of the Roman basilica).

This arrangement makes it nearly impossible for one worshipper to look into the face of another. Instead, it creates a sit-and-soak form of worship that turns functioning Christians into "pew potatoes." To state it differently, the architecture emphasizes fellowship between God and His people via the pastor! Yet despite these facts, we Christians still treat the building as if it is sacred.

Granted, you may object to the idea that the church building is hallowed. But (for most of us) our actions and words betray our belief. Listen to Christians speak of the church building. Listen to yourself as you speak of it. Do you ever hear it referred to as "church"? Do you ever hear it spoken of as "God's house"? The general consensus among Christians of all denominations is that "a church is essentially a place set apart for worship."2" This has been true for the last 1,700 years. Constantine is still living and breathing in our minds.

These insights owe much to Frank's friend Hal Miller.

Robert Sommer speaks of a "sociofugal space" as a place where people tend to avoid personal contact with one another. The modern church building fits Summer's description rather nicely. "Sociofugal Space," American Journal of Sociology 72 (1967): 655.

Davies, Secular Use of Church Buildings, 206.

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