The Barnacles of Devotion

We have noted that simplicity is an aesthetic value, and should not be regarded simply as a theological value. Too many times believers assume that if one’s good, then two’s better, and over the centuries the worship of God gets progressively encrusted with the barnacles of devotion. But it is not enough simply to develop an aesthetic sense in the abstract and then go build a building that is like that. This is because the sanctuary itself, once built, will have a didactic role. Once we have a church building, and we have a generation of children who grew up worshiping God in that building, we will discover that their aesthetic sense has been trained by their surroundings. The reason this is sometimes obscured is because of other factors. If you have an elegantly simple church structure, but the children growing up in it are surrounded by doctrinal and moral hypocrisies, those of them that still retain any genuine faith are going to want to get away from “all of that” as fast as they possibly can. Suppose the building is just right, but their father is given over to outbursts of anger. Suppose the building is just what it ought to be, but there is a financial scandal with the … [Read more...]

Beautiful Simplicity

When making our aesthetic decisions about our church building, we have to remember that simplicity is an aesthetic value. We have to remember that less is more. Some want to say that if one’s good, then two’s better, and that more is more. Balance is always difficult. Some have adopted simplicity as a moral value, and have wound up insisting on more of it than the Bible insists on, and for the wrong reason. But nevertheless simplicity remains an aesthetic value, which is why an odd religious group like the Shakers could wind up producing beautiful furniture. They went there for the wrong reason, but they got there – at least with the end tables. Others have adopted difficulty as a moral value, and they have produced some very impressive (and overdone) results. We want our worship of God to be reverent, joyful, balanced, harmonious, scriptural . . . and simple. But when you set yourself to such a goal, you soon discover that it’s complicated. Keeping it simple takes discipline and work. We have known from the time of Aristotle that “spectacle” is an aesthetic temptation. Decadent cultures are sensate cultures, and they want distractions. They want to be impressed with … [Read more...]

Balanced Worship

A dedicated space for worship has a shaping and disciplinary effect. When we meet in an informal setting, as we have been doing for years, we have had to make a point of selecting music that helps us swim upstream. Because the informal surroundings make it easier for the worship to become breezy and casual, we have deliberately leaned against that. This is because the Bible tells us bluntly that our worship should be offered up with reverence and godly fear (Heb. 12:28). God is a consuming fire. But when we have a sanctuary, and find ourselves meeting in a space bounded by classic church architecture, we are going to have to make a different set of adjustments. Hopefully, there will be no adjustments in our theology of worship, music, and liturgy, but we will notice—if we are paying the right kind of attention—that the natural pressures will at that time be coming from another direction. The outside Christian culture, and our rented space, push us toward greater informality. But Christian worship ought to be familial and reverent, which is quite a different thing than the very common “come as you are” approach, the come to church in your jammies approach. We were taught to … [Read more...]

Presumption and Timidity

When undertaking the construction of anything, but particularly a sanctuary, it is important to balance two things. The first thing is that you do not want to be presumptuous about the future. The second is that you must walk in faith, in full confidence about the future. If you are reading the story you are in, then you should be anticipating how the next chapter is supposed to go. With regard to the first, the Bible is very plain. You do not know what tomorrow will bring. Our lives are a mist, a vapor, a bit of cloud in the mountains (Jas. 4:14). Why then do we make confident pronouncements as though the future were held by us? To behave this way is presumption. So what is faith? To a secular observer standing off to the side, faith can look an awful lot like presumption. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). On the one hand, you don’t want to run on out ahead, writing faith checks on the assumption that something magic is going to happen in your bank account if only you write the checks fast enough. On the other hand, playing it safe—burying the talent in the ground—is not safe either. It appears that God wants us … [Read more...]

A Choice Triangle

One of the things our elders learned from our architect is what might be called a choice triangle. For any new construction, there are three basic elements to the project. Take the square footage, take the quality of design and materials, and take the dollar amount to be spent. Those are the three corners of your triangle. As you look at those three elements, you may pick any two, and the two you pick will determine the third. If you have this amount of money and no more, and you want this square footage, then that will determine the quality of construction. If you want this quality of construction, and to spend this amount of money, that will determine how big it is going to be. You get the picture. The two you pick determine your priorities, and the one that remains for you is the cost you must pay for your priorities. If costs must be limited, but high quality is essential, then the cost you must pay is in size. Any one of the three of them can be the cost you pay, and any two of them can represent your priorities. As we look to build a sanctuary, our task is to seek to have our priorities reflect God’s priorities, and God’s task is provide in the third area. This is … [Read more...]

A Duddy-Dead One

Biblical wisdom literature often encourages us to prefer one of two offered paths, when there are actually four possibilities. For example, we are told that it is better to have a little money and fear of the Lord than to have lots of wealth and big trouble with it (Prov. 15:16). We are also told that thin soup and thick love is better than a sumptuous meal and hatred around the table (Prov. 15:17). It is better to be humble and with the lowly than to divide the spoil with the proud (Prov. 16:19). The old gospel hymn frames it this way: “I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold.” And this is very much a biblical way of thinking. But remember there are four possibilities. 1. You could not have Jesus and not have silver or gold. 2. You could not have Jesus and have silver or gold. 3. You could have Jesus and no silver or gold. 4. You could have Jesus and silver or gold. It is the point of the wisdom comparison to make us realize that this fourth option is not nearly as easy as it looks. It was wealth and the cares of this world that choked out the crop in the parable. This is why Jesus warned about camels and the eye of the needle. This said, it would be better to have a … [Read more...]

Wineskin Memorial

As we are preparing for a sanctuary of our own, we have to remember that we are not the only ones doing the preparing. Not only are we preparing in all the ways we know about, so also God is preparing us—in many ways we don’t usually know about. When denominations form, and when church buildings are built or occupied, what we are seeing is the institutionalization of the church. This is not a bad thing—it is necessary in the very nature of the case—but it can easily become a bad thing if we are not being prepared by the Spirit of God to take our place in wisdom. There is nothing that can be done to keep new wineskins from becoming old wineskins. If you have a new wineskin in time and in history at all it will at some point be an old wineskin. That is the role of the much disparaged “institutional church.” The institutional church is the wineskin. There are temptations that come with this, sure enough, but you can’t opt out of that temptation by rejecting wineskins generally. Something must hold the wine, and so if you go the airy fairy route, pretending to have no wineskins at all, you are either kidding yourself or just hastening the time when you have wine all over the … [Read more...]

Hope Deferred and the Tree of Life

The gospel gathers us, and our subsequent worship consists of what we say and what we enact. We say, we confess, that Jesus is Lord and we believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead. But Jesus said that if we love Him we will do what He said, and the very last thing he said for us to do is disciple the nations, baptize them, and teach them to obey all that He commanded. There it is—our marching orders: disciple, baptize, and teach. Pretty straightforward. We are doing this in a world full of physical people who have immortal souls. In order to speak to their souls, we have to send bodies. We enact what we believe, with words, with water, with bread and wine, and with brick and mortar. In order to reach people who live in this world, we have to establish patterns of true worship in every place on this globe, and we have to do this in a way that does not interfere with the genius of the mission. If we deliberately build a sanctuary that is just a glorified big box store, then we are fighting our own message that Christ is the embodiment of all that is true, good, and beautiful. But if we worship God in catacombs or field houses because we have the long view, and … [Read more...]

Glory Gift

One of the central things that a place dedicated to worship should do is frame a space that is conducive to true worship, and to do so in a way that does not tend to draw “worship” to itself. With regard to the first, we have to ask ourselves what a Christian worship service should be like. Contrary to the operating assumption of many Christians today, it should not be a breezy and informal affair. First, worship should be disciplined and orderly, as Paul commends the Colossians for having just a worship service. “For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order, and the stedfastness of your faith in Christ” (Col. 2:5). Not only must it be orderly, it should be attended with reverence and godly fear. “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Heb. 12:28). The word rendered serve here is worship. This means that when churches strive to create a sense of casual informality, they are striving to do the wrong thing. But the second task of a worship space is also important. In one sense the worship space is set aside for the … [Read more...]

Testify or Die

The people of God are the congregation of testimony. We worship and serve the God who intervenes in human history, and we are among those who testify to what He has done. We are to do this with our lives, with our families, and with our collective and corporate worship. We testify, and we are to testify in all that we do. This includes whatever sanctuary we might build. Is the testimony true? If there is no true testimony, there is no true sanctuary. The ark of the covenant was called the ark of the testimony numerous times (e.g. Ex. 26:34). The two tables of the Ten Commandments were called the “tables of testimony” (Ex. 31:18). The tabernacle was called the “tabernacle of testimony” (Num. 1:53). Our task is always to testify to God’s testimony, responding to it faithfully. God says “I have acted here,” and we say “Yes, He did.” And remember that when we seek to build a testimony, there will be those who don’t want us to—like Sanballat and Nehemiah’s wall. The philosophers Hume and Kant, in a frenzy of high conceit, helped to banish “testimony” from the modern world as a reliable source of knowledge. We want an idolatrous way of knowing that we think is indubitable. But we … [Read more...]

Celebrity Chefs and Raw Foods

Architecture needs to be, like all other forms of human expression, honest. There must be no pretense, no sham, no attempts at misdirection. Centrally, when we are talking about the architecture of a church, the honesty must be of the kind that plainly recognizes that God is God, and we are not. When you come into a church to pray, it must be the kind of place that helps you tell the truth, instead of the kind of place that aids and abets in the telling of lies. There are many examples, but here is just one. It is easy for a traditional church with a very long nave to tell all the people that God is distant, down at the other end. This is not said in so many words, but it is said. And we acknowledge that God is transcendent, utterly beyond us, but in Christ through the gospel, He is the God who is with us, who has come down to us, who is present with us in our assembly. And this is why our seating is in a landscape layout, and not a portrait layout. Picture the people of God gathering together around the Word and sacrament, the way we would gather around anything that was of great interest to us. This is an architectural expression of what we believe the church is. The … [Read more...]

Rendezvous With the Resources

Hudson Taylor once said that God’s work done in God’s way will not lack for God’s supply. What this means is that we, if we are walking in the will of God, are never short. We always have the resources for doing what we are supposed to be doing. If we don’t have the resources for going forward, we have the resources for waiting. If we are supposed to go forward, we will have the resources to do so. And mixed in with this is the teaching of Scripture that sometimes we are to step out in faith. We are to go forward in response to God’s leading, and the resources will meet us at a pre-appointed rendezvous. Open your mouth and I will fill it, God says. On the mount of the Lord it will be provided. There are times when we have to trust for the resources, but we do this in accordance with the teaching of Scripture, and the examples found throughout Scripture. … [Read more...]

Feasting With Strife

As we pay attention to our Christian lives, as we ought to do, we have a tendency to focus on the things we do or have done, as though the whole thing were a matter of bookkeeping in a ledger, instead of taking our actions as indicators or “tells” of what we are turning into. We are either growing up into the perfect man, the Lord Jesus, or we are growing in a slow spiral toward some tragic and very lonesome finality. But the mercy, or the justice, as the case may be, are examples of transformation, not examples of an arbitrary sentencing falling on very similar creatures. When congregations build church buildings, this is either a testimony or a mask. It is either a declaration of what we are all becoming in Jesus Christ, or it is an attempt to substitute with blocks of stone what God will only receive from tender hearts. If the latter is the case, it would be far better to forgo building altogether, and just concentrate of getting our hearts right. Neither do we want to be okay with God at the start but have the challenges of building become a point of stumbling. We know how it is possible for someone to be so frazzled by wedding prep that they are in no spiritual shape to … [Read more...]

Fundraising and Faith

Another aspect of funding a church building is the important element of faith. We often feel like we are supposed to trust God for “spiritual” things, like our salvation, but that when it comes to finances we have to learn how to be “realistic.” Unfortunately, being realistic often means adopting worldly techniques that could just as easily be used in building a civic auditorium. But God’s people need to do everything differently. And even when we do something externally similar to what unbelievers might do, the insides of the thing have to be totally differently. Jesus says this about how God cares for us. “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Luke 12:27–28). The admonition at the tail end of this says it all. “O ye of little faith” means that we need to learn how to trust the Lord who loves to adorn things. This is a “how much more’ argument, and Jesus says that we are to look at the flowers of the field … [Read more...]

Why Build?

Why have a church building? What is the point? What are we trying to do with it? The first reason is one that sanctuaries share with all buildings whatever. That reason is the wind, snow, rain, and so on. God has put us in a world where we require shelter in order to do the things that God has called us to do. Even foxes have holes, and birds have nests, as the Lord pointed out (Matt. 8:20), and we are creatures also. The second reason has to do with the opportunity to glorify God. We are not the only creatures who build shelters, but we are the only creatures who talk by means of them. We are the only creatures who decorate them. From stadiums to skyscrapers, man uses brick and concrete and re-bar to speak. For churches, we ought to use these things to preach. The third reason is that a building—used rightly—becomes a staging area, an organizational point for all the things the church is called to do during the course of the week. In our case, this would include evangelism and outreach, college ministry, benevolence, and so forth. And forth, a building is a casing, a receptacle, to house God’s people doing what God commanded us centrally to do. What is that? We are … [Read more...]