I’ve been reading Michael Hyatt’s new book Platform lately and came across a quote that made me think. Even though the context of the statement centered on website construction, I began to reflect on it in another light. Specifically, contemporary church design and the loss of symbolism.
Here is the quote,
Never let the design compete with the message for attention. It should rather facilitate it (Michael Hyatt, Platform, p.28).
If the medium is the message, what message are we communicating when the emphasis on interior design evident in many contemporary churches (the medium), often lacking or devoid of symbolism, has often trumped the importance of our controlling message (Jesus and the kingdom of God)? In such a climate, the message is not competing for attention, it has lost the competition altogether.
More and more Evangelical churches, particularly in the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions, spend a considerable amount of resources making the sanctuary look like a concert hall. Trying to create the perfect ambiance conducive to facilitate a worship experience has become the medium, whether we realize it or not. However, this medium, as it stands, is void of meaning; it has no message attached to it at all. Rather than allow our controlling message of Christ to inform and shape our design, we have instead created an empty medium. In such an atmosphere, the design has no message to promote. Empty designs create empty messages.
In churches where symbol and art are virtually non-existent, so goes the imagination. Imagination is vital if faith is to be reflected on and lived in deeper, more compelling ways.
I’ve visited churches where not even the symbol of the cross was present. What message are we communicating in such an atmosphere? Where is the sense of wonder and awe as we sit and contemplate the beauty of the cross as it stands in front of us, pointing us to the most powerful story ever told? What meaning can be derived from a symbol-less church? What will draw our imagination toward thoughts of God? What message are we facilitating if not a Jesus-shaped one?
Sadly, many contemporary designs have often not facilitated our controlling message, but have created a message of its own. Yet, it proves to be an empty message, because anything that distracts us from our controlling story is void of meaning.
I remember touring the Roman Catholic Basilica in St. John’s, Newfoundland a few years ago. I recall feeling a deep sense of wonder as I looked around and reflected on the symbolism that surrounded me. On each post there was a picture that highlighted various moments during Christ’s passion, focusing my thoughts on the moments before and after his death. The sacrament table at the front was made of glass, and inside lay a sculpture of Jesus, laying there, reminding me of his sacrifice. Imagine for a moment the impact this would make when participating in communion/sacraments. Everything around me seemed to have meaning and significance. And, I have to say that I was deeply impacted by it all and felt close to God.
Symbol has the power to peak the imagination and draw us closer to the invisible God. The story of the gospel and the testimony of the divine can be found in every inch of space; speaking, drawing, inviting, calling. Contemporary church design may be suited to put off a good show, but something profound is missing in its lack of symbol. The design is competing with the message for attention, and the design has won.
Never allow the design to compete with the message or we will run the risk of losing the message altogether. Instead, allow the message to flow through and impact our designs so they function as the symbols they were meant to be. Cross, art, sculpture, biblical depictions in stained glass and wood carvings can have a significant impact on our faith development, while serving as constant reminders of the story that saves.
I’m not calling for every church to look like the picture above. I am, however, inviting each of us to reflect more on what our church buildings reflect in its overall structure and design. Does what we see, hear, and read as we enter a building cause us to focus our collective attention on God and the story of Christ? Instilling within us a sense of wonder and contemplation? Or, are we entering empty spaces, void of symbol and meaning, lacking communicative power?
Wherever it is you gather on any given Sunday, spend a few moments during the service to look around to see if there is anything in the design of the building that draws your attention closer to God and one another, and ask yourself the question, “What message does this building communicate?”