A while back, I wrote a post talking about what makes great hymns great, or on a more basic level, what makes hymns hymns. Toward the end, I comment on how hymns are only a part of the sacred expression of a church, a larger phenomenon which includes the space where members meet. Here’s what I said exactly:
A church’s space has a tendency to reflect its theological priorities. The sights and sounds you experience in that space is critical for the theological education and spiritual health of the congregation within. Remembering that our expressions of and confrontations with the divine can be shared as meaningful worship art is a start. If we hang a painting or photograph in the church, or choose a certain hymn, let’s just stop and ask why. Let’s ask if the art is teaching us something, if it’s moving us toward a more full life both with our fellow worshippers and with those beyond the walls.
That’s pretty good, but it needs an adjustment: “a church’s space should reflect its theological priorities.” Recently, Faith & Form: The Interfaith Journal on Religion, Art, and Architecture announced its 2014 International Awards Program for Religious Art & Architecture. The winners for architecture are fascinating.[^1] Each one speaks to the life of the elements, draws you in and imprints on you a mood, an approach, a theology.
Take note that they are not all soaring, grand spaces. They’re not all creations of deep pockets and unlimited artistic vision. It’s important that you realize how a sacred space can be built or designed or decorated with intention no matter how large or small the space or congregation’s bank account.
But What About Gyms and Powerpoint Screens?
Gross. That’s gross. Now, let me clarify before you get mad because your church space is in fact a gym with a big projector screen up front. Remember when I told you that it was important to realize this wasn’t a conversation about money? It’s not. If you’re a startup church, and the only place you can meet is a gym, and that gym happens to have a video screen in it, I’m not saying you shouldn’t meet there. It’s just that no matter where you meet, whether its a storefront or a 2,000-seater with the paint still drying, your sacred space should be intentional. This is a conversation about intention.
Worshippers should be intentional about what elements occupy their sacred space. In a space where we invite the Divine into communion, every piece of décor—the large and visible, the small and not-so-visible—should be there only if you’re sure why it should be there. It’s also why you should think about what elements are missing from your space. Would icons communicate your theology to the congregation and those who visit your space better than no icons? Would the hazy light of the afternoon drifting in through stained glass speak more to your understanding of God than bright, open panes? Than a windowless space? Do shining whitewashed walls better speak to your church’s identity than vivid paint? A cross or a video screen front and center?
If you’re not asking these questions, you and your fellow members are missing out. Not only should we know why we meet, we should know why we meet where we meet. This isn’t trivial knowledge. Fleshing out our identity as communities of faith is wrapped up in knowing as much as we can about each aspect of our time together. Where you spend time with God seems like a big part of that shared experience, and we should treat it as such.
[^1]: See more images of the winners by visiting Religion News Service here.