Worship Space and Focus

What a difference light makes to a church building. At Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford, our old ‘sanctuary’, as we used to call it, was dark and depressing. But when we redeveloped our church premises, we created new roof-lights. Now light just streams in, and the worship space has been transformed. For light uplifts the spirit and inspires the soul. Long before the organ sounds or the band strikes up, I am ready to worship God. I agree with Thomas Fuller, an English 17th century divine, who said: “Light, God’s eldest daughter, is a principal beauty in a building”.

Sir Christopher Wren, who designed and built more than fifty churches in London was of a similar mind. In all his churches he used clear glass, as distinct from the stained glass which was so popular at that time, because, he believed “God’s greatest gift to man is light”.

Christian theology is ‘theology of light’. Light is a symbol of the presence of God. Paul ascribes glory to God “who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6.16). Similarly John declares: “God is light; and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1.5). God is the giver of light in creation. God’s first recorded word is the command of God “Let there be light”, and there was light (Genesis 1.3) – and significantly the Bible states that “God saw that the light was good”. God is also the giver of light in the new creation. Jesus cries out “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8.12). Peter takes up the words of Isaiah 62.12 and reminds Christian believers that their task is to “declare the wonderful praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2.10). Indeed, Jesus says that his disciples “are the light of the world” (Matthew 5.13). Light, light, light. The Scriptures are peppered with the theme of light.

Not surprisingly Christians down through the centuries have sought to give expression to this theology of light in the way they have constructed their buildings. For church buildings are more than protection from the elements. They not only express something of who we are and what we believe, they can also affect the content of our worship and the pattern of our discipleship. When it came to re-building the chamber of the House of Commons, which was destroyed by a fire-bomb in the Second World War, Winston Churchill in putting forward his preferred design said: “We make our buildings and our buildings make us”. No building is neutral.

This then leads me to state that the present ‘warehouse’ ‘cave-like’ structures favoured by many evangelical churches today is a denial of our Christian heritage. For natural light is banished in favour of artificial light. The architectural focus is no longer on God – but on the performers. I find it significant, for instance, that without exception where I have preached in such churches in New Zealand, the chief concern has been to test my ‘sound levels’ – and not once have we prayed that God will bless the service! The setting of worship in churches without natural light is similar to what one would experience in any secular worship venue. The band and the singers dominate the stage: the singers sway in time to the beat of the drum, and encourage the congregation to do the same. Nor does it help when singers flaunt their sexuality – recently I was mesmerized by a half-exposed tattooed breast! Church has become religious entertainment: the focus has subtly switched from giving glory to God to making the punters feel good. In all the cave-like churches I have visited in New Zealand most of the songs have been devoted to telling God how we feel. At no point have we confessed our sins or prayed for people beyond the church. At no point in the first half hour or so is God allowed to speak – Scripture is notable by its absence. ‘It’s all about me Jesus!’ The sense of the numinous is hard to discern. Such ‘worship’ can produce ecstasy, is it truly divine? Has Jesus just become my ‘drug of choice’? So Andrew Walker and Robin Parry write:

If we position worship as a form of Christian entertainment we will shape Christians who consume worship as a product; Christians that move from one worship ‘high’ to the next, chasing one stimulating event after another; Christians that assess how good the worship was by how fuzzy it made them feel; and Christians that will leave one congregation for another with little hesitation if a more entertaining gathering springs up in another church. But this kind of worship is, at rock bottom, all about me, and God is approached as if he were under some obligation to keep me happy. He is my drug of choice, but if he gets boring, I’ll move on. (Deep Church Rising: Recovering the Roots of Christian Orthodoxy (SPCK, London 2014) 98.

These comments are not to be construed as an attack on contemporary worship per se. Just last night I attended an amazing service of contemporary worship in a meeting house on a Maori marae led by a Kenyan group visiting New Zealand to mark the 200th anniversary of the Gospel in New Zealand. I was overawed by the sense of God’s presence as we moved from praise to confession to ‘surrender’. I was deeply moved not just by the singing, but also by the praying. Throughout the hour or so God was the focus: every song and every prayer was directly addressed to him and Scripture abounded. The congregation made up of young and old, Maori and Pakaha (white) was caught up into heaven itself – the spiritual intimacy of the occasion was almost tangible. But there was no platform, no spot lights, just one guitar, a piano and a drum.

So to sum up: my concern is that as worship styles inevitably change, we need to take a hard look at the theology which underlies our worship – and our worship space.

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