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. 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?”
“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?'”
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, 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,” 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?