What Is Your Worship Space Saying? – Part I

posted by Baker Galloway

Before we get into a discussion specific to worship spaces we can first of all say that every building tells a story. Or rather, a number of stories. There is the story that the designer intended and there is the story of the priorities, culture and resources of the original owner of the building. There is a story to tell about the decade in which the building was built, and then there are myriads of subjective stories that visitors and passers-by will perceive over the lifespan of the building when they encounter it – bringing their personal memories and associations with them. How a building tells each of these stories is the intrigue of architecture nerds (myself included of course), but just like a video advertisement, a built structure affects our senses and engages our intellect on various subconscious levels that we instinctively react to, whether we know how it was technically created or not. 

“What are the values and priorities of the group of people who have chosen to associate themselves with this building; and how am I going to relate to them?”

First Impressions

Probably the first and most universal questions we ask of a building (be it a home, office, retail location, government building, etc.) on the subconscious level aim at preparing ourselves to meet [or avoid] the people inside. Our first impression of a building, like a book's cover, does actually prepare us for who and what we will meet inside the doors. What are the values/priorities of the group of people who have chosen to associate themselves with this building; and how am I going to relate to them? Are the people here snooty and too rich for my blood? Are they too homey and irreverent? Are they too liberal or too conservative for me? Am I going to be dressed down / up compared to the other folks here? A lot goes into first impressions and they can be hard to shake. But eventually we get to know a place and the people in it better. We will have time to sit in the empty room waiting, or in conversation, or watching a presentation of some sort. Gradually we form our understanding of the place.

The Church Walls Speak

“As we believe, so we worship; 
as we worship, so we design the space for it.”

This same subconscious formation of first impressions also applies to houses of worship. It is a worthwhile endeavor to look at a house of worship and question what stories are being told by the building itself? If there is permanent liturgical art, what are the narratives invoked by it? If the space strikes you as beautiful, why, and in what way? If the building is rather unremarkable, why wasn't greater care taken? What else may have been more important than making the worship space as beautiful as possible? Your impressions of the place will undoubtedly be shaped by your personal history of associations/references, and by your contact with the people who call the space home. But the subjectivity of the narrative shouldn't scare us away from both asking and daring to answer hard questions. First, on the more profound level, let's begin by asking...

What, if anything, does this worship space tell me about:

  • who I am? (what is my worth, my purpose/calling, my condition)
  • who God is? (familiar or holy, dynamic or unchanging, simple or intricate)
  • who am I in relation to God? (what does God think of me, want from me, want for me)

It may sound absurd to pose such questions to a building! However, the faith community that built this building most likely has clear answers to offer in response to each of the questions posed above; and the building they built is infused with clues that reinforce those answers. There is always some degree of harmony between a church's theology, worship, and architectural expression. But how would we work backwards from the architectural expression to try and discern an underlying theology or worldview? Let's look at a few practical considerations to start with...

Are the Focal Points in this worship space:

  • few or abundant, and are they well-ordered? What does this teach me about the Kingdom of God?
  • austere or exuberant? What does that say about the Christian life?
  • symbolically opaque or transparent/open in its artwork? What is the relative emphasis on education and cerebral work on the part of the viewer vs. a readily accessible emotional visceral experience?

There is a direct link between a built environment and the set of beliefs that undergird it. As we believe, so we worship; as we worship, so we design the space for it. 

Exceptions to the Rule

Of course this connection between faith and form is not always straightforward. A worship service can be held in an army barracks, a nursing home, a living room, prison or cathedral. It is also true that many churches use borrowed, rented or renovated facilities that may not align with what the congregation would choose for themselves in an ideal world. However, instances of this disconnect between style of worship and the setting for worship only underscore the fact that most worship spaces in use today were at one time built by a community that had the means to do so, willfully and with an intended purpose that aligned with their mission. (In fact, many church leaders who avow that the church building is irrelevant end up building or renting spaces just the same, and the way their congregations move into those spaces and set up camp tells a story just the same – it's just a different story.)

If you find yourself in a worship environment that clashes with the spirit and culture of the people using it, there are three possible reasons for this disharmony:

  1. There has been a significant shift in the mission of the of the church since the building was built.
  2. This congregation is using a space that was originally intended for others, or...
  3. The design team did a poor job: either providing a building that missed its objectives, or followed trends of the time in a manner that was fated to obsolesce. 

And You May Ask Yourself...

For churches that understand and embrace their building being a part of the narrative (part of the gospel message) they are preaching, it's time to ask some questions:

  • What narrative(s) do we want to engage with the facilities we own and/or plan to build?
  • Is the narrative delivered effectively?
  • Is the storytelling method authentic?
  • In spite of our intentions, what inadvertent messages are being communicated by our facilities? (author's note: you might need to ask a professional to help you with this one. Feel free to contact us.) 

In Part II of this article we will begin looking at some actual built churches to discover what stories undergird the architectural expression of each worship environment. In addition to the questions listed above, here are some more that we will be asking and that you can be asking of churches you see in the meantime:

Thoughts to Let Marinate:

  • Does this church rely primarily on technology, liturgical art, or architecture to tell its story?
  • Is this built environment designed to command my attention or rather allow space for a diversity of experiences / frames of mind?
  • Does the built environment enhance the focus of the worship service, distract from it, or is it intended to disappear altogether? 
  • When the worship service is over, does this space return to being a blank canvas or does it continue to echo the spirit of the service? 

Next Time: 

What Is Your Worship Space Saying? – Part II