Well-Designed Walls Make for Good Christian Worship

Spring 2005
PAGES 8, 9
[original publication]

Consider the walls of your church's worship space. Are they solid, or do they have windows? If they do, are the windows clear and simple, or do they depict biblical scenes in stained glass? Perhaps banners brighten up the vast stretches of stone. Few consider the role of the walls themselves in worship. After all, the seating arrangement often encourages your eyes to focus on the pulpit and the sacramental furniture, or perhaps an enormous pipe organ. Walls, it seems, have little, if any, impact on our worship experience.

Our worship experience does not begin with the liturgy, however, but with our entry into the worship area. The organization of the space, the play of light and dark, high or low ceilings, color schemes involving the walls and ceilings, and whatever else draws the eyes—the liturgical center, the choir loft, a pipe organ, painted or sculpted symbolism—set us up. Then, we experience the sound within, the whispered voices, music echoing throughout the chamber, perhaps the silence of meditation. Finally, the liturgy, with its unique rhythms—the prayers, songs, readings, sounds and sights of preaching and sacraments—completes the experience.

Although one could worship in an open field, the walls of the worship space enable us to focus on the rhythms of worship, for here we are wholly separated for worship alone. Not the everyday world nor nature can distract us. Walls, then, do play an important liturgical role.

The First Walls for Divine Worship

The desert tabernacle, God's earthly throne room and the focal point of Israel's liturgy, was covered with woven cloth and animal skins (Ex. 26). The primary curtain walls, and the curtain separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, were made of "finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, with cherubim worked into them" (Ex. 26:1, 31).
The tabernacle walls have a liturgical role. First, they distinguish between the common area, the courtyard, and the restricted space of the tabernacle. Second, they create unique spaces within the tabernacle: the Holy Place, where priests alone perform liturgical duties, and the Holy of Holies, into which only the high priest enters once a year. Third, the royal colors—blue, purple and scarlet—identify the tabernacle as royal space, divided into an ante chamber and the throne room. Finally, the embroidered cherubim symbolize the attendants that guard the royal space, especially entrance into the throne room (Ex. 25:17-22). Upon entry, the colors and the cherubim embroidered on the walls constantly remind the priests where they are and who they are: royal attendants. Thus these artistic elements visually encourage proper servant behavior in the presence of the Great King.

While Christian worship space itself is not in any sense sacred, God's gathered people are; they are the temple of the Spirit, royal space. The liturgy also implies that worship takes place in the presence of God. These ideas suggest that we may understand the area for Christian worship as like a throne room, the space from which the Lord declares his rule and where his subjects acknowledge his sovereignty (Rev. 4-5). If this is so, how can the walls of Christian worship space contribute to meaningful worship?

The Traditional Problem of Artistically Enhanced Walls: Images

There is, of course, a problem: the Reformed confessional tradition forbids the use of pictures and images as aids to worship. (For a brief discussion see Fred H. Klooster, Our Only Comfort, vol. 2, pp. 942-950.) Many Protestant worship areas, however, including those of the Christian Reformed Church, are anything but plain. Crosses, banners, and stained-glass windows including depictions of the incarnate Christ are everywhere. What do we do with this contradiction between belief and practice?

The prohibition focuses on a style of worship that developed over centuries, in part because of the oral nature of the culture and the lack of popular literature before Gutenberg invented the printing press. Thus the common people were encouraged to view biblical and church history depicted on the stained glass windows, or even on the outside walls. The post-Gutenberg Reformation, empowered by an advanced print culture, not only condemned these worship practices as idolatrous but also insisted on the role of the unaided Word as never before.

Worship must focus on God first of all, not on artistic devices—be they images, pictures in Sunday School papers, banners, stained-glass windows, pulpit furniture, Bibles, overhead projections of nature scenes during the offering, or clear windows that allow us to watch and perhaps "worship" nature throughout the liturgy. None of these may be worshiped, but all are open to such. Think, for example, of the imposing location and overwhelming impact of the pipe organ in some churches. Have we gone beyond the prohibition defined by our confessions?

The Contemporary Problem: Any Kind of Wall, No Symbols

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the position that images of any kind are excluded from the worship area. The second commandment is clear about making images of God, and the historical argument coming out of the Reformation points to serious concerns. Still, few Protestants today would be tempted to venerate or worship images of saints or of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Thus, contemporary arguments against images in the worship area should also focus on the present temptations to idolatry, not only those of the sixteenth century.

If medieval Christians were liturgical-ly obese, overfed by colors, smells, bells, images, processions, and a strange liturgical language, contemporary North American Christians are liturgically and symbolically underfed. Note the extreme plain style of mega-church architecture, liturgy, and design. No pulpit or sacramental furniture, but maybe basketball hoops on the wall, and always a projection screen somewhere; the worship area may look like a night club and the liturgical center like a boxing ring without the ropes.

Mega-church plain style is not the Reformation's dream come true; its goal is to avoid offending the seeker. Why? Supporters of the extreme plain style of the mega churches argue that focusing on the seeker and downplaying Christian symbolism are aids to gaining seekers for Christ. But the contemporary church may be in danger of converting the seeker and communications technology into an idolatry inconceivable to the Reformers. The danger the church faces today is not the worship of biblical images, of statues of saints and virgins, but a worship so devoid of biblical symbolism that it cannot withstand the pressure of the cultural icons. Architecturally and liturgically, the contemporary worship experience emphasizes continuity with the world and its culture, not discontinuity, as does traditional church architecture. Contemporary church builders must design the worship space in the light of these concerns—especially the walls, for they provide a fundamental physical and spiritual definition of royal space.

The Potential of Artistically Enhanced Walls

By understanding the liturgical function of the walls of worship space, the church can protect the worship area from the encroachment of contemporary culture. The walls should not be neutral for the seeker's convenience, but should remind us of God's universal rule. They should not be inviting to skeptics, but make a clear statement of the truth we all flee by nature. Physically and artistically they separate worship space from everyday "common space." That's what walls do for any space— they create unique space and focus for the activity envisioned. All who enter this unique space do so anticipating the events to come. Think of your last visit to your physician's office. Did you not leave that space affected by the experience within?

As with the cherubim-embroidered curtains of the tabernacle, the walls for Christian worship should identify the space as royal, the place where God declares his universal rule, where worshipers are secure as servants of the Great King. If an emerging congregation is using a multipurpose room for worship, this might be accomplished by adorning the walls with banners and other liturgical symbols that give the space the symbolic richness appropriate to worship. Stained-glass windows surrounding the worship space and depicting the Gospel story can also accomplish this. Banners hung on the side walls, or the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer displayed on the wall behind the pulpit create a similar effect. The bare concrete wall behind the pulpit in one small Japanese church is punctured by glass blocks in the form of a cross. Through these light shines into the darkness of the worship area and flows over the pulpit, thereby uniting light and Word and illuminating the congregation gathered within these walls.

In the ancient world, when an ambassador of a vassal kingdom entered the throne room of the king, his eyes were drawn to a sculpted panel depicting the gods' authorizing the king's rule. Narrative relief panels on the walls around him told the story of this king's prowess in war and skill in hunting ferocious animals. Turning to the throne he would see again the depiction of the gods' ordaining this king's rule, this time behind the throne. Before even a word was spoken, this envoy knew where he was, what this space was all about. The walls helped him anticipate the diplomatic experience. These walls told him of the power of the king to reward good and to punish unrighteous behavior, to protect and to sustain. They were designed to do so, to remind the servant to be loyal and to be a good neighbor to the other servants of the king.

Well-designed, artistically enhanced walls that surround the space for Christian worship can also remind Christian believers of their identity, responsibilities, and security. They will help focus our worship and our walk when we depart to serve in the common space we share with the rest of humanity.