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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Why Does Our Church Look Like That?

What's your church like? Is it a traditional brick building, with a nave, a crossing, and an apse, and stained-glass windows casting lovely colored shadows in the changing light?

Or is it a modern, auditorium church, with individual, comfortable seats, an altar area that looks like a stage, and a sophisticated sound and video system?

Perhaps it's a church-in-the-round, in which you may be treated to a view of the pastor's back, if you arrive late? Or a storefront, with folding chairs and a hand-me-down lectern perched uneasily on a banquet table?

What's the right form for a church, anyway? (This isn't a trick question - I'm not going to pull a fast one, and say, "Oh, but the people are really the church. I'm talking about buildings.)

Jesus, of course, made occasional appearances in synagogues, but never had a church to call His own. He left Peter with that job. Most of His preaching was done under the open sky, using some kind of prominent position - if available - from which to speak. Like a hillside - witness the Sermon on the Mount.

Peter and Paul took over the organization of a formal religious body, and the establishment of doctrine (which means, basically, "how things are done"). Places of worship needed to have the form that fit the intended doctrinaire function - the members would be told Jesus' story and teachings, and they needed a place in which that could be done. Early churches were, of course, rooms in the houses of members.

The development of the traditional cruciform church was also a case of form following function, but with a twist. Early church members were probably, as a rule, literate. They could well read the Scriptures, and many could do a passable job of theological interpretation.

As Christianity spread across the Mediterranean and into Europe, the situation changed. Illiterate Christians began to outnumber the literate, and the church building had to become a teaching tool. This began with the basic fabric of the building - its first job was to give a sense of open and high space, that would draw the thoughts, emotions, and prayers of the members upward. Most buildings were small, dank, dirty, and mean, and the church building had, as much as possible, to be the antithesis of this very "earthy" daily life.

The spire had the practical function of carrying bells which announced the time for worship, but also spoke a visual language, reaching as high as possible to the sky.

Call it advertising for Heaven!

The long naves were needed to accommodate as many people as necessary (naves were typically narrow until the last hundred years or so, because spanning a wide, heavy roof was a difficult structural problem). The separation of the nave from the altar area - the business end - was achieved by a crossing, which housed side altars for directed worship, but also underscored the difference between the congregation and the clerics...indeed, the laity were generally not allowed past the crossing.

Decoration, in the form of carvings, statuary, and stained glass, was also intended to invoke the eternal, but it had a more direct role - education. They told Bible stories, in the way the Sunday-school primers used to teach children, and computer-based primers do today. Decoration had the added benefit of creating a common vision of the transcendent - people were very likely to have the same mental image summoned for the same people and events, because of the way they were taught.

(Church authorities took on a very paternalistic attitude toward their members...the Catholic expression, "the poor, simple faithful" was in common usage until quite recently.)

Now, we've returned (in most parts of the world) to a literate Body of Christ. Churches are still built to evoke soaring spiritual feelings (when the money's available, anyway), but stained-glass is now mainly decoration, and statues are few and far between.

We've traveled a long way, in the living and evolving design of our places of worship.

I think Jesus would feel at home.

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