Friday, December 19, 2008

Worship Sets and Cathedrals

There are few things that demonstrate our philosophy better than architecture. Indeed, edifices stand as the (semi)permanent physical manifestation of our thoughts. In fact, entire doctoral thesis have been written on the relationship between social psychology and architecture. This is why the changing architecture of the Christian church interests me so much. I can't help but agree with many who think about these things that our architecture reflects our philosophy. There is a drastic dichotomy between the church edifice of the middle ages and the church edifice today. The middle ages and reformation period saw large, ornate, and very very permanent structures. Originally Romanesque, the cathedrals evolved into the Gothic style, and sported macaroni unmatched in recent times. Pillars, buttresses, and stained glass were all permanent decorations that marked the cathedral. To cement all this, the stained glass usually told a story, such as the seven moments of passion in the crucifixion of Christ, or the virgin birth of Christ, etc. Sometimes, frescoes and tapestries added to this decoration.

Contrast the modern worship set. Architecturally, there is little to separate the churches of today from their surroundings: many churches would be equally at home as a civic center or very large bowling alley. And on the inside, stark stages are decorated with plants and very very plastic "worship sets". These decorations are generally changed from series to series, and usually have no story at all. Forget frescoes of The Creation of Man or stained glass of The Passion of The Christ, these worship sets have cool backgrounds that look like ripped denim covered with embroidery, splashed with gaudy (or worse, "artsy") lighting, and have cool names like "cOVER" with a subtitle scrolling on the jumbotron "the Holy Spirit's dominion".

Now don't get me wrong, I am not against worship sets, no matter that their creators often leave room for ridicule. Nor am I against cathedrals, despite their ostentatious nature. I am simply aware of the vast difference between the architecture. The fact is, modern church design and decoration is very plastic and often vapid, a stark contrast to the previous 1900 years of Christianity.

So what is my conclusion? If I had to guess, I would say that our beliefs and doctrines are far less concrete than they were in the past. We shun "permanent" decorations like stained glass because we don't know when the fads will change and we will no longer be relevant. We avoid "concrete" decorations like frescoes, because who knows when some Biblical scholar will tell as that we have been wrong for the last 2000 years, and Adam was actually a primate. And mostly we avoid lasting decoration because we want to dress up our theology in aesthetically pleasing outfits like a Jesus Action Figure. And like a Jesus Action Figure, we have to keep changing the clothes to keep up with the times. The baggy sweater and leggings from the 80s just aren't cool any more. Perhaps it might surprise some of us to realize that when God had to wrap the gospel up in a concrete, visual way, He chose a cross. There is nothing aesthetically pleasing about that.


billy newhouse said...

I appreciated reading this and great observations.

I do appreciate some of these smaller house churches or other churches that meet in schools which are doing a great job of faithfully preaching the Word and cultivating biblical community. Yes, there are small, "house" churches that have weak doctrine, but there are also large, ornate, beautiful church buildings that are full of dead people inside.

We should be doing everything we can to create a reverent place to meet that can help focus people's attention on God. I just hope that with the use of more permanent, reverent fixtures that we can continue to cultivate a place where people can come and be authentic.

Isn't it interesting how some people act different in the church building vs. how they act at the home?

We also are now dealing with a group of people that have had bad experiences with the a church and are anti-anything that has to do with what they grew up with. That is a whole different blog, but I've talked to people that want nothing to do with they are familiar with and much of that was in the context of a permanent, stained glass building. I think D.A. Carson said that if those people had been in a God-centered, gospel-focused, biblical church then those other things wouldn't have mattered to them - but we both now that most people with those experiences were in Gospel-light churches.

I hope I didn't deviate too far from what you were talking about. Again - great thoughts and connections. Hopefully we can help BCR be a place that is reverent in our structure (worship-set), authentic in our lives, and pointing us towards Christ.

Thanks also for keeping me sharp in my vocabulary . . . lots of good words!

Travis Cardwell said...

Great post John. It an interesting connection that you make between doctrine and archatecture. I think this could be an interesting thing to flesh out more.

Great work!


John said...

Thanks, Billy.
While I did comment on the change in Christian architecture, I did not delve into any theology of church design. I think Sproul's writings on creating space would be more helpful than my own inexperienced thoughts on the subject.

John said...

Thanks, Travis.
There is actually so much more to my observations, but blogging is like 10-year scotch in small doses.

billy newhouse said...


I like you analogy to scotch whiskey! You always seem to do well with your analogies . . . I love it.

I hope you get back to full strength.