Liturgical Space: A Very Weird Message


Throughout the next several months I will be posting on the relationship of art and theology. We will look at how the concept of types (the participation of all creation in the divine),  compels us to embrace a sacramental outlook on life, and the artists role in that– as we have been given earthly substances (the perceptible) to communicate that which is only conceptual to our imaginations. This should challenge Anglican clergy to consider the use of space and art as formative, thought provoking, and evangelistic.

I was glad to hear a mega church pastor recently comment on modern, and specifically American church architecture. The room he was preaching in appeared to be dark, the stage elevated and well illuminated! He said, “The architecture of this room that we are in sends a very weird message about who the audience is.” However, he wasn’t suggesting that the architecture should be changed. He was instead suggesting that those in the ‘auditorium’ should change the way they saw themselves. In watching this short video clip, it appeared that the speaker didn’t think the architecture had something to do with shaping the audience—he simply acknowledged the weird message it sends, and that the attenders should not allow it to influence them. This should lead us to seriously consider the function of our sanctuaries.


I remember the experience that launched me into this liturgical/sacramental journey. My wife’s uncle invited us to stop by the church where he plays organ. We arrived and walked into the traditional sanctuary and I was stunned, struck by how moved I was by the beauty of this building. The vibrations of the organ shook the place, my eyes were drawn up to the heavens, surely the intention of the steeply pitched roof. The stained glass colorfully projected the story of our faith across the sanctuary. Images of the faithful were prominently displayed. The altar was firmly placed in the center of the church conveying the centrality of the Eucharist in worship.

It would be difficult to walk into that church and not be shaped by it. Dionysius suggests, we are in need of perceptible things to communicate that which is merely conceptual—therefore, we rely on images, symbols and architecture to shape identity. I like what James Smith says about the function of space, “Just the space of worship would tell a story that actually organizes time—an indication that here dwells a people with a unique sense of temporality, who inhabit a time that is out of joint with the regular…” He describes the space as “out of joint,” the sanctuary actually disorients the worshipper from the world they came in from. In this way, good liturgical space also sends a ‘weird message’!

Like our spoken liturgies, our liturgical space ideally should not start from the mission field backwards—adopting it’s tastes and preferences. In his book Senses of the Soul, William Dyrness writes, “(Images) order space and time…they serve as instruments of influence; and they displace rival images.” We should confess that much of the church has not displaced, but instead has adopted rival images for catechetical purposes.

However, the role of the church should be to recondition our eyes, to redirect our gaze. Hans Boersma explains that for the ancient Church, “Taste was something to be developed and brought up to par rather than something to be taken as a starting point and norm.” Therefore, as the Church, we acknowledge that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder.

Instead, our liturgies and our places shape in us a desire for that which is truly beautiful, reorienting their idea of time and space. Our places of worship are shaping the ‘audience,’ they teach us something for good or for bad. Therefore, we shouldn’t just ask if our sanctuaries are shaping our worshippers, rather we should ask how they are influencing those who gather to worship. Whether our churches gather in a cathedral or a school cafeteria, we should evaluate the liturgical function of our worship space.

How does your worship space shape the faith and life of those who worship there?

Published on

November 14, 2017


Gary Ball

Gary Ball is the church planter and rector of Redeemer Anglican Church in Asheville, NC, where he lives with his wife, Susanna, and their three children.

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