Philosopher and liturgical theologian, Nicholas Wolterstorff, recently reminded listeners at the “Liturgy, Music, and Space” Conference hosted by Bifrost Arts this past spring that the architecture around and in your worship space makes theological statements whether you like it or not. For instance, a tall, raised platform at the front the sanctuary with the Communion table positioned in the very back can make the theological statement that the Lord’s Table is so holy that its access must be limited and guarded. Or, think of a worship space in which the seating is arranged in a circle or semicircle around the leaders in worship in the middle. This can make a statement about the unity of the people of God in worship and the tearing down of sharp divisions between the congregation and the worship leaders. Or, think about the warehouse with a huge stage and lighting structure. It says, “we’re here to perform for you…sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.” Architecture tells the story of your theology of and priorities in worship. I want to share with you how we’ve chosen to let some recent changes to our sanctuary’s architecture inform our theology of worship.
Worship wars are present in nearly every church, and the community I serve is not exempt from this reality. There is a host of reasons why this is the case, but one of the principle issues is that we have two different service-styles under one roof each Sunday. We have a traditional service, which has been our historic pattern and is what we tend to be known for in Denver. We also have our version of a contemporary service, which is probably better described under the label of “convergent”—liturgically-oriented and historically-connected to hymnody and certain traditional rituals, and more predominantly modern musical instrumentation and styles. There are blessings to this model, but there are also liabilities. One of the chief liabilities is disunity…becoming two churches within a church. And, because of our scenario, there is an ever-present, nearly magnetic pull toward polarizing disunity—us vs. them, their style vs. our style, their priorities vs. our priorities.
In what some might consider a subversive move, we allowed our architecture become a voice to combat this disunity. It all started with a perennial pragmatic problem: our drums were too loud in our reverberant, classical worship space. We tried all kinds of solutions, from types of drums, sticks, and heads, to high-end electronic drums and positioning. Nothing seemed to guide us to a satisfactory resting place. Then came the concept for what we now affectionately call “the drumbernacle.” Perched at the base of our beautiful array of organ pipes, up high and in the corner, sits our full drum-enclosure, complete with semi-circular shield and sound-proofed roof and sides. As we began to build this thing, we noted an opportunity to make an aesthetic improvement on the drumbernacle that would not only be more pleasing to the eye but more consonant with the theology of unity amidst diversity.
We noticed that what we were doing was giving a permanent place for our drums in our sanctuary. Previously, we had been moving the drums in and then back out for our convergent service so that they would not be visually “disturbing” or “distracting” to our traditional service folks. We felt led by God to make a more permanent statement about the nature of our unity as a church, even as we worshiped in a variety of ways. We began thinking to ourselves, “This is interesting. Here we are giving permanence to the instrument which symbolizes and epitomizes modern worship (the drums), and, at the same time, we’re making its permanent home adjacent to the instrument which symbolizes and epitomizes traditional worship (the organ).” We began wondering whether we couldn’t make this “wedding” more profound and overt. This led to us extending the bottom wood panel facing of the organ pipes over and around the top of the drumbernacle, becoming its roof-line. Suddenly, the wood paneling became a bridge connecting the old and new, unifying their permanency in our worship space. (Take a look at the pictures.)
As we journey in worship each Sunday, we can’t get rid of each other. Just as it is a bit visually dissonant to place modern drums next to traditional organ pipes, so we will submit ourselves to experiential dissonance for the sake of our unity in the gospel. We’ll choose to worship alongside our brother and sister. We’ll lay down our preferences. We’ll recognize that our worshiping community is bigger than either service, and we’ll move ahead together in Christ’s mission. We won’t blur our distinctiveness, but we also won’t ignore our unity. As different as we are, we are one in Christ.
In addition to this more pastoral-theological statement, it also says something about what kind of shape we believe God wants our worship to take at Cherry Creek. We desire to be rooted—intentionally connected with the practices and theology of historic Christianity. We also desire to be culturally-engaged—discerningly connected with the cultural language and idioms of modern-day Denver. In short, we believe that God would have us thoughtfully embrace old and new. Our architecture is not only consonant with this vision, it vividly testifies to this vision. So our organ and drumbernacle also make a doxological-theological statement.
So here we have a concrete illustration of how the art of architecture can speak into the theology of the church’s identity. Gone are the notions that we can follow purely pragmatic reasoning for how we build and arrange our worship spaces. Architecture speaks. Maybe it’s time that some of us start asking what our architecture has been saying for all these years.