The Theology of Physical Space–From the Church Architect’s Desk
We went pretty deep on the theology of space with Skye Jethani and Kimberly Deckel on this week's ChurchPulse podcast, "The Strengths and Weaknesses of American Church Traditions, Worship and Physical Gatherings." It’s a challenge to broach a topic as controversial and personal as theology when you’re talking to such a broad audience, but I think a lot of what Skye and Kimberly had to say is really important for all churches to think about: if theology is about our understanding of God, what is the theological importance of physical church spaces?
As a leader in my own congregation, I’m faced with this question: what do our people experience about God through gathering in a physical church building?
A lot of the conversation in this week’s podcast was about how a church building shapes the congregation. After David started with a statistic—that 78 percent of churchgoers say experiencing God in a church service is very important to them—Skye asked a question that is central to what we want to explore in this research project we’re doing with Barna: what do people experience about God through gathering in a physical church building?
Skye pushed back on what a church building should be about, especially in a digital age where content is easily disseminated and consumed across the internet and our various personal devices. So what do people come to a physical worship service for? How are Sunday services in a church building forming people for worship and service through the rest of the week? What about being part of a church can we not possibly, as Skye said, disincarnate?
We’re at the doorstep of researching this question—stay tuned for more!
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What does your "building language" communicate about your church?
Another big question we want to explore in our research is what non-churchgoers experience when they walk into a church building. Skye again broached this with his question about the implicit and explicit messages of a church: is there congruence with how your church feels and what your church preaches? We talk about this a lot at Aspen in terms of a building language. What does your church communicate to people when they walk in the first time? Do you display a cross to show that Christ is central to your communion? Do you feature a beautiful and welcoming food pantry at the front of the lobby so people know that serving “the least of these, my brothers” is a chief concern? Do you feature beautiful artwork to remind people that God is a generous Creator who cares about our physical work and bodies?
Put another way: if you believe that God is a generous Creator who cares about our physical work and bodies, how do you celebrate or reflect that in your building? If Christ is central to gathering, how do you use physical artifacts or architecture to encourage people to remember that? If serving the least of these is a priority, do you promote that through your physical space?
"As a leader in my own congregation, I’m faced with this question: 'what do our people experience about God through gathering in a physical church building?'" –Derek DeGroot, VP of Design & Integrated Services, Aspen Group
Is it too "showy" to emphasize physical space?
The church, like anyone, can easily slip into a habit of prioritizing what we show at the expense of cultivating our hearts and interior relationship with God. But when you consider that part of catechizing people—training them as disciples and followers of Jesus—requires engaging our physical bodies, are you taking every opportunity to reflect what’s important?
Or think of it another way: would you ever choose, out of fear that you would just be putting on a show, to hide the demonstrations of your spiritual practice—praying, reading your bible, going to church weekly—from your children whom you want to raise in the faith? No! You know that your children learn by watching and imitating. In fact, so do our congregations. What’s more dangerous is to neglect intentionality about what we demonstrate. Lack of congruence between our explicit and implicit message will confuse people and thwart our purposes.
It was great to have Kimberly join, coming from a denomination that uses a lot of physical objects and actions in the course of their worship. She talked about shaping the structure of the service so that our congregation is “steeped in the word and the sacrament,” so that people are not dependent on a pastor to spiritually feed them. How can you use your church building to point to Christ as the center of the service, rather than a worship team or pastor? How is your church space and worship structured to invite participation, rather than spectatorship?
Finally, Kimberly said two critical things that I want to reinforce: first, she talked about what a privilege it is to have screens, to even have buildings in the first place that we are able to make decisions about. And second, she talked about the importance of our physical bodies in worship and involving our imaginations. This is a good reminder, there are still many churches in America that don’t have financial resources to execute a large renovation or building project, or even buy their own building.
How can you use your church building to point to Christ as the center of the service, rather than a worship team or pastor? How is your church space and worship structured to invite participation, rather than spectatorship?
A robust theology of space doesn’t exclude those churches from utilizing space in a way that visibly and tangibly puts Christ at the center of the worship service. We can imagine diverse and creative ways to engage our physical bodies in worship: kneeling, clapping, raising hands, making the sign of the cross, waving palm fronds on Palm Sunday, featuring spiritual artwork created by congregation members, constructing a cross to feature at the center of the stage—these are all ways people have used through the centuries and across cultures to recognize the holiness and goodness of God in our physical bodies and spaces. Celebrating God in our bodies and buildings is a critical part of forming disciples, but it doesn’t have to break the bank or exclude under-resourced communities.
As I mentioned, this is a conversation we’re looking forward to expanding and exploring further in a new research project we’re doing with Barna Group about Making Space for Formation. I hope it will be a blessing to your congregation as we consider how to draw closer to Christ in our physical bodies and spaces.
About Derek DeGroot
Derek DeGroot is Vice President of Design and Integrated Services for Aspen Group. After graduating from University of Illinois-Chicago’s architecture program, Derek began his career in residential design. At the same time, his church was embarking on a building project. Derek quickly realized that churches needed to find a better way to build. Soon after, he discovered and joined Aspen Group in 2007.