21st February 2019
This is the second of a three-part series, based on the argument of my new book, Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship. This section focuses on the challenge to be more “eucharistic” in our worship.
Architecture tells you a lot about what people value. A century ago, when the street I live on was being built, architects were carefully separating kitchens from dining rooms with walls and doors, so that domestic work could happen in an environment designed for it, without being seen or obstructed by guests or children or even men, and the spaces where people were received (“reception rooms”) could be as pleasant and uncluttered as possible. For the last two decades, builders on the same street have been knocking those walls down to create larger kitchens, so that all of life can happen in one place: children’s play, food preparation, the welcoming of guests, the serving of meals, audio-visual entertainment, maybe even paid work. The floor plans in my street reflect changes in society as a whole. We separate work and play, domestic and social, men and women, less than we used to; we also regard family meals, in which everyone sits down together without any distractions, as less important than our grandparents did. We can celebrate those developments or we can lament them, but they are there for all to see in the way we design our buildings. Architecture reveals priorities.
So it is with church buildings. Show me your architecture, and I’ll show you your theology. Admittedly, some of the differences between church buildings across the centuries are merely a matter of technology (the availability or not of electric lighting, projector screens, amplification, heating, and so on). But most of them reflect—and then reinforce—theological priorities. High vaulted ceilings communicate grandeur. Stained glass windows with gospel scenes assume the legitimacy and importance of teaching through visual images. Crypts and graveyards communicate something about the memory of the faithful departed. Chancels, steps, and screens indicate a separation between the people and the priesthood. Bells, pews, soft chairs, kneelers, towers, coffee lounges, lecterns, video screens, spires, vestries, breastfeeding rooms, lighting rigs, organs—all of these embody assumptions about what the church is and how it functions. If a church has a cross-shaped layout or has the children’s ministry in a separate wing or sits on top of a hill or faces east, it speaks to us. The very stones cry out.
Most striking of all is whatever is central. In all worship spaces, there is one central spot that our eyes are naturally drawn to as we enter the building. In an Orthodox church building, this might be the icon of Christos Pantokrator. In a Roman Catholic one, it would probably be the altar, where the Mass is celebrated. (In yet another sign of how layout communicates theology, the Protestant Reformers turned the “altar,” which implies we are offering a sacrifice to God, into a “table,” which makes it clear that God is offering a meal to us. Tweaking the furniture can have profound significance.) In many Presbyterian and Baptist sanctuaries it is the pulpit, where the Word of God is preached. In contemporary evangelical buildings, whether they are purpose-built warehouses, chapels, school halls, or theatres, our eye is usually drawn to the stage, on which you can see a band of musicians and, behind them, a screen. The centerpiece of a church’s architecture usually reflects the centerpiece of its worship: singing, Communion, the preaching of the gospel, or whatever it may be.
So you can tell a lot about a church’s theology and practice by simply standing in their building with your eyes open. In many worship spaces, for instance, one of the first architectural features you encounter on your way in is a baptismal font. You cannot find your seat without walking past it. So every time you come to worship with God’s people, you face a small but insistent physical reminder that you have been baptized (or, of course, that you have not been baptized). As soon as you have walked past it, you head down the nave—the chairs, or pews, are on either side—toward the large table that will later be used to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. So in the very mundane act of entering the building and finding a seat, you walk unthinkingly between font and table, baptism and Communion. The message from the architecture is clear: sacraments are central to the Christian life around here.
Now consider a different experience. You enter the church building and see no physical features whatsoever that would suggest the sacraments exist. There is no font, no baptism pool, no altar, and no table. If and when baptism happens, it happens in a nearby swimming pool. If and when the Eucharist happens, collapsible tables appear at the back, or in the aisles. In such a context, the message from the architecture is equally clear: sacraments are occasional intrusions into our normal patterns of worship. They are like a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.
My point is not to recommend reshuffling our worship spaces, although in many cases that might not be a bad thing. Many New Testament churches met in homes and baptized people in rivers, and Jesus is present in the breaking of bread whether the table we use is made of oak, plastic, or nothing at all. My point is that the layout of our buildings reflects, and over time reinforces, our approach to the sacraments. What we find space for, we will usually find time for. And lots of us, including most charismatics and many of those in garden variety evangelical churches, have less space and less time for the sacraments than Christians have typically had for twenty centuries. In other words: we are not as eucharistic as we could be.
You can find out more at spiritandsacrament.com.
Andrew Wilson is the Teaching Pastor at King's and is responsible for much of the preaching and teaching. Andrew has a PhD in theology, has written numerous books and regularly blogs at thinktheology.co.uk.
Posted by Andrew Wilson
Steve Tibbert leads King’s Church London, with sites in Catford, Downham and Lee. Over the past fifteen years the church has seen continued growth, both in size and diversity. Steve is also involved in Newfrontiers and regularly coaches other lead elders. His book, Good to Grow, was published in July 2011. He is married to Deb, and they have three sons.