When a Christian congregation wants to buy, or build, a building for worship and service, much thought and care should go into the decision. A Christian architect with a sense of history might be found to be useful.
The word architect literally means, “Chief builder.” The architect is the one who is responsible for bringing a building to completion. A Christian architect wants to build buildings for the glory of God knowing that He can be worshipped anywhere, and in any kind of facility, as Jacob worshipped the Lord on his way to Bethel.
“And Jacob went out from Beer-Sheba, and went toward Haran. 11 And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. 13 And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; 14 And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. 16 And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.” (Gen. 28:10:16)
Jacob, along with other patriarchs, recognized the concept of sacred time, and sacred spaces. When God called Moses out of the burning bush, the ground on which Moses stood was holy ground. “And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5) Sacred space is made holy by the intersection of God in a specific place.
The Old Testament saints were familiar with the omnipresence of God. “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? 8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; 10 Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.” (Psalm 138:7-10)
The saints of all ages understand that no building, and no square foot of land, can contain the omnipresence of God. God is spirit, and so must be worshiped in spirit and in truth. “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24)
Nevertheless, Christians have always had places, and land, consecrated for the Lord. In the Old Testament, a Tabernacle and then a Temple, was constructed for the Lord. In the New Testament, initially Christians had house churches, in which they broke bread. “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart.” (Acts 2:46)
The house church of Mary. “And when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying.” (Acts 12:12)
The house church of Lydia. “And they went out of the prison, and entered into the house of Lydia and when they had seen the brethren, they comforted them, and departed.” (Acts 16:40)
The house church of Aquila and Priscilla. “Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers in Christ Jesus: 4 Who have for my life laid down their own necks: unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5 Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Salute my well-beloved Epaenetus, who is the first fruits of Achaia unto Christ.” (Rom. 16:3-5) They are mentioned again by Paul. “The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.” (1 Cor. 16:19)
The house church of Philemon and Apphia. “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellow-laborer, 2 And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in thy house.” (Philemon 1, 2)
The house church of Nympha in Laodicea. “Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house.” (Col. 4:15)
Mary of Jerusalem, Lydia, Nympha, Priscilla, and Aquila, Philemon and Apphia are strong role models for generous dedication to Christ, and the faithful building up of his Church.
Sometimes, in the early days of the Church, the worship of the Lord took place in the catacombs. There were no established sanctuaries in the New Testament times. Fixed architectural structures came later. These were always subject to change. The Cathedrale Nortre-Dame de Shart, or, Shart Cathedral in Shart, France, 50 miles southwest of Paris, was among the first distinct Gothic cathedral. Such cathedrals took years to build, sometimes more than a century. Central to the sacred structures, whether the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the Temple of Solomon, or the Gothic Cathedrals, was the concept of the holy, or a sacred space.
In the Medieval Churches, the central motif that was to be communicated was the majestic holiness of God. This was done, in part, by the vaulted ceilings, and arch windows. The vaulted ceilings cause the sensory part of a person to be naturally elevated. The desire was to induce a person to focus on the transcendence of God. The novel, Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, sets forth this concept.
Often near the top of the vaulted ceilings are small windows, depicting redemptive moments in church history. Even though a person on the ground cannot always see the beauty of the glass windows, God sees them, and is pleased with the work of redemption wrought by His Son, Jesus Christ.
A typical form for the construction of the cathedral took the form of a cross. The entrance way, called the narthex (or foyer), would be dark. Then there would be side sections lying across the main body of the building, called the transept. At the front of the church was the chancel for the clergy where the preaching took place, and the sacraments were celebrated. The main body of the church was the nave.
Early on, one of the Church Fathers, Saint Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop of the 3rd century, set forth the dogma, in Latin, Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside the church there is no salvation.” Cyprian likened the Church of the New Testament to the Ark of Noah in the Old Testament. He said that just as it was necessary for anyone to survive the deluge, they had to be physically inside the Ark. In like manner, anyone who is to survive the wrath of God must be physically inside the Church. The Ark of Noah became symbolic of the Ark of the Church, and safety was found in the nave, from the Latin navis, or “ship”. The word navy comes from this word.
It is an interesting concept, except that emphasis is placed on the physical expression of the Church, at the expense of the theological truth, that any person, anywhere, who believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, is in the true ecclesia, the true called out assembly of God.
What is important to remember when considering art and buildings, is that God is seeking people to worship Him in spirit, and so a transition is needed in the hour of worship from the secular to the sacred.
When a person steps into a physical church, symbolically, they are crossing a threshold from the secular to the sacred. That is something that should be formally recognized so that worship is not done in a cavalier manner. The common must become the uncommon. The profane, meaning “out of the temple”, must be transitioned into the holy.
Following the Reformation, the architect of the Church was designed more for town meetings and political gatherings. Today, the architect of the Church has changed into a theater, or movie theater, where the focus of attention is upon the performance on the stage.
People have no sense of feeling like they are in a holy place because the structure, and the worship format, is more like a worldly theater for entertainment and enjoyment than an hour of worship of God.
This new innovative experimental building is an art form that communicates a non threatening environment for all people, and not just the saints.
Traditional, long term, conservative values are not sought to be conveyed by today’s Church buildings.
Perhaps Christians should reconsider bringing back the old ways, in regards to the significance of our Church buildings, for again, buildings are a form of art, and every art form communicates something.
“What message is your church building communicating?” “Is that the message you want to convey?” If it is, “Why?”
If Christians want our Church buildings to be God honoring, and inviting worship, then we have to be careful about the design of our sanctuaries. An important question to ask would be this. “Do you feel like you have been to Church today?”