Walls do Talk
Upon returning to the United States on furlough, a missionary family from Africa was provided a home by their host church. It was much larger than the space they had occupied overseas. As much as the children enjoyed the extra room, the mother lamented that she had lost her family.The sense of connection they had shared in their small, admittedly inconvenient, house in Africa was quickly lost in the larger American home. Eventually the family returned to Africa and reestablished that sense of connection.
When it comes to designing, securing, and using space, many church leaders are motivated by practicality—how many people can fit inside? As good as this intention may be, we must go beyond that. Ultimately we must ask what space will help us have the greatest gospel impact—not just quantitatively (how many people can we accommodate?) but also qualitatively (how is this space forming people spiritually?).
In recent years many congregations have opted for worship spaces that resemble shopping malls. They have neutralized sacred space to avoid intimidating unchurched people. Abandoning stained glass, baptisteries, and Communion tables, they have sought to make people comfortable with familiar theater-like settings. A desire to contextualize the gospel within the local culture is a good thing, but it can cause people to assume the church is a commercial venture.
I wonder—are we thinking as intentionally about the design of our ministry spaces as retailers are about the way they design their stores?
I ask my students to make observations about the use of space at clothing stores they visit. Two design elements are frequently reported: lots of mirrors and no clocks.
This is no accident. Store designers use the space to communicate to and influence shoppers. They want consumers not to worry about time or other responsibilities and to be self-focused. The values of a store are communicated by the design of its space. There is intentionality.
What values does your ministry facility communicate? Are they values you intend to communicate?
What's your theology of space?
We must think beyond the seating capacity of our buildings and start considering how our spaces are forming, reinforcing, and even transforming the values of those who enter them. Space, like language, is a medium of communication, and we serve a God who cares greatly about communicating with his world.
Space matters to God. John's Gospel says, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (Jn. 1:14). Translated more literally, Jesus "tabernacled" among us. John is saying that Jesus surpasses the Old Testament tabernacle and Temple as the ultimate dwelling place of God in space.
Later, in Revelation 21:3, we see the eschatological vision where God finally lives with his people, fulfilling a promise from the Old Testament. "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.'" (Also see Lev. 26:11-12 and Ezek. 37:26-28.).