February 11, 2016

Sanctuary Architecture and Theophanic Expectation

I am a frequent lurker — and occasional participant — in an online discussion group on Facebook. It is comprised of worship pastors and other people responsible for the liturgical life of their gospel communities. We ask each other questions. Not ivory-tower abstract questions, but real-life theological/worship-leader questions. For example: “Does anyone have suggestions for a worship resources that address issues of racism and justice?” and “Is it permissible to just change lyrics to a song we’re going to sing this Sunday?” (I may tackle the latter in a subsequent post!)

The Question:

Not long ago, someone asked:

Imagine you have a completely empty, open and blank space (i.e. a gym, conf. hall, etc.). There are no windows or notable sources of natural light. No AV infrastructure or seating is in place and everything must be brought in and setup from scratch. Assuming you can utilize any mediums you like in the space, high or low tech, how do you configure this space for worship (Altar, Theatre style, In the round, Semi-circle, etc.) and why?

I weighed in because I had faced a very similar situation when I first came to Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. I had been appointed the Faculty Advisor for daily chapel. In that first year, repairs being undertaken in our worship space — the Mulder Chapel — required us to find another worship locale. We ended up in a multi-purpose lecture hall. One of my first tasks was to consider how to make the room “sacred space,” i.e., how to signify what was important to us as a worshiping community, how to shape our theophanic expectation.

My Response (edited from original):

It’s so good to be mindful of how powerfully worship space shapes worshipers. I offer a few thoughts here, but tentatively, recognizing that there are a thousand context-specific considerations that can’t be brought to bear in a hypothetical.

I find helpful the concept of “theophanic expectation.” That is to say, when answering questions like yours, I try to ask: “How does the particular configuration of architectural space and the elements placed within it shape a congregation’s expectations about how and when and where God “shows up”? What is encouraged here, and what is discouraged?

When you step into the room, what is the first thing your eyes are drawn to? Where do your eyes move? What does the room put at the heart of the assembly of the people? If the horizontal axis of the building says something about how we relate to one another, and the vertical axis represents the in-breaking of the Divine, how do those two axes align? Are their foci clear and strong?

In some buildings, you’ll see a huge pulpit in front of rows of pews. These say “God is going to come to us when a book is read and preached by a single individual.”

In other churches, the seating is in the round, which suggests, theologically, that we find God in our interaction with one another. In other sanctuaries (especially those on what James White would call the “liturgical right wing” of the Church), the dominant feature of the worship space is a large and immovable table (or altar) that says: “here is where God shows up.” Still other congregations put amps and instruments and mics and so forth (and the people using them) front-and-center. (These don’t exhaust the basic configuration possibilities, of course).

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

So the question of how to configure space is certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution.

As a default, I prefer to put the central things at the center. Locate the font, pulpit and table in the center of the sanctuary. Gather the congregation around those things in a way that acknowledges that we come to the Word and the Bath and the Meal as a community, as the Body of Christ. Other elements (musical instruments, etc.) are placed in a way that maximizes congregational participation without becoming a distraction.

So… something like thisthe congregation in curved rows facing one another — looking, perhaps, like parentheses marks. The communion table in the center, and the font and pulpit on either side of the table. Musicians far at one end.

Other variations are most appropriate.

Of course, this doesn’t exhaust the possibilities. But for congregations in the midst of renovation or reconfiguration, it seems good to me to take theology into consideration when we make our architectural decisions. 

Plans courtesy Elevate Studio, see more at

Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra has been a regular contributor to Reformed Worship over the years. He is the director of worship life and professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America , author of Church at Church, and coauthor with his wife, Debra, of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry. Together they have three grown children, a multiplicity of living-room instruments, and a tame backyard they are slowly rewilding.