Sunday, September 02, 2007

The theology of church architecture

We visited a different denomination church today - the Petaling Jaya Evangelical Free Church. It was a new experience.

The order of service was almost the same except for the Holy Communion and Parish Notice happening right after Praise and Worship and before the sermon. There were no bulletins to refer to and I wasn't used not knowing what's going to happen next.

The church set up was different, i.e. not the traditional set up: it does not have a cross or an altar. The language used was also different: the sanctuary is called an auditorium and the pastor spoke about invoking Jesus in our lives. I didn't realise but now that I checked the bible and the word invoke is used in translation. I am just not used to it though. For me, when the word invoke is used, it carries the picture and flavour of calling upon the powers of magic. I don't know - I may have a wrong conception over this in the first place.

I can now tell how "traditional" I am when it comes to these things. I think I should feel more at ease in an Anglican or Orthodox church.

Eversince Rev Gan Meng Tee - who used to be our pastor, now serving the Lord in Melbourne, Australia - introduced me to church architecture a few years ago, I became quite intrigued by it. I have since learnt that a church should have an apse, altar, sanctuary, chancel, transept, pulpit, lectern, nave and narthex. Not all would agree with me I am sure, but there are theological reasons why old churches and cathedrals are built the way they do. I believe that traiditional church architeture has its theological background and practical purposes as well, which in my opinion should be preferred compared to the modern fan-style auditorium set up.

: the rounded alcove behind the altar. This is where the cross is place and where our worship should centre, i.e. upon God. Churches which do not have a cross at the front believes that with God being omnipresent, it does not matter where we direct our worship to. Moreover, some of them believe that by having a cross hung at the front may encourage idolatry. To me, the cross is a symbol of God's love and sacrifice for us. At any moment in my service that I am selfishly aware and conscious of myself, I look to the cross to remind myself that I am not my own.

Altar: the ceremonial table at which the Eucharist or Holy Communion is celebrated. In the Methodist churches however, the altar is where the collection is placed as an offering to God, in line with the OT sacrifices and offerings, while the Holy Communion cup and bread is placed on another table in front of the altar at the chancel. These items are holy, separated for the Lord's use. It is not that they are powerful or "magical" so to speak, but they are set aside for the Lord's use only and for no other purposes. There are those who abuse the tables and the communion railings.

Sanctuary: the front part of the church from which the service is conducted, as distinct from the nave, where the congregation sits. In the more modern traditional churches however, the term ‘sanctuary’ is often used to mean both chancel and nave because the two are not architecturally distinct.

Chancel: the front part of the church from where the service is conducted, as distinct from the nave. The chancel is usually an elevated platform, usually three steps up from the nave. There are churches where the pastors would not allow anything other than teaching and preaching, leading hymns and songs to be held in the chancel. In some churches, the chancel is usually called the stage, which I felt it should not. The worship of God should not be reduced to a show or presentation or entertainment. After all, a stage is where presentations are staged.

Transept: back then, they had require an increased space near the chancel to accommodate the large numbers of clergy, choirs, or members of religious orders. The result was a space between the chancel and the nave that extends beyond the side walls, giving the church a cruciform floorplan, i.e. the shape of a cross viewed from above. The center of the transept is called the crossing, the area connecting the nave to the chancel. The ushers act as priests of God, bringing in the offering of the people, crossing over from the nave to the chancel to be placed on the altar.

Pulpit: in the more traditional churches, there are two speaker’s stands in the front of the church. The one on the left, as viewed by the congregation is called the pulpit. It is used by clergy to read the gospel and preach the sermon. It is placed in at the side because the focus and centre of worship is still God, hence, where the apse and the altar are placed. Once I was worship leading standing in the center of the chancel. The pastor had to advise us against it and since then we were more aware of it. In the modern auditorium churches, the clergy and laity would usually take centerstage, and in most instances, there is no pulpit. The preacher would use a cordless mic and move about as he speaks.

Lectern: the stand on the right from which readings or parish notices are given. The word lectern comes from the Latin word meaning ‘to read,’ because the lectern primarily functions as a reading stand. It is used by lay people to read the scripture lessons, to lead the congregation in prayer, and to make announcements. The differentiation is given because of the importance of the word of God to the people that the pulpit has to be separated from the other readings and announcements.

Nave: the main body of the church, where the congregation sits and gathers for worship, as opposed to the front part of the church from which the service is led.

Narthex: the historic term for what might otherwise be called the foyer or entry way of the church.

With all these, I felt that church architecture plays an important role in worship and service. It is also practical for the purpose of Holy Communion and coming forward to be prayed for. It requires us to physically go to God and not sit where we are and let God come to us, particularly during the Holy Communion. It is the coming together of the body of Christ, communing and remembering Jesus who gave us his body and his blood for our salvation.


More reading:
Ten Myths of Contemporary Church Architecture
How Church Architecture Affects Lord’s Supper Practices


  1. Interesting thoughts. I forget sometimes how passionate some people are about church buildings. They are to me at best a neutral thing. More often, I think of them as problems to the faith. But to say that I prefer a low-liturgy is an understatement.

    I enjoyed reading your perspectives. Thank you.

  2. Well, I suppose church architecture is not really biblical as such but if we look at how God has instructed the setting up of the tabernacle and the building of the temple, we can see that there are requirements for holiness, as much as there are requirements on how we live our lives in holiness as well.

    But I respect your position nonetheless.

  3. When we dispense with theological guidelines for architecture, it's almost certain that these will be replaced with a new set of guidelines. Unfortunately, these new guidelines are often based on pragmatic considerations.

  4. Thanks Pearlie, for this. I guess the "neutral auditorium" feel is a result of legal constraints imposed by the relevant authorities, it's not as what SK suggests as being based on "pragmatic considerations". As a public meeting/conference hall (according to the planning persmission) which is used by other organisations (not limited to Christian organisations, eg., UTAR for their graduation ceremony, and the some other music schools), it has to be "neutral". I guess this is a challenge for churches in Malaysia as it is almost next to impossible to erect a "church" building based on "church architecture".

    The large foyer that is able to accommodate 400-500 people comfortably is, hopefully "theological", as we do believe in "community" where people can hang around for coffee and fellowship after service, and a place to chit chat while waiting for the kids to finish sunday school (sunday school starts after the service - in this respect, the church practices family worhsip where children sit in the entire worship as well - they are not "shooo" away in the middle of the service).

    I hope we could incorporate some "church archotecture" as this was brought up in the plannign stages, but unfortunately due to legal contraints, we were unable to do so. Sad...but I guess we need to work around the law imposed by the relevant authorities...

  5. Kar Yong,
    Apologies if I come off as picking on EFC. I was not :) It is that I have not been attending a different denomination church for quite awhile already. I have attended Pentecostal churches in my schooldays, an Anglican church about 10 years ago and this time I took the opportunity to attend one that is "free" :) My next stop should be a Baptist one. I am interested with the differences and yet we are a family of God, and in comparison, this was the thing that struck me.

    Thanks for letting me know some about the background of the setup of the church. I had not known that. And could you explain a little bit more about what is neutral and what is not. I understand that we could not have the transepts and narthex in the case of a modern ready made lecture hall to be converted into church, but what about the altar and such. (I shan't ask about communion ;) that will definitely spark off a separate debate!! haha)

    Yes, I like the fact that the children worships together with their parents. How about communion? Are they included as well? I think not as I was trying to observe but couldn't be too sure. How old would they be included then?

  6. SK,
    Yes, I agree about the different set of guidelines. But I feel that more likely the reason is due to ignorance, and church leaders sometimes being less theologically inclined. For example, in this one church, they built a separate wing parallel to the main sanctuary with an elevated platform in the middle of the two, there they placed the lectern. They also put there another cross on the wall, like having another apse. I don't really have serious problems over it but one friend of mine do.

  7. I wonder whether apostle Paul, Peter or James have thought of theologizing such church architecture!! Perhaps James and Peter most likely have thought as such as they are more pro to Jewish ceremonial culture. BUt in most cases, Paul as he met with the Gentiles Christians in house churches, I don't think they have thought such structure suggested. I don't think they even promote such as a major issue of Church architecture in Christian faith. In most cases, as I see from Paul's point of view, our body is the temple and therefore, we should in fact concern to architect our behaviour and our lifestyle according to God's way (Rom12:1-2). In fact, we should theologised our body, soul and spirit and behaviour in our daily lives. So, I think even if the church architecture is not so theologically sound, as long as the believers and preachers-teachers are sound, I'm all for it. So, it's a huge paradigm shift for you if you visit house churches in china where there's no such thing as church tradition.

  8. Hi Pearlie,

    No apologies needed....Hahaha...I dont feel as if you are picking on the church!

    I guess what I mean by neutral is that when people walk into the hall for public meetings or other non-religious meetings, they would not feel that it is a church. We do get people from other faiths coming for concerts, community talks, etc...Of course, bearing in mind, this is a result of the restrictions of the planning permission.

    EFC as a denomination does not really have an altar, or a place where congregation comes forward to receive communion. Communion is served to the congregation in the "pew" (like Presbyterian, Baptist...). Is this a reflection of a congregational church?

    We used to have a cross on the pulpit - that's was all, as having one hanging up in the auditorim would be rather difficult if we have to remove it all the time when there is a public meeting (eg, there is a community talk tonight). Admitedlly, when the hall was built, we had to be as "neutral" as possible. But in the original design, there were symbols to reflect Christian worship - like the symbol of Trinity (which was sadly removed later), a larger puplit in the middle of the "stage" to reflect the centrality of the Word in EFC (but again was removed for various reasons....I dont want to comment on this more than necessary, it will start another war...!!). So we tried to use the projectors to create "Christian symbols" on sunday service, but that has not been done very much. Admittedly, much more could have been done to make the building feel more like "a church"...

    Children participate in communion as well. There is no minimum age limit - but as long as the children understand the meaning of communion, parents are encouraged to prepare the children to participate as well.

    The only other "symbols" we used in the foyer are the flags of the various countires in world that are hung on the ceiling of the foyer (did you notice that?) This is remind us that we are part of the wider body of Christ in the world, and to challenge us to the task of world mission. But how many actually realised this?? Haha

  9. Chee Keat,
    I agree that church architecture was not on the minds of the apostles. But I feel that how we setup our church is a reflection of our own spiritual focus and theological bent. Correct me if I wrong Kar Yong but I remember you mentioning about the house church in Corinth where the rich and the poor are seated in markedly different places, and this Paul strongly opposed. So in that sense, church setup is important. If it does not take away the very core of the gospel, then go ahead but if it does, then serious rethinking has to be put into it.

  10. Kar Yong,
    I see ... I am gaining some understanding here :)
    Yup, I see the need to be neutral if the church wants to be an "open" space for all people, something we need where we are.

    Including children in communion is a good thing. During the service, my son was complaining he was not included :) I was careful not to break any "rules", now I wished I had asked first!! He will be delighted to be included, since he does know about the symbolism of the bread and wine, though maybe not the significance yet.

    I did not notice the flags in the foyer. As I was telling you, we got whisked off to the visitor's room and didn't get a good look around. But I noticed the flags on the "stage". National and state flags right? I wasn't too sure what they represent. It came off to me like being in a conference hall :)

  11. But, didn't I prove my point that architecting our spiritual life should be taken the priority over the church architecture- a secondary priority!! It's only through the transformation of the life of believers which is the priority that expressed and shaped the worship service format or church architecture. AGain, each congregation of generations would have different forms of expressions and therefore different physical expressions of worship service and hence different form of church architecture. Somehow, I'm not comfortable with church architecture that is proposed pictorially by ur ex pastor as it would have a danger of imposing the coming generations who may have different way of expressions in their worship to GOd and hence different form of church architecture with different emphasis of theology dpd on their situation. In addition, although such physical architecture although has its richness that requires by the OT principles in building the temple physically, it has become irrelevant to us as NT Christians - the temple architecture has replaced with our architecture heart for GOd. Also, it has a danger that such architecture sounded to be the gospel truth of what architecture a church should look like physically that putting down to those churches that do not have the privilege of designing on such physical church architecture due to the context limitation such as PJEFC we have been discussing or house churches in CHina. Therefore, I think theologizing physical church architecture is a secondary importance and our primary focus should be on theologizing the attitudes and behaviour of the mind of the congregations. THen from their transformed theologized mind, let them determine together what should be the form of worship expressed physically that is helpful to that particular context of community as well as church architecture. FOr instance, in my bangladesh trip project, the church we are ministering impose the congregations to follow the style of anglican worship as the bishop is a former anglican who also preferred the anglican style as it rich in theology. But, when I conversed with the younger generations in the church, they couldn't relate the form of worship as they felt it's boring and stifles their preferred expression of worship like dancing and making new songs for God with tombourine. Also, the bishop there in the past had been requesting to financial support to build a church architecture that is like anglican church architecture. DUe to the severe persecution as well as financial limitation, we advised them to have meeting in house churches rather than having a building architecture which can attract attention of persecutors. So, if a church architecture does not have a cross on the altar or a high pulpit that show the transient of God and it just merely plain wall with friendly and God fearing people sitting on the floor and a competent theology preacher stand up and preach, isn't that still a theologized church comparing to the theologized church architecture proposed by ur ex pastor!!

  12. Chee Keat,
    I think you have misunderstood me. I have agreed in the first place that putting out life right in Christ comes first before church architecture, no doubt about it. I am just thinking aloud my own theological ponderings over what I observed in a different church setting, admitting that not many would agree with me, i.e. respecting the preferences of others,that as much as others prefer a modern setup, with dances and new songs and tambourine, which is fine, I don't mind being that setup but I would also like a traditional setup with the same new songs and tambourine.

  13. Ok...sorry for misunderstood here. Anyway, m juz concerned with church tradition that shaped the church architecture imposed and restrict the new generations or new group of people who had different cultures and expressions in worshipping God. Ur article, preferences and responses sounded like church architecture should be shaped according to the physical structure of OT's temple and tabernacle which I don't think is relevant anymore as NT CHristians.- correct me if I'm wrong!! Finally, because of your preference to a certain church architecture tradition, u sounded not able to flex to adapt other modern church architecture traditions which I felt as Christians it shouldn't be an issue as architecture in heart is more important!!. So, that's why I voice out my opinions!! Anyway, thanks for your interesting article sharing;)