Letter 12: The Architecture of Worship

appealing-church-interior-design-ideas-is-modern-church-interior-design-with-bright-white-themed-1306x979Getting back to worship, much ink has been spilled over the past twenty years or so about worship, particularly worship style. While the debate has been fierce, I believe that nearly everyone involved was missing the point. What should worship be about really should be the first question. Sadly, that question is usually resolved in an unstated assumption, which prevents us from having any meaningful opportunity to determine the validity of each defense.

Church architecture offers three different model of what the church has done over the years. There may be others, but these are the three I’m most familiar with. Whether we are aware of it, how our church is laid out says much about what we believe worship to be about, often more than any formal written statement.

What I’ll call the catholic model, places the altar at the center, where the Host is sacrificed at each Mass. The altar is usually flanked by a lectern and a pulpit, various candle stands, and, if applicable, statues or illustrations of saints. The Eucharist is the focal point of the service. It links directly with the Temple worship of the Old Testament, as the focus is on the sacrifice. By partaking, we receive God and have our sins atoned for. I use the name “catholic” as it is used in the Creed, as this approach typifies both Orthodox and Catholic churches, as well as some Lutheran and Anglican churches.

The Reformed model is typical of most Protestant churches. The pulpit is front and center, with the Lord’s Table behind, and, in Baptist churches, the baptismal tank, either before or behind. While the overall focus is on receiving God in His several forms, Word and Sacrament, the Word is foremost. Communion may not be held every week, but the Word must be preached at all times and places. Indeed, in its most severe forms, think colonial Congregational churches, the physical setting is devoid of any ornament or embellishment other than the pulpit. Nothing will detract or distract from the Word.

“Worship” models are a much more recent development. The dominating feature is usually the projection screen where the song lyrics, Bible verses, message outlines, and videos are shown. Everything else is built around this. The focus is on worship as an experience. There will usually be open space at the front where people may dance or be prayed for. The pulpit is usually off to the side, and quite minimal. The worship team will also be very prominent, due to the amount of real estate they occupy. There may or may not be a small table at the back.

Each model has its own internal structure, designed to bring the worshipper to its intended point. The structure of the first two is very similar. There is a call to worship, followed by some congregational singing, followed by some readings and a congregational prayer that can serve to highlight news of the congregation. Here they diverge. In the catholic model, the priest offers a brief message, which leads to the celebration of the Eucharist, which follows its own pattern of confession, institution, distribution, consumption, and conclusion. In the Protestant model, there may be a prayer of confession placed at some point the service. There follows the sermon, which will consume the better part of the service. Both will conclude with a hymn and a benediction.

The worship model starts with an extended time of worship, and can last from fifteen to forty-five minutes. There is no break between the songs, as worshippers are expected to enter into the experience as it builds. This is followed by a time of testimony, and maybe a prayer. The preacher then gives a message, where Scripture may be read, and is followed by more worship and ministry time, where congregants come to the front for prayer. There is generally no confession.

Each of these models seeks to worship God, God of course, but they want you to come away with very different things. Under the catholic model, the central act of worship is tangibly receiving God through the Host of the Eucharist. The focus is entirely sensory and tactile. The Protestant model wants you to hear and receive the Word of God, with the expectation that you will respond to it. Worship is to engage the ears and the mind. The worship model seeks to leave worshippers with an experience that resides largely in the emotions.

These, then, are the way in which we seek to worship God. In the entries to come, I want to begin to develop and outline of worship, to supplement, and correct these models.

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