There was a time when every surface, window, and piece of furniture in our church
buildings told the story of Jesus and the Gospel. Every design choice was meant to inspire
awe and reverence as well as educate. As literacy grew amongst Christians, and the Gospel leaped from the printed page to radio, then to television and now the internet, the need for our buildings to stir devotion and teach truth receded.
Many churches now rely on technology – video, internet, social media, etc. – to share the Good News and grow disciples. Music is the primary medium for emotional engagement. Few symbols other than the cross are deployed to reinforce the history of the Church. As one audio/video/lighting contractor once told me, “I’ll design the technology, you wrap a box around it.”
But as described in a previous blog, “Comprehensible, not Comfortable, Part 1,” the pendulum is swinging back from utilitarian church design to a mode that recognizes that symbols and art have value in the places where the Church meets, worships and serves. It is the difference between conveying information and inspiring people to ponder and confront a God who is both in our midst and transcendent. It does not negate the need for functionality, but rather amplifies it.
Both symbols and art can catch the attention of the seeker and convey not just information but also meaning. The Cross is the most recognizable symbol in a church building. The form of the cross often speaks to the history and tradition of a particular community of faith.
The baptistry, whether font, fountain, or pool, reinforces both the universal importance of this rite, and the diverse expression and history of this sacrament.
Other symbols like a winged lion, an eagle or keys can represent various apostles and saints. Stations of the cross are typical in Catholic churches. The icons of Orthodox traditions are yet another expression of the power of symbols to convey meaning.
It is no coincidence that faith traditions that value symbols, typically also want them to be
well-crafted and beautifully made.
The art of music is a component of almost all churches. Painting, sculpture, glasswork also have historical significance and are experiencing a revival in our church buildings. Historically art has represented specific scenes and stories in church history. Today, the exhibition of abstract art invites specific groups of un- and de-churched people to enter church grounds and view it amid other explicitly Christian symbols. Such art can also connect the church to its geographic or demographic context.
What ties them together is beauty. As Aubrey Spears, Rector of The Church of the Incarnation in Harrisonburg, Virginia says, “Beauty is the ambassador of Truth.” Beauty opens the door to transcendence and mystery. Beauty creates moments in which we, members of the body of Christ can engage the seeker. While technology can stir emotions and effectively communicate information, we need art to generate the lingering awe and reverence in which meaning is conveyed and in which truth sinks its deep roots.