The Bible tells us both that God’s people can worship him anywhere and that there is something inevitable and altogether fitting and important that divine worship should be conducted in a space designed for the purpose.
Christians have often been forced to offer their worship to God in forest and glen or in the living room of someone’s home. But the importance of the embodiment of spiritual realities is a commonplace in the Bible. The sacraments are examples of that principle at work and so is sacred architecture. It is for this reason that while David worshipped God in the desert he longed to be at the sanctuary (Ps. 63; 27:4).
Even when Israel was in the wilderness, God prepared for her a mobile sanctuary, beautiful in its appointments and designed specifically for the worship he had taught his people to give him. What is more, this sanctuary, by the express teaching of Holy Scripture, was patterned after the sanctuary in heaven where Christ himself now serves (Hebrews 8:2-5). Sacred architecture, in other words, brings eternal realities into view.
Later, when Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem according to the plan that his father David had prepared (largely reproducing the design of the tabernacle) and with the resources that David had gathered for the purpose, it was his express intention to make a sanctuary worthy of the Almighty and, in that way, an appropriate setting for Israel’s worship of him (2 Chron. 2:5,9).
Interestingly, the architecture of Solomon’s temple was quite similar to that of other ancient Near Eastern sanctuaries. Archaeologists have uncovered temples from the same historical period that have virtually the same floor-plan and design as the temple in Jerusalem. In the architecture of worship, as in so many other things, God accommodated himself, to a certain extent, to the forms familiar to that culture. Christian churches reflect the architecture of their time and culture, as is right. Recognizing this fact, perhaps we now know that it was a mistake to build churches, in India for example, to resemble English parish churches more than Hindu temples.
Early Christian houses of worship, once they began to be purpose-built, also employed the architecture of the time. Larger churches were built after the pattern of the basilica, the Greco-Roman public meeting hall of a town or city, so much so that, in time, “basilica” came to be a technical term for a Christian church.
In the ancient epoch, God’s people did not worship at the central sanctuary, the tabernacle and then the temple, except occasionally. Ordinarily they worshipped in their own towns at the sanctuaries that eventually came to be known as synagogues (Lev. 23:3). “Synagogue,” which means either the assembly of the people or the building in which the assembly meets (the same double reference applies to both “temple” and “church”), reminds us that the purpose of such a building is for the assembling of the saints for worship.
In early Christianity, as was the case with Israel in the wilderness, there was no possibility of building permanent sanctuaries for worship. Ordinarily the early Christians worshipped in homes, often in the larger homes of the wealthy. But as soon as it was practicable, the church began building houses of worship and has been doing so ever since. Where the church has prospered and enjoyed the freedom to build her own sanctuaries, some of them are, the world over, among the most beautiful of all buildings and, in many cases, architectural marvels. Christians have, as Solomon in ancient times, sought to build sanctuaries worthy of their God and Savior even as they have aspired to live lives worthy of him. Even small churches are often exquisite in their simplicity. But it is obvious, as soon as one enters such a building, however grand or small, ornate or simple, that it was built for a single purpose: the worship of God. It is, in other words, intended to be a sanctuary, a temple, a house of God.
Different as church buildings are from one another, they resemble one another in the most important respects (though there are always faddish exceptions). The main area of the sanctuary is divided between the large area where the congregation sits or stands (the “nave,” from the Latin navis, meaning “ship”) and the choir (or chancel), the smaller area at the “east end” where the means of grace are represented by pulpit, table, and, usually, the baptismal font. In this way the plan of the room indicates that the congregation is gathered before the Lord, to speak to him and to listen to him.
Further, light, introduced either through windows (stained glass or otherwise) or by interior lighting, and height, especially the height of the ceiling over the nave, have been important architectural emphases, because both light and height help convey to an interested heart a sense of divine transcendence. God is both high above us and great in glory. A sense of transcendence is essential to Christian worship, which must be offered with a living sense of the majesty of the one to whom it is being given. Many Christians have had the wonderful experience of entering houses of worship and immediately being struck with these very impressions that the architecture was intended to convey.
Church architecture through the ages also conveyed, happily or unhappily, the particular convictions that ordered Christian worship in that time and place. The Reformers, for example, abhorred and so eliminated the substantial separation between people and minister, between nave and choir, that was a feature of medieval church architecture. Often they also replaced the central altar and side pulpit, common in medieval churches, with a central pulpit and a table below it. In so doing they provided an architectural expression of their understanding of the place of Word and sacrament and the relationship between them in Christian worship. In this way architecture, even as the weekly liturgy, exercises a subtle but powerful influence on the way Christians think about God, about his worship, and about their relationship to him.
Nowadays many Christians are indifferent to the architecture of worship. Sometimes this amounts to making virtue out of necessity. The soaring cost of land and building in many cities is making it impossible for any but large churches to afford to build sanctuaries. Sometimes it is a species of that contemporary but very doubtful theory that unchurched people will find themselves more comfortable and therefore more receptive to the gospel if it is preached to them in a space that seems familiar to them (theater, business park, school gymnasium, etc.).
Sometimes this indifference to the architecture of worship is a form of the contemporary evangelical gnosticism that devalues the physical in relation to the spiritual (always in only some very limited dimensions of life, to be sure), and so cares little for the embodiment of the invisible. The diminishment of the sacraments in much contemporary evangelical worship is a feature of this same thinking.
To the extent that Christians nowadays actually belittle the importance of sanctuaries I have high hopes that they will soon tire of this novelty and return to the wisdom of Holy Scripture and the Christian ages. Our natures cry out for our relationship to God to be expressed in physical forms, whether that form is kneeling to pray, or a sacrament, or the character of the room in which worship takes place. The embodiment of divine worship in manner, matter, and setting has been emphasized throughout the history of believing worship in the world and is now in heaven.
What is more, I hope the church will again realize, especially in a comparatively unchurched place like the Pacific Northwest, the importance of leaving a visible witness to God and our faith in him on the landscape of this world. Faith Presbyterian Church has, thankfully, a beautiful sanctuary, a house of God that greatly aids our worship of him on his holy day. So many of us thankfully can say to the Lord that we have “seen him in the sanctuary” (Ps. 63:2).
Footnote: The “east end” is no longer always to the east. In early Christianity it was standard practice to build churches on an east-west axis with the pulpit and table at the east end and ever since the choir or chancel of the church, in whatever direction it happens to be located, has been known as the east end.