“The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” (Luke 4:20)
* * *
Rather than meditate on the story told in today’s text, I’d like to riff on this one sentence and think about the spaces in which we meet to worship. This sentence communicates well the purpose for the rooms in which we gather for worship as Christians:
They should be designed so that they fix our eyes on Jesus.
I am a traditionalist when it comes to the sanctuary. In my opinion, it should be a different kind of space than any other we encounter in our daily lives. It should be a space designed to communicate Christ. That’s the bottom line.
Saying that does not commit us to any particular level of “artsyness” or “churchiness” — I have seen gymnasiums transformed into spaces that encouraged a focus on Christ, and I have seen elaborate sanctuaries that did not. However, what is unacceptable is the sentiment that it doesn’t matter where we meet or how we set up the place of worship. Sure, Paul and Silas could worship in a jail in Philippi, but they didn’t have any say in their surroundings. We usually do, and if we do we ought to make sure they direct our attention to Jesus.
In my Lutheran tradition, this means that the sanctuary should draw our attention to a few important things that emphasize the central truths of our faith:
- The Altar. By placing this symbol front and center, we show what (or better, Who) is at the heart of our faith. God is really present with us through Christ in worship and gives us sacramental grace. We direct our attention to him right there at the front and center of the room and offer him our prayers and praises. From him there we receive grace through his gifts of bread and wine. There we present our offerings. From there we hear his words of forgiveness and benediction.
- The Pulpit. By placing this piece of furniture prominently in the front, the Word of God’s grace in Christ, the Gospel, stays before our eyes as well as our ears. I am in favor of substantial pulpits, not merely lecterns on a stage provided for a speaker’s convenience. Jesus the Living Word is proclaimed to us through the life-giving Word of the Gospel from God’s written Word the Bible. We do not come to hear a motivational speaker or rhetorician, but one who holds forth the Word of Life. For this reason, I also think preachers should be robed, so as not to draw attention to themselves, but to present themselves “in uniform” as those who represent the King and his Kingdom.
- The Font. The font should always be visible and prominent in the sanctuary. Worshipers should pass it either when entering the nave (the place of the congregation) or when approaching the chancel (the place of the altar). This is a visible reminder that we can come into God’s presence to worship only because we have been washed clean through baptism, having died with Christ and having been raised to walk in new life (Hebrews 10:22, Romans 6:1-4).
- The Cross. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified…” (1Cor. 1:22). The sanctuary should have a cross that is prominent and visible to all worshipers, for our focus when we gather should be on the One who loved us and gave himself for us. Churches for the past generation have done away with crosses and other religious symbols, and in my view they have thus communicated that their gatherings are more about signs of power or the teaching of wisdom than about a crucified Savior. We must instead be relentlessly insistent about this: our sanctuaries should express that our services are about the Jesus who died for us that we might have life.
As much as possible, the sanctuary should be a place of light. Natural light through glass and stained glass reminds us that we have received the light of life and are children of the day and not the night.
Two sanctuaries that I love actually have large glass windows on the front wall, behind the altar, so that the backdrop for the chancel is filled with natural light. The first is Denise Spencer’s Catholic church in Kentucky, where the windows behind the altar allow the congregation to see the beauty of God’s creation. This sets Christ’s redemptive work in the context of the world God made. The second is the chapel at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Behind the altar are windows through which the congregation looks out on the busy streets of Chicago. This reminds them that the Gospel they hear and receive in the sanctuary is to be lived and proclaimed out there, in the real world of daily life.
Those who provide music for worship should not be front and center, but should either be off to the side or in the back. A worship service is not a concert, and the musicians should not be prominent. The chancel is God’s space and should be reserved for altar and pulpit — it is not a “stage” for performance.
Artwork, icons, statuary, and other decorative elements should be kept as simple as possible so that they communicate clearly and definitely and point to Christ and the Gospel. I personally think that such things as stained glass windows which tell the Biblical story or which follow the stations of the cross or another theological scheme are wonderful aids to worship and understanding, especially for children. Using the colors of the liturgical season tastefully in the sanctuary can be a helpful way of visualizing the story of Christ as well.
And may I say once again: none of this need be elaborate or “high church” or ostentatious. Indeed, in most cases I think it better if our sanctuaries have a simple and natural feel to them, so that our intentions are clear that what we do is about Christ and not about showing off our sophistication.
May we do all we can so that when people come to worship, their eyes may be drawn to Jesus and fixed on him.