In a recent Every Thought Captive podcast, we discussed the relative merits of pulpits versus pub tables in our worship. I’d encourage you to listen to get the full context of our conversation. The issue is not necessarily about just pulpits versus pub tables but about the message that we may or may not be sending in the way that we set up our physical spaces of worship. Physical spaces speak. Our architecture, our furniture, our decor all send a message. By the end of the podcast, we didn’t really come out in favor of pulpits or pub tables. We simply made the appeal for a thoughtful consideration of the message that our physical spaces and furniture are sending.
I must confess that I have those moments where my inner curmudgeon really struggles with this issue. On the podcast I mentioned a recent worship service at my church for the middle school students. The image leading this post is from that evening. The contrast of the moment suddenly hit me. We were singing songs about a permanent God, a firm, sturdy foundation in a shifting world, but everything about the physical space of our worship was communicating the opposite. The building itself is a rather unremarkable rectangle – essentially a warehouse – thrown up in mere months. The seating can be moved and re-moved in a matter of moments when needed. There is no altar – only a stage. There is no permanent fixture on the stage meant to remind you that this is a place of worship – only a temporary set. There are no stained glass windows blending together the creativity of men with the natural beauty of the Creator. There are instead lights, projectors, screens, and smoke. The entire worship service begins and ends with the pressing of buttons in a control room – like a show. There is no piano or organ constantly getting in the way. Instruments are brought in a removed in a moment. No hymnals with their familiar smell. No Bibles either – just apps on a phone or words on a screen. Even the song that we sing won’t really last. A song about the permanence of God that is sung by my junior high school son will likely not be sung by him when he is in high school. By then the song will be old and out of rotation, replaced by a new song about the permanence of God.
On Facebook, I have a friend who travels the country taking pictures of old church buildings. He posted this picture recently. I see pictures like this and I feel a dull ache of nostalgia for a type of building that I’ve never actually worshiped in with any regularity. There’s a part of me that longs for this type of permanence and beauty and physicality.
Roger Scruton said, “Through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world as a home, and in doing so we both amplify our joys and find consolation for our sorrows.” What Scruton says about beauty generally, we could say about our worship spaces more specifically. Churches that take beauty seriously are churches that take at least some of the implications of the gospel seriously.
But before I make a lot of people angry…I love my church. I love those who lead our worship and our youth. Dearly. I cannot deny the reality that on Wednesday nights our warehouse is filled with a bunch of knucklehead kids that are singing songs of praise and learning the truth of the gospel. And in a very modern way, my church does indeed care about beauty even if it is a different kind of beauty than you would find in a proud mainline church in a downtown area (often quite empty on the typical Wednesday night).
And maybe the impermanence of our worship spaces isn’t altogether inappropriate. After all, Israel worshiped in a Temple. But they also worshiped in a tent. And the first church worshiped wherever they found the opportunity without permanent structures. Maybe all of this the impermanence could actually serve to remind the faithful of a permanent God.
This was impressed on me when my family went camping over Labor Day weekend with some close friends. We loaded up the pop-up camper and drove down to Arkansas for a weekend of hiking, canoeing, campfires, and card games. It was terrific. On Sunday morning, all of the families gathered together for a brief time of worship. I read from a book called Every Moment Holy. It is a book of prayers for the everyday moments of our lives – those moments in which God is present but we often are not. There is a prayer in the book titled “A Liturgy for Those Who Sleep in Tents.” This is a portion of the prayer.
How fitting, O Lord, that we who were born into journey and exile should sometimes venture from our homes and beds, pitching tents and making camp in wild places.
How fitting to be reminded of our state as pilgrims who whose transient homes of brick and wood and stone, in the light of those eternal dwellings for which we long, are no more substantial than the wind-rippled canvas of these tents in which we pass the night.
Camping is a spiritual discipline. Even Israel was instructed to camp out every year as a part of the Feast of Tabernacles in order to be reminded that they were once a camping people wandering the wilderness without a permanent home. We are not altogether different than those wandering Israelites. We are pilgrims here in the sense that we are impermanent – our homes, our bodies, our church buildings. No matter how substantial they may feel in the moment, unlike our Lord they will not be the same yesterday, today, and forever. Perhaps our worship should remind us of this critical fact. The things of this world will pass away, but our God remains the same. And we eagerly await a permanent city whose architect and builder is God.