Does Your Building Speak Louder Than Your Preaching?

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In newer churches, the nature and location of pulpit and aisles reflect our ideas about speaking and listening.

It’s possible, say theatre people, for an audience to leave a performance humming the set. It means the scenery was better than the show, or certainly more memorable. Actors know that where a story is told can influence how or whether the story is heard. It’s true whether your story comes from Shakespeare or Solomon.

The Approach

“Going to the theatre” is as much about the going as it is about the theatre. Why else would people leave the comfort of their homes and massive television screens for relative discomfort and poorer sight lines? Those who come to your building for worship have made a similar choice. Much of the work of worship leaders is to lead worshipers from a preoccupation with the everyday to a preoccupation with God.

The best-designed venues for theatre and music do something similar. They seek to move audiences from the everyday to the inspiring, physically and mentally, by moving them through a series of distinctive aural and visual environments. From a chaotic street environment, visitors typically enter a still noisy, but better organized lobby. From the lobby, they pass through a nearly echoless soundlock on the way to the main space.

The contrast is dramatic and is accompanied by changes in geometry, light level and finishes. Everything conspires to tell people something special is ahead. By the time a ticket-buyer sits, he or she is ready to give full attention to the performance.

Even without such a sequence, buildings affect audiences before the speaker opens his or her mouth. Research done for the retail industry has shown that higher ceilings cause occupants to think loftier thoughts. Neuroscientists think the built environment can facilitate healing, shape our brains and literally transform our minds. Without help from the building, the burden of preparing the audience falls more heavily to the presenter.

The Room

Architecture, because of its finite nature, necessarily articulates priorities. When choosing how to spend dollars and space, churches subtly decide what matters most. Buildings are blabbermouths. Every decision is shared publicly. Great, ornamented cathedrals share one vision of God and His people. Humble boxes stripped of decoration say something else.

In the earliest churches, the placement of every feature communicated theological truth. A screen between congregation and altar separated the sacred from the profane. Placement of the lectern, from which the gospel was read, on the north side of Catholic churches remembers days when the most visible pagans lived on that side of Rome. The imagery used to decorate the space from where the Bible was read to an illiterate audience.

In newer churches, the nature and location of pulpit and aisles reflect our ideas about speaking and listening. The desire to have everyone, including musicians, under the Word can have physical implications. The decision as to whether the lectern is oak or acrylic — or is replaced by a coffee table — preaches its own sermon to speaker and hearer, as does the lack of a pulpit altogether.

Ron Geyer My name is Ron Geyer. I’m an architect in Greenville, SC who helps churches of all stripes make smart decisions about the environments they use in ministry.

More from Ron Geyer or visit Ron at http://churchthatmoves.com/

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  • LogosAletheia

    One thing I can’t stand about many current “sanctuaries” is that they end up visually disappointing – not a box, but rather, a dark cavern with superloud sound that drowns out my own thoughts and forces me to engage in “group think” rather than enabling me to hear the still small soft voice of God speaking to my heart. Then bright lights on stage with absolute darkness in the audience area. I don’t feel I am entering a space that generates true worship and reverence towards God – just something like a rock concert venue rather than a church.

    I think that the designs of the Tabernacle/Temple in terms of colours and materials should be echoed in our sanctuaries. The sanctuary room without anything happening there should communicate “This is God’s House – Meet Him Here.” Most places don’t.

    Also this business of “entering into worship:” While some praise/worship is okay in public, I am coming to resent that worship leaders want me to publicly experience God in a way that is more appropriate in my prayer “closet” not in a public setting. I liken this to the deep things of marriage – just as it would be totally inappropriate for me to have sex with my husband in the middle of the street in broad daylight just to “experience” my relationship with him, I feel some parts of our spiritual life with God do not belong on view to the public because they are too intimate and not for public consumption. Is this public display really what worship leaders are insisting needs to be happening if I’m really “in” with God?

    Also disturbing – that musical worship time is now outstripping preaching/teaching time in the services. Indeed, sometimes the pastor/speaker won’t speak/preach if the “Spirit is moving.” We need balance here. The emphasis on the spoken word and the declaration of the gospel must never be supplanted by “worship”. Priorities need to be kept in order.