Worship Spaces Communicate What We Value

What does your church worship space communicate to others about what’s most important in your church? Is the church set up so participation and movement of the congregation is easy or is the seating and flow limiting and restrictive? Are the baptismal, pulpits, and altar tables prominent revealing the importance of these acts of worship? In this post I’ll briefly discuss a historical journey of worship spaces from Ancient to Post-Modern time frames. When you visualize and think of your own church, what elements, or which period in worship history would you say your own church context most reflects?

Ancient Period
*Usually met in homes of well to do members and highly personal with lots of movement and no fixed seating
*A meal was served which allowed communication and fellowship
*Communion served every time

Medieval Period
*Church buildings erected. Very ornate and focused on transcendence of God. Fixed seating appears
*Priests were far from congregation so hearing/seeing was an issue
*Congregation was silent—low participation
*Priests in charge of reading the Word…low literacy of congregation. Polyphonic singing (low congregational participation).
* Communion and Baptism were the focus of worship

Reformation
*Greater emphasis on preaching of the Word
*Congregation has access to Bible after printing press invented
*Congregational song less polyphonic, which allowed for greater participation

Baroque Period
*Access to priests is increased
*Acoustics improved to hear Word easier
*Dominant theme became altar-table, pulpit, and baptismal font near the front.

Frontier/Revivalism (18th century-today)
*Focal point is pulpit or lectern
*An altar near the front (mourner’s bench)
*Highly evangelical and large emphasis on congregational singing
*Pragmatic approach to sermons rather than biblical
*Architecture that was inside was very pragmatic and utilitarian

Auditorium Style Churches of the Late 18th century to today
*Auditorium approach to hearing/seeing
*Circular in shape with excellent acoustics
*Platform raised so all could see, balconies as well
*Comfortable seats

Modern Period
*Neutral Architecture, Contemporary look, clean lines
*Cleanliness important as well as comfort for seating
*While emphasis on preaching still there, less demonstrative pulpits (maybe Plexiglas lecterns)
*Any visual art (stained glass, paintings, sculptures) serve didactic or symbolic purposes

Postmodern Churches
*Geared for movement…seating is not fixed
*Focus on community so seating arranged that way
*House Churches appear again as well as revisiting Ancient worship practices
*Candles, visuals, fabrics, lighting all used to create a holy atmosphere (immanence of Christ)
*Storytelling is used for proclamation and preaching
*Communication is through participation rather than just listening to the Word preached

It’s easy to see which period most reflects the type of church in your own context. If you’re like me, you hate that participation is limited by your worship space. In what ways can we utilize our current space to maximize participation? I leave you with a few questions that I think should guide decisions we make about our worship space:

  1. What does your room (worship space) say is important to you? What do you value?
  2. Does your room aesthetic naturally draw your congregation to the transcendence of God ( lighting, artwork, architecture, etc.)?
  3. Is your room more intimate and make the congregation feel God is near and present?
  4. Does the worship space create community among the people gathered? OR is the room engineered to make one feel like they are worshiping God alone even among a large congregation?
  5. Do the acoustics of your room promote healthy congregational singing or is the room engineered to maximize the sound for the worship leaders (specifically the instrumentalists)?
  6. What role does the seating play in how we demonstrate horizontal worship? OR is the seating placed in such a way to focus only on vertical expressions of worship?

For more detailed information and selected bibliography of sources used, check out this link:

Worship Space as Communication

Minority-Dominate Congregations are More Likely to be Intergenerational.

The other day I was rereading an article written by Michael Hawn “Singing Across the Generations: is there Hope?”and I came across this statement on page 20, “congregations that are virtually all African American or Latino most often worship together as multigenerational families.” He goes on to say that Anglo-dominated, middle-class congregations from 200-400 in attendance were more likely to offer two or three different patterns of worship (based on musical style). According to Hawn, minority-dominant congregations tend to worship intergenerationally. Hawn does not aim to explain why this data exists, but focuses on strategies for how churches can find unity in their musical worship.

I’m curious as to why. Why are Anglo-dominated congregations more likely to have multiple types of styles of services? The argument that a new, improved, more energetic contemporary service is going to bring the young families in doesn’t necessarily apply if the church isn’t an Anglo-dominated church. Many of our minority-dominated churches are thriving. The African American and Hispanic dominated congregations I’m familiar with aren’t dying…in fact they are growing! I’ve been to several Latin American churches (all intergenerational) that are THRIVING and the gospel is proclaimed and received.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking, praying, strategizing about how to bring musical elements that transcend generations into our worship context. I’m very interested how minority-dominated congregations have managed to avoid the “worship wars.” This post is not designed to find ways to bring multi-ethnic elements into a content. Anyone with Google can find hundred of articles and books on the subject. However, to begin the conversation, I want to discuss some traits I’ve found in minority-dominated churches that might give a few clues as to why these types of churches have chosen to worship intergerationally. I have a few ideas I’d like to share–all anecdotal although observed many times. As always, there are doubtless others. I’d appreciate feedback so the conversation may continue.

  1. Minority-dominated congregations are made of families that VALUE being together. Go to any Latin American country and you’ll see multiple generations living together. They value all; church is no different. Most non-Anglo cultures are ultra family-centric. The “it takes a village” mentality is evident. My observation is women in minority-dominate churches are taking care of many generations of children and raising in a “pack-mentality.” It’s not uncommon to find many Hispanic and African American grandmothers helping raise their own grandchildren.
  2. Minority-dominated congregations are not afraid of emotionally-driven, passionate times of worship. One of the reasons many Anglo-dominate churches have decided to add “contemporary” services alongside their “traditional” services has been that some feel that traditional worship is stuffy, uninspired, boring, and lacking passion. Those who find comfortable in the predictable liturgy of a traditional service find contemporary services irreverent. Minority-dominate churches just don’t have (my opinion) boring or dispassionate music. It’s always been passionate and will continue to be. Ergo, there is no need to separate services based on style.
  3. Minority-dominate churches cling to their ethnicity while embracing new.  The musical worship in these churches is rooted in who they are historically. While they aren’t afraid to embrace new styles of music, they would never create a worship service that excluded one musical style over another.
  4.  Participation comes from all generations in minority-dominate churches. Some of this is due to the size of the church. Many are small churches that need everyone to work together. However, my experience has been that even as these churches have gotten larger, (some of our largest churches in America are African- American dominated) they have not lost their intergenerational nature. All have a role in worship leadership.
  5. Choir participation in minority-dominate churches is still HIGH. I can’t think of an African-American dominate church today that doesn’t use a choir. This could be said for many other non-Anglo ethnic groups as well. While authors of the “National Congregations Study” (Chavez and Anderson 1998 and 2008) reported that choirs in churches has decreased from 72.3% in ’98 to 58% in ’08, I do not see evidence of decreased participation in minority-dominated congregations. In fact not only does it remain common, it is intentionality intergenerational (not just choirs of members with with white hair)! These churches have figured out how important a choir can still be relevant.  In fact many leaders of these churches depend on the energy that the choir brings to musical worship, an energy that cannot be replicated by any other means.

I’m positive I’ve only scratched the surface and there are always exceptions to these comments, but I can’t help but notice that it seems to me that only Anglo-dominated churches (and generally in America) think creating separate worship events which contains only one style of music and liturgy is ultimately healthy for the church. This can lead to generational separation, but more importantly, separate services also prevents the fusion of multi-ethnic musical variety. It is only through cooperation and inclusion of multiple styles that we may paint of picture of how heaven will truly be—all peoples worshiping together in many different ways, but worshiping…together

1Liturgy, 24 (3), 2009: 19-28.