Last week, I posed a discussion starter question to my church history students, one which has turned out to be a thought-provoking one for me as well. I asked them to ponder the “visual books” of Gothic cathedrals and how they represented the medieval synthesis that was so much a part of Christendom, and then to think about modern structures or spaces and what they might be communicating about our particular time and place.
The students did some good thinking, and their reflections ranged far and wide over a number of modern spaces, from movie theaters to shopping malls to church buildings to houses and skyscrapers. I was especially intrigued with their thoughts on shopping malls, because I’ve been reading the beginning of James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom, in which he talks about “cultural liturgies.” He provides a fascinating several- page description of a shopping mall, not chiefly as a functional place of commerce, but as a space that shapes our desires and evokes a religious response in us (more on this another time, I hope…I had the chance to hear him lecture the other evening, and I’ve been chewing on it since).
In our discussion of church buildings, I found several of my students confessing that they found many modern worship spaces sterile and uninviting, built primarily to spare expense and to be able to maintain multi-purpose functions. I agree with them, but I also confessed to some inner wrestling on this very subject over the years.
On the one hand, I see the practical value of meeting in spaces that are more functional and less “obvious” in their churchiness. From my perspective, this is less about making people feel at home in the “familiar” and more about reminding ourselves that the church is not primarily a building, but a community of people. When we invest oodles of money and time into maintaining a space, then we run the risk of investing less time and money in the work and joy of being the church. We also run the risk of tying ourselves so firmly to a beloved space (and space really can be beloved) that we forget how to travel light. So church buildings, even beautiful ones, can sometimes detract us from mission.
On the other hand, I see a real value in creating a space that is beautiful. When our churches invite people into a sacred space that looks different from the everyday, it can remind us all of the true beauty and holiness of God and his kingdom. Such spaces, in their very beauty and creativity, can glorify God who has made us people of creativity with a longing to worship and a longing to know the ultimate beauties of his presence and his realm. Such beauty can even help usher us into a deeper sense of his presence, becoming an incarnational aid and reminding us that God speaks through ordinary stuff, and that we are encultured people called to sing his praise and manifest his goodness in a material world.
If you have doubts about that last line, think for a minute about the church you knew first as a child. You may not remember a word that got preached from the pulpit or a program that you attended. Chances are, however, that you do have an impression of something physical that has stayed with you through the years – a window, a pew, a cross, a communion table, a candle. And no doubt you have a memory of someone in that church who loved you, taught you, prayed for you, sang with you. We remember love, and we remember physical places. And those physical places often give us some of our first understanding of who God is and what he is like, understandings that can stay with us for a lifetime.
I wonder if this is not something we see running through Scripture, a sort of tension between a worshipping people of God who “travel light” and stay on the move (the moveable, portable tabernacle) and a people of God who plant themselves solidly in one place and build something tangible to witness to his glory (the amazing temple). Clearly there is a place and time in the vision of God for both. And I’m not sure it’s as easy as saying “well, once the people entered the land, they could build” or “once the building was destroyed, it was a signal to disperse and move again.” There are God’s words to David about not needing a house built by human hands, even though he realized how much David longed to build such a space. And yet there is the fact that God did allow Solomon to build the space, and that he envisioned such a space being a place of prayer for all peoples. The lack of permanency of such a space – it gets built and destroyed, built and destroyed again – does say something to us about the finiteness of any human cultural project, no matter how grand and worthy and real. But clearly there was a time and place for the people of God to stay put and be an inviting light, a call that I think sometimes resonates with us more deeply in our modern times when so many people are transient and so many home spaces are broken.
But then (there keeps being another “on the other hand” moment…I’m starting to feel like Tevye) it strikes me with force that where we see the most detailed instructions about building and beauty come in the wilderness. It is there that we see God’s detailed instructions – right down to music, colors, decorative scheme, measurements, clothing, and candlesticks – about the beauty and majesty of the portable, moveable worship space the people were to build and carry with them as they journeyed. Maybe there is something for us to glean here? That we can build spaces that are both beautiful and inviting and yet are spaces that we can “take with us” as we mission forth? That we could even somehow build spaces that witness to the glories of a God who travels with us in the desert and disperses us to the nations?