We’ve struggled every weekend for 2 years to create an environment for our young church-plant to worship in an elementary school cafeteria and now a gymnasium. We’ve moved from cinderblock walls painted in primary colors and adorned with children’s artwork and an oversized food pyramid to a suspended walking track, basketball goals and the subtle stench of body odor. Both rooms are brightly illuminated by banks of artificial fluorescent lighting. We fight this cold and sterile aesthetic with a handful of tools: 12 LED stage lights, “black pipe and drape,” some indoor/outdoor rugs, and the occasional, simple set piece.
Our worship should not be dependent upon our environment, right? Globally, our brothers and sisters gather under trees, in high-rise apartment living rooms, both in secret and in the wide open countryside. Room aesthetics shouldn’t matter.
Or should they? Historically, the church has used architecture, aesthetics, and atmosphere to both inspire and give shape to the worship of the Church. God is neither blind to, or averse to the aesthetic elements of our worship locations. God gives blue-print-level detail for the arrangement of the tabernacle (Exodus 25-40) and for the building of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 28) and He articulates the exquisitely detailed grandeur of the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21).
Surprisingly, conflicts between various aesthetic preferences have already arisen in both of our temporary locations. We need more sunlight…or less. Theatrical lighting EITHER makes worship feel more like a performance OR it helps create warmth and draws our focus away from the distractions in the room. These conflicting preferences give a glimpse of my internal conflicts as a worship leader and worship planner. Can the atmosphere of our worship space be used to enhance our worship? Without question. Can they also be used to reinforce a stage-focussed, performance-driven, entertainment model of worship. Unfortunately, yes. My efforts to create an atmosphere that inspires and focusses our worship can be easily interpreted as theatrical.
Color, Light and Shadow
Our individual preferences in these areas stem at least partially from our own limited experiences in worship. Most traditional American evangelical churches over the last 100 years have relied on some combination of natural light (through both clear and stained glass windows) and artificial electric light for both illumination and color. Consider however, the stone chapels and cathedral that have dominated Christendom for the last 2 millennia. These rooms were awash in the saturated colors of stained glass and the warm glow of candles. Heavy shadows from columns poured across rich marble floors and dark wooden furniture and fixtures. These spaces were built to remind worshippers of God’s grandeur, his epic other-ness and unspoiled purity. These ambient rooms reverberated with each note sung, each booming word of scripture read aloud, each wailing prayer of intercession.
Over the last 20 years in church leadership, I have come to loathe the idea of spending exorbitant amounts of money on a worship space that is only used for a few hours a week. At the same time however, I long to use the aesthetic tools at my disposal to create an atmosphere that both inspires and gives shape to our worship. Too bright, too dim. Too echoey, too dead. Too cold and stark, too theatrical and stage-focussed. We will continue to wrestle with these issues but only as they relate to this question: at the end of every worship gathering, do our people know Jesus more fully and love Jesus more deeply? And we will pray for the wisdom to rightly use all of the tools at our disposal to this end.