Architecture Teaching Theology (Lessons My Mother Taught Me)

In his excellent historical examination of church worship, Robert Webber points out how the architecture of Christian worship spaces changed as the theology of worship (particularly around the eucharist) changed.

To sum up a very long argument, Webber points out that when the Eucharist was highly participatory, churches tended to meet in informal, interactive spaces, at times almost in the round. As theology of the Eucharist became more and more “elevated,” and as the Eucharist became more and more sacred and separated, worship (and the interaction with the body and blood of Christ became more and more something “that the priests did,” while the congregation observed. Architecture responded accordingly, with higher and higher altars that were more and distinct and separate from the congregation. The areas for

Amiens cathedral floorplan

Amiens cathedral floorplan

priests/“holy people” and the “normal folks” became more and more delineated. Worship threatened to become something that the congregation watched, accept for the moment that the wafer went on the tongue and the wine hit the mouth.

Nowadays, we have stages and platforms, and our worship (at least in most evangelical contexts) is really limited to “song time.” However, most worship leaders of quality do their best to get people involved, and build in times of congregational singing (the singers don’t just sing at the congregation, they sing with them).

However, a friend of mine just recently started attending a mega-church. He’s a musician, and has begun volunteering in their music ministry (needless to say, the musicians are all excellent). One day, we were talking and he remarked that while the musicians were amazing, and the church placed a high value on ministry, nobody seemed to care too much whether anyone was actually participating in worship From his perspective, the band was there to be amazing and inspiring, but there was seldom (if ever?) a call for people to actually sing.

It makes me wonder if we are going through the same “drift” that our mother (The Catholic Church) went through between the early 300s into the medieval era. I wonder if we are becoming content with worship becoming a “spectator sport” as opposed to a participatory event. (NOTE: I understand that not everyone will always participate 100%; this is more about what we, as leaders, are content to accept as normative.)

Worship need not be opposed to excellence. We can (and should) strive to be the best musicians we can be (both on Sundays and on Monday-Saturday); however, our goal, our target should not be only excellence, relevance, or sacredness. It should be participation. We are not worship performers; we are participants with the congregation.

God’s Architectural Sensibility

My family and I just got back from a vacation in London and Paris. My wife and I just celebrated 20 years of marriage, and we decided that rather than get each other gifts, we would instead do something that would involve our kids as well, and so we decided to experience these two great cities for roughly four days each.

We took in museums (The British Museum, Tate Modern, Louvre, Orsay) and historical sites (The Tower of London, Versailles), and in general just soaked up the vibe of both places by walking (a LOT) and eating as much like “the natives” as possible.

Though London and Paris are in ways utterly unique (London has much more modern architecture, to my eye), both cities also feel remarkably similar in a way.

There is a phenomenon in architecture called “Human Scale”, which says essentially that human beings have a natural sense of appropriate building and street size in relation to ourselves. If buildings are too tall and streets are too close or narrow, most of us feel hemmed in and claustrophobic. If they are too low and too far away from the sidewalk (hello, suburban America), we experience a sense of disconnectedness from our immediate environment.

When there is appropriate relationship between humans and their built environment, we feel encouraged to look in windows, to slow down, to interact with each other and the stores, businesses and restaurants around us.

Things feel right.

I think it’s that way with God.

In a couple places in the Bible, we are told that God is a “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4 and Hegrews 12), and it’s easy to understand that God is transcendant and big, and our “human scale” to Him is way out of wack.

Luckily, God understands architecture.

I think God gives us a spiritual “human scale” in two very profound ways.

First, He provided His people with things like the Ten Commandments. (By the way, the Ten Commandments make up what some of us know as “The Law”, but a better way of understanding the Commandments is to think of them as “The Instruction”; it’s actually a better translation.) Saint Paul says in Galatians that the Law was “our custodian” (3v24).

In other words, the Law—the Ten Commandments and other specific instructions from God—help us “scale down” God’s character to something that we can more easily relate to.

But God goes further.

Paul also writes in Colossians, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation” (1v15).

The most “human scale” element of God’s doing is, in fact, Jesus.

In a way, the glory and power of God is simply too much for us to bear; our humanity has no basis for understanding or coping with it.

It is way beyond human scale.

But God—in His great grace and mercy—remakes the spiritual architecture of the universe so that we can better relate to Him.

The temptations are still there: open up the spaces too wide (with no appropriate “confinement”) and we become disconnected to our environment, to the world in which we live and move. Our spirituality becomes abstract and centered around “getting to Heaven” when we die. Shrink the spaces too much and we become focused on “following the rules” and performing for God while ignoring the heart transformation that He offers us.

But when you get it right—when the Human Scale is appropriate—it feels great. You are connected to the environment, and your spiritual life is vitally connected to the world around you. You are in community, relating to the world around you as God works in you and shapes your heart.

Like walking down the Champs Elysses or The Strand.