Exodus 40:1–11, 16
“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘On the first day of the first month you shall erect the tabernacle of the tent of meeting. And you shall put in it the ark of the testimony, and you shall screen the ark with the veil. And you shall bring in the table and arrange it, and you shall bring in the lampstand and set up its lamps. And you shall put the golden altar for incense before the ark of the testimony, and set up the screen for the door of the tabernacle. You shall set the altar of burnt offering before the door of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, and place the basin between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it. And you shall set up the court all around, and hang up the screen for the gate of the court.’
“‘Then you shall take the anointing oil and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it, and consecrate it and all its furniture, so that it may become holy. You shall also anoint the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and consecrate the altar, so that the altar may become most holy. You shall also anoint the basin and its stand, and consecrate it’…This Moses did; according to all that the LORD commanded him, so he did.”
I heard a story recently about a family whose GPS had taken them into the parking lot of a business park surrounded by non-descript, low-lying angular steel and glass buildings. Their young daughter looked around and asked, “Daddy, why are there so many churches around here?” Since her experience thus far had been in a church that looked like an office building, she thought such architecture distinguished churches. Eventually that little girl will discover that those other buildings are not churches and that her church just looks like any other office building or shopping center or big-box store for that matter. Then she could also conclude that her church has built its building with the same rationale as any business would—to keep overhead costs down and maximize profits on a mission to provide something that people just come to consume.
There are numerous explanations for why church architecture has fallen to such a low state, but I think the primary explanation is that we have been infected with Platonic philosophy which taught that only spiritual things matter and material things are to be despised. So the more minimalistic the building is, the more spiritual it is.
Experts identify six characteristics of classical sacred architecture. See if these six elements are not reflected in our church.
1. Verticality: Recognized height internally in ceilings and externally through steeples or spires. Height communicates heroism, liberation and grandeur. A steeple forces one to look heavenward.
2. Light and shadow: Windows and ample lighting conveys the brightness of the gospel and appropriate shadowing represents the mystery of God.
3. Craft, durability, material particularity: Quality, craftsmanship and appropriateness relate the glory of God and the integrity of his word.
4. Geometry: The rational relationship between vertical and horizontal lines represents what architects call the axis mundi—the intersection of the transcendence of God with the immanence of his presence with his people.
5. Artistic unity: Something is beautiful when it is obviously so, when to take anything away from its composition would be to lessen it. Modernist productions usually require lots of explanation for why one should consider the composition “beautiful.”
6. Hierarchy: Obvious elevation of some parts of the structure or furniture over others to convey their importance, like the pulpit for example.
Thomas Merton mentions how important a church building was in his coming to Christ. After his mother died, his artist father traveled the world with young Thomas. At one point they lived in the small French town of St. Antonin. The old, grey church standing in the middle of town captured Merton’s attention:
Here, everywhere I went, I was forced, by the disposition of everything around me, to be always at least virtually conscious of the church. Every street pointed more or less inward to the center of the town, to the church. Every view of the town, from the exterior hills, centered upon the long grey building with its high spire…
The whole landscape, unified by the church and its heavenward spire, seemed to say: this is the meaning of all created things: we have been made for no other purpose than that men may use us in raising themselves to God, and in proclaiming the glory of God…
Oh, what a thing it is, to live in a place that is so constructed that you are forced, in spite of yourself, to be at least a virtual contemplative! Where all day long your eyes must turn, again and again, to the House that hides the Sacramental Christ!
I did not even know who Christ was, that he was God… I thought churches were simply places where people got together and sang a few hymns. And yet now I tell you, you who are now what I once was, unbelievers, it is that Sacrament, and that alone, the Christ living in our midst…it is he alone who holds our world together, and keeps us all from being poured headlong and immediately into the pit of our eternal destruction.
I believe it was a healthy theology of place that explains why a church which has an average age of 34 loves its organ so well. We embrace it as a critical part of our “architectural witness.” It is a very useful instrument for creating thinness. The organ sometimes represents a transcendently holy God who plasters us to the back of our seats. At other times it swallows us with in the arms of a heavenly Father. The instrument together with excellent acoustics combine to fill up this sacred space with the presence of God.
A church building should convey to our embodied selves, “God is great, lovely, and does all things well.”