This article looks at some architecture principles for church buildings.

Source: The Outlook, 1982. 2 pages.

Christ and Church Architecture

A church sanctuary is not "just another auditorium!" Congregations which have had to wor­ship in school gymnasiums and public auditoriums will vouch for that. But what should a Christian place of worship look like? What does the Bible have to say about church architecture?

When Moses met with the Lord on the mountain, God gave him a complete set of specifications for constructing and furnishing a suitable sanctuary. Moses was to collect free-will offerings from the peo­ple and have them make a sanctuary fit for God to "dwell in." Both the sanctuary and its furnishings were to be made, God told Moses, "exactly like the pattern I will show you."

Most important were the furnishings, especially the ark of the Testimony and the table for the bread of the Presence. The ark was to contain the tablets of stone, on which God himself had written the Ten Commandments. On the table was to be placed the bread of the Presence, recalling the presence of God in their time of need.

The tabernacle itself was important mainly to pro­tect the sanctity of these holy symbols. The outer chamber, called "the Holy Place," would contain the table for the bread, along with the lampstand. The inner chamber, called "the Most Holy Place," would contain the ark of the Testimony, along with the table for the incense. Significantly, only the priests were to enter the Holy place, and the high priest alone was to enter the Most Holy Place.

For the rest, the emphasis was on the unworthi­ness of those approaching God in worship. The courtyard was to contain a large altar for burnt of­ferings, made necessary by the awful sinfulness of the worshippers. Furthermore, their priests were to wear special garments and to be specially conse­crated before entering the tabernacle and appearing "before God."

But what does all this teach us about church archi­tecture? As the Apostle Paul would say, "Much, in every way!" Let me suggest three ways:

  1. For one thing, our church architecture should not cause us to forget who we are and who God is. Even after we have extended our best effort, we must confess that we are un­worthy servants. And no matter how close God seems to us, we must not lose sight of God's majesty and holiness.
  2. In the second place, the building itself is not the most important part of church architec­ture. Expensive buildings and impressive land­scapes often do more to call attention to the people than to their God. Besides, the purpose of the sanctuary is not the aggrandizement of God, but to provide an appropriate setting in which sinners may approach God.
  3. Finally, the furnishings are never to be considered as ends in themselves, but they should always signify the means by which we come to God. Too often, things are added to our services — and therefore to our church sanctuaries — just to satisfy the whims of the people, rather than for the worship of God.

Furthermore, note that Moses was given detailed instructions for sin offerings, washings and incense burning. These were symbolic reminders that only the pure and upright can come freely into the pres­ence of God. Sinners can approach Him only by the shedding of blood for sin, the washing of the out­ward person, and the recognition of inner unworthiness.

However, all the altars and lavers in the world can do no more than indicate our need of cleansing from sin. And all the candles and incense ever burned can do no more than point out our need for divine grace. Thus, there is something more to be taken into account when we plan our places of Chris­tian worship.

As the writer to the Hebrews points out, the Old Testament form of worship had to be set aside in favor of a better form of worship. Although Moses followed God's plan precisely, no gifts or sacrifices made under the old covenant could reconcile the people to God, and no earthly priest was, or could be, worthy to enter the heavenly sanctuary where God is ever present.

Until Jesus came! He was the only sacrifice able to atone for sin, and he is the only high priest worthy to enter the heavenly sanctuary. Therefore, the New Testament form and place of worship is not to be based on the shedding of the blood of bulls and goats, but it must be founded on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And our church sanctuaries must reflect the es­tablishment of this new covenant. For one thing, since Christ is our sure and complete sacrifice for sin, we have no need for an altar of any kind. And for another thing, since Christ is our intercessor at the throne of God, we have no need of any earthly inter­mediaries (whether priests or paraphernalia) be­tween us and God either.

What we do need are constant reminders that our salvation is by grace alone — without the deeds of the law, but leading to deeds of love. That is, we need whatever will contribute to our participation in the divinely instituted means of grace. In other words, we need those things (and only those things) which are helpful and proper in the preaching of the Word and in the use of the sacraments. This leads me to the following observations:

The preaching of the Word is primary and essential to all Christian worship. Therefore, the pulpit, which symbolizes the preaching of the Word, should be centrally and prominently located. Upon it should be placed a Bible, preferably open. And, ideally, nothing else should clutter up its visible surface.

In addition, certain things may be discre­tionally admitted in the sanctuary as aides to the preaching itself. These would include such things as lighting and amplifiers. And they could include such things as musical instruments.

The sacraments are secondary to the preaching of the Word, and they serve only as signs and seals of the Word applied to the con­gregation. Therefore, the baptismal font and communion table belong, symbolically, on the level of the people. Convention and curiosity sometimes dictate otherwise, but then aren't we in danger of detracting from the very mean­ing and purpose of the sacraments?

A special word needs to be said about what should be placed (or not placed) on the communion table. Certainly it should not be used as a flower stand. Furthermore, it should not serve as a parking place for hymnbooks, relics, and empty offering plates. Even the placing of full offering plates on the communion table is suspect because our offerings are a response to, not a means of, grace. Only the communion set (or suitable representation) belongs on it.

Beyond this, only the well-being — not necessarily the convenience — of the congregation is all that matters in church architecture. Access, space, and communication with the means of grace are all that are needed. Of course this means negotiable access (so that the elderly and disabled can get in), ade­quate space (so that children and wheelchairs can stay in), and appropriate communication (so that everybody can hear and participate in the service). But the size, shape, and splendor of the building are not very important. After all, the church sanctuary is, when used as such, supposed to be rather exclus­ively a place for the worship of God.

One final thought: the church sanctuary is where, as nowhere else on earth, the people of God do in­deed meet their Lord. Jesus himself promised, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them." Therefore, let's do all we can —also in regard to our church architec­ture — to make it truly the "house of God" for the people of God.

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