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

Stop Trying to Be Something You’re Not

Quite often I’m asked the question, “how does your church do intergenerational worship?” I gather these well-intentioned folks really want to know what tools, music, service orders, etc. we employ to ensure that all generations in our church are “happy.” The truth is…you can’t DO intergenerational worship, being intergenerational is who you ARE. When a church IS intergenerational in nature, the leadership makes sure that worship services are structured with the intention of demonstrating value to all ages in the congregation. This over-arching philosophy isn’t a liturgical formula, nor is just using a blended style of music in your service. It is not a multi-generational approach to service planning where there is a little something for everyone either. It is a guiding principle upon which decisions, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, may be used to increase interaction among the generations within the church. Here are a few keys to creating an atmosphere of intergenerational behavior in worship settings for pastors and worship pastors:

*Know your people. It’s essential to know the make-up and history of the church you are serving. While you may have been hired to move things musically to another level, you’ve got to understand where your people have been. You must peruse the music library and study a few years of used congregational songs to figure out where to start. Any radical shift too soon may result in disaster. While this point may not sound like it should be included in a discussion of intergenerational behavior, remember–demonstrating value of all generations is important. To turn and “focus on a younger generation” without some education and care simply ostracizes the other generations. I’m all for investing in our next generations, but do so strategically. While your ultimate goal might be to push the envelope musically, don’t make a 180 degree turn overnight.

When I arrived at my current church, I asked lots of questions about the music and the people. I wanted to know the stories; I studied who people were and the journey that led them here. What I found out wasn’t shocking, but it was essential: our church wanted to remain family-centric and generationally diverse while being gospel centered. Basically, we want to do life together, to grow, serve, and share the love of Jesus as an intergenerational body of believers. While some of our processes (music included) have evolved, that simple idea rings ever true. This process never stops happening. As your church grows and morphs, the demographic shifts with it. Be ever-vigilant in your pursuit of knowing your people. Love them, shepherd them, and listen to them.

*Know your outside demographic. You SHOULD desire to reach your community with the gospel. You may think your music or preaching alone is going to do that, but I doubt it. What will? Ask yourself, “how excited are your current members about what God is doing in your church?” Strong morale (esprit de corps) is a powerful tool for encouraging your members to get out in the community and invite their lost friends to church.

It is also important to engage with your community at large with your physical presence as a leader. Get involved with the schools and community events as you are able. How you engage with others in the community will make a difference on your impact on the local church side.

As for the demographics within your church, you should aim to reflect the community in which you live. If not, why? I live in a fairly affluent, suburban area with a strong multi-cultural presence. There are people in our church that have lived here all their lives, but by in large, most in our area are transplants; many from all over the world. This is reflected in our area churches as well. We’ve seen more diversity over the last several years as well. This dichotomy affects who we are today, but we must be sure to be welcoming as our diversity blossoms.

Our people’s histories within the church are vast and varied. I’d say at least 60 percent of our members have been members less than 10 years, having lived somewhere else before our community. This means that a lot of our people have established preferences and specific ideas of how to do ministry. You might be surprised to find out that even with this varied experience, most newer folks have gotten on board with who we are. Yet another great reason to be sure who you are as a church. Otherwise, it might be a disaster with so many opinions. I want to say a special word about long time members…you show value to those members who’ve been here a long time is especially important because they’ve literally watched the landscape of their community change within the last twenty years. They get extra points in my book for being welcoming when their once familiar community became a popular place to live. As my pastor reminds our staff often, we’re “standing on the shoulders of their faithfulness.” Value their history and always remember the past as you look forward to the future.

*Worship music should reflect who you are. There is no magical formula for finding a ratio of modern worship songs and time-tested hymnody. It’s not possible on a global level. Gone are the days of simply using the denominational hymnal as our only source for congregational song. Should you sing lots of different music types? Yes. However, you shouldn’t “throw in” a hymn or a modern song just because you’re trying to please everyone. YOU WON’T. Stop trying to please everyone based on perceived wants. As I’ve stated before, it is more important to use songs that fit the make-up of your church. Look around you each week. Are people singing the songs you choose? If not, there’s a problem. My aim is to find a balance of choices (over time, not necessarily in one service) where most folks find something familiar. There are other obvious criteria for selection of music that have been written about numerous times, but the two most important I’ve found are: TEXT and DO-ABILITY. We never sing something that we can’t do well and we never sing something that is not textually strong.

I don’t believe it is necessary to emulate what other churches are doing around you. I don’t think it’s bad to see what they are doing and get ideas from them, but it MUST fit in your context. For instance, we are limited in our ability to do much with lighting in our worship space based on our ambient lighting. Sure, we could block all the windows and create a dark space, but our limitations stem from the fact that we value being able to see each other in corporate worship. We don’t want to create a performance venue space. This limits our ability to do some things that might be pretty neat, but it’s not who we are. We don’t make apologies for it either. We focus on what we do well and leave the rest to the other churches. There are plenty of fine churches around with FAR greater resources and space to accomplish the things that God has equipped them to do–we will be us.