If the Sanctuary Could Speak…

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In the sanctuary at the church where my husband and I serve as co-pastors, the back two pews have a sign on them that reads “Reserved for Families with Small Children.” These pews were set aside as an act of hospitality to families who may find themselves needing quick access to a bathroom to change a diaper or to help a potty training child make it to the toilet on time. As a mom of two young children, on the weeks when I am not preaching, I find myself sitting in the back pew with my kids.

Yesterday morning while we sat in the back, my kids quietly colored and interacted with some other kids sitting nearby. My oldest child is slowly gaining the ability to sit and listen to what is being said, and so I asked him if he would listen to the sermon and then tell me if there was anything he heard that he liked. I wanted to have a conversation with him about worship, and I thought this would be a way of setting that conversation up. Well, there were distractions galore during worship. People coughing, other kids talking, stand up, sit down, pass the communion trays. For an easily distracted child, it was definitely not an ideal environment for listening.

When the sermon was over, I asked, “Did you hear anything in the sermon that you liked or that was interesting?” His response was, “I’m sorry, Mom. I tried to listen, but I don’t really remember.” No big deal. I don’t want him to feel tremendous pressure to be more spiritual or religious than the next kid. He’s already got two parents for pastors, so normal isn’t exactly easy for him to come by. I was ready to let it go when all of a sudden he blurted out,

“With God, all things are possible.”

Say what? That wasn’t even the theme of the message. ย It hadn’t been read in the Scripture passage. We hadn’t talked about that verse recently. And then he said it again.

“With God, all things are possible.”

I looked at him and said, “That is true! With God all things really are possible.”

“Mom, I read the sign on the wall over there. It says, ‘With God, all things are possible,’ but I want to know what that means.”

“Have you ever been really scared?” I started. “And maybe you thought you couldn’t do something, but you really needed to do it?”

“Uh huh.”

“When there’s something that needs to be done, God can get it done every time. Even if it seems impossible.”

“Mom, can you give me an example from your own life? Also, what does that other sign over there mean when it says, ‘Saved by Grace?'”

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Hundreds of words spoken from the pulpit. Thousands of words uttered in prayer over the weeks, months, and years my child has sat next to me in church. Countless Scripture verses read, many prayer requests lifted up, and hugs and handshakes exchanged. But the start of this particular question of spirituality and faith came from an unexpected place – the banners hanging on the wall in the sanctuary.

In this particular example, the banners contained words, but the whole conversation made me wonder about the messages we receive about God during worship from the way a sanctuary is constructed and decorated. What messages do we receive when we walk through the doorway and into this space that has been set apart for worship? What do we learn about God, about our own identities, about Jesus from the sanctuary and from the things with which we adorn the worship space?

Even though it might seem petty, I do believe it matters. The location of the pulpit communicates something about what we think happens in a sermon, and about what level of interaction or dialogue with the preacher is appropriate. The placement of the communion table communicates more about how important we think communion is than the words we say when we celebrate it together. The phrases on our banners, the pictures on our stained glass windows, ย the care we show for the woodwork, the prominence (or subtlety) of the baptismal font, the art hanging on the walls all communicate something about what we believe, and sometimes it communicates even better than our words.

In an intriguing article called “How Church Architecture Affects Lord’s Supper Practices,”ย Mark A. Torgerson makes the claim that the way our sanctuary is constructed has a direct impact on the way a church celebrates the Lord’s Supper. If the sanctuary has narrow aisles, long pews, and a table up front that is set far away from the people, it is very likely that communion will involve elders passing trays down the pews. And the act of celebrating communion in this fashion may communicate something (intended or not) about our theology of the body, of our relationship to Christ, and of what happens in communion. We may espouse a theology of union with Christ – not only personally but corporately – and unintentionally communicate through our actions that the Christian life is a solitary endeavor with each of us doing the best we can on our own, apart from everyone else.

I’ll admit that when I first heard about a theology of architecture back in seminary, I thought it was a little inflated. Surely, it couldn’t matter that much what kind of space we worship in, right? But, time and again, I’ve experienced it myself. From the direct question my son asked about the words on the banner, to the conversations I’ve had with visitors to my church, I have come to realize that the structure and decoration of a sanctuary matters far more than we might think.

After my experience during worship yesterday, I have decided that I am going to make a point of going and sitting in the empty sanctuary. I’m going to ask questions about what kinds of messages the sanctuary is communicating (intentionally or unintentionally) by how and where things are placed. And I’m going to pray. After all, worship is nothing at all if it is not aimed at bringing glory to God.

Have you noticed anything in the sanctuary that seemed out of place theologically? Have you ever been in a situation where the architecture or design of the worship space seemed to contradict the spoken theology?

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23 thoughts on “If the Sanctuary Could Speak…

  1. Very insightful. Could we ask the same thing of our liturgies…or even the prayers we pray out loud in worship? Particularly when they are not scripted. For 34 years I’ve been wearing a Geneva robe…I dropped that robe in worship yesterday and seriously don’t think I’ll be wearing it regularly again. I do feel a little naked without it….what is that all about? There is a message behind our messages in architecture, liturgy, prayers, even vestments….is what we are subliminally saying to people really what we want? Is it what God wants? Is it what they want? And apart from ‘all that God wants’ is right thinking….how will we ever know?

    • Wow, Bill! I would love to visit with you about the decision to drop the robe! But, I definitely agree. What we do and say communicate so much. What we do not say can sometimes communicate even more loudly. How is worship constructed? Is it to be seamless with no awkward pauses? How do we respond when something doesn’t go according to plan? All important things to reflect on!

  2. April, are you guys in Dumont? If not, have you been there? I seem to recall that it was Dumont that had a neon “Jesus Saves” sign –a la a city mission – at the front. A kid would have a good time with that one. (Somewhere along the line he’d ask if the medium was the message) Bill,I stopped wearing clerics after a life-transforming worship service in the Rift Valley in Kenya. Still wear the robe, but mostly because it covers a multitude of sins, not for distancing from the congregation. I am convinced that saying some (but not all !) prayers over and over again are critical to faith development. (I know I’m rambling, but….) I recall that in some European churches, the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer are painted on the walls. Then there are the stained glass windows, that both tell a story, but also shut the world out…..

    • Yep, we are in Dumont. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m not sure about the neon sign, but I know it wasn’t too many years ago that the church got a new sign with the little green RCA logo. But wow…a big, neon sign like that surely communicates something!

      • YES….Dumont had the neon sign “Jesus Saves”….reminded me more of a beer sign than a city mission….but that could just be my warped experience! ๐Ÿ˜‰ I also chime in with the robe ‘covering a multitude of sins’…and tie stains! I dropped the robe during worship yesterday during the children’s sermon on the 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 with the theme “When the Gospel Looks Goofy!” It may not be my most orthodox moment but it would definitely preach!

  3. I do believe our architecture conveys so very much . . . and we are stuck with so much of it. The fact the Calvin argued for celebrating the Supper as often as the Word is preached shows that he understood that we learn as much through the visual and the tactile as through the verbal. We each have to find ways to use the architecture we have been given to convey the message that we are God’s family around God’s table.

    I still where my alb on Sundays (Genevan gown only for special occasions) and my collar, though I do other things to remove distance, because they serve as a reminder–to them, maybe, but certainly to me–that this is not about me. I am there playing a role; I am there as an emissary of Christ, standing behind the Table (not behind the pulpit most of the time) on behalf of the host. Maybe, in that sense, I am distanced from the congregation some, but that is the reality of the office to which I am called. Whenever we say “Oh, but we’re really all the same,” that is true in one sense, but, in another, profound, theological sense, it is a lie. So I wear my robe to say “I am here on behalf of Christ because God loves you,” and I try my best to live among my flock saying “I love you, too.”

    • James, so true! I do not wear a robe, but that is simply because I do not even have one. Not for a theological reason. ๐Ÿ™‚ The way our sanctuary is built, the pulpit is several steps higher than the congregation. It is long and narrow, so there is quite a bit of physical separation between the congregation and the preacher. I try to strike a balance…during singing of hymns, I sit in the pew and face the projector screen just like everyone else…but I still go up the steps to the pulpit to preach. I have no idea how noticed any of those choices are, but I’m trying to strike a balance. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. We sat in the back with other families when we first started attending our church which–unbeknownst to us–had only within that year begun having children in worship regularly. About a year in, we moved to the second pew on the pulpit side. Now the first two pews on the pulpit side are filled with 5 families with kids age 6 months to 11 years, mostly 4-7, all people who came after the witch to kids in worship had already happened. –Wendy

  5. I think Washington Reformed has a neon “Jesus Saves” sign…at least I think I remember seeing it when we visited once. You’ll have to ask Jack and Sandy R. ~Robyn

  6. April, how fabulous that your son is paying such close attention to the banners! Most churches I’ve been to lately don’t have banners anymore.

    The sanctuary DOES communicate! I’ve been to churches that seem more like storage rooms, with stacks of chairs in the back – that communicates a rushed and temporary atmosphere. I’ve been to churches with sweeping ceilings that draw your eye up (so that we’ll know where God is?) and some that have a beautiful, peaceful atmosphere, which invited me into a worshipful frame of mind. Visited one that was more like a coffee shop, which was fine except that there wasn’t anything to bring my attention to God (no cross, nothing resembling the Lord’s Table, etc.) It felt more like “open mic” night than church.

    I also visited one church which had completely cleared the chancel area and the table, pulpit, candles and organ were all kind of squished together in front of it. It was very strange, and hard to see what was what. I asked someone why it was like that, and they said that they’d cleared the “stage” for the children’s Christmas play…3 years ago!…and just never bothered to put anything back. All that communicated to me was that the church didn’t care about anything. (I didn’t feel the need to go back.)

  7. I also served a church with back pews reserved for families with small children. I doubt if this was done primarily for the convenience of those families. I suspect this corrals little ones in an area that keeps them from distracting other worshipers. But perhaps I should be more generous. As a Christian educator, I do remember research that would confirm how observant these little ones are and how much they are learning, as you have described. That awareness would also suggest that, because of this, they should be invited to sit with their families in the front rows where they can actually see and hear what is happening. In one children’s message, I asked the kids if they would like to take a photo of how the church looked from where they were sitting and/or tell me about that. When we all thought about what they saw, mostly the backs of heads and people’s bottoms and legs whenever we were standing, we opted to remove our reserved signs. Afterward we got descriptions of baptism, of the table, and questions about the music, pulpit, etc. I think it’s significant to ask ourselves if our decisions value their faith development as much as we value our own worship experience and how those decisions reflect our Lord’s perspective on seating and inclusion in his parables and encounters.

    • Oh, I so agree! We’re slowly working our way there. We’ve got a children’s lesson every week, attempts at including children in worship, teaching opportunities, etc. It’s by no means perfect, and I know that my easily distracted self always sat in the front row in seminary so that I stood a chance at paying attention!

  8. Your son’s experience on the banners was fascinating, I remember staring at banners for, what seemed like, hours as a kid in church. I totally agree that the space affect how we understand God, and the community we are in. Nadia Bolz-Weber is fond of remarking that many churches reserve 1/3 to half the space in the sanctuary for 1 or 2 “special” people (pastor or other leaders).

    Being a high church Lutheran (we do albs, stoles and even chasubles), I am interested in the architecture of communion. An ongoing issue for us is moving from an altar against the wall to a free standing table. When the altar is against the wall it means the presider leads the communion liturgy with his or her back to the people. The free standing table means the presider can face the congregation while leading the Eucharistic prayer. The shift is one of God being visually in the cross or altar or up in the ceiling of the chancel, to God being present visually at the table and in the midst of the people.

    I think our space says a lot about how we see God. Do large, high ceiling sanctuaries with stain glass make God seem big and powerful, make us feel reverent and small? Do smaller sanctuaries make God is closer and more intimate? Always important questions to ask.

    Thanks for this post!

    • Erik – wow! That would be quite a shift from the presider having his/her back to the people to facing the congregation. I imagine that the first time the change is made it would be quite noticeable to all! ๐Ÿ™‚ I will have to mull over Nadia Bolz-Weber’s comment…what a fascinating idea! And, I suspect very true. I wonder what that communicates…

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  9. This is precisely why I was annoyed by a banner in a particular church that said, “A place to belong”. They didn’t really live that out. Well, you belonged, as long as you were the kind of people they wanted. And I find myself always “reading” sanctuaries too. I blame that on Theology and Worship. So much of that class went over my head (junior year), but that I remember. But I guess as a PK, I was always reading sanctuaries to some degree, even if I wasn’t processing consciously what they were saying.

  10. As I’ve thought of this I’m wondering how much a sanctuary says is subjective…affected by events that led to arrival in the sanctuary…whether at home or on the road….even in the parking lot. I’ve wondered why we say/think the most “un-Christian” things on the way to the central core celebration of our week!? How can we impact the subliminal….how much responsibility is upon the believer to offer their baggage at the beginning of worship so that it doesn’t impact how we hear the Word, how we encounter the Word, how we reflect the Word? Perhaps this really is a 2 way street!

  11. Pingback: If the Sanctuary Could Speak - Guest Post | At the Table with April Fiet

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