Theology

Is there a formula for the design of a perfect worship space? What are the design concerns?

Jesus did not invite his followers to build anything. The New Testament gives no suggestion that early Christians built places of worship. Stephen, at his defense, just before his death, stated that God does not dwell in buildings. Part of his message recorded in Acts, chapter seven reads: “And David found favor in God’s sight, and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for Him. However, the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands . . .” Edifices do not accommodated God. A worshiping assembly brings sacred space into being, not a building or its art. Early Christians did, indeed, worshiped in inconspicuous family homes.

When the Roman Emperor Constantine proclaimed the Edict of Milan in AD 313, Christianity became a public religion and its practice became more open. Church and state were fused, as the Church was an establishment of the Empire. Christianity expanded; therefore large buildings were needed for fellowship. With these larger structures, the corporate worship practices of small groups disappeared as the clergy presided over the acts of liturgy to more populous congregations.

Roman basilica and early church plan compared

Constantine, the impelling force behind the new architecture, preferred the plan of the Greco-Roman basilica that became the standard layout for Christian worship halls. For Constantine, the Greco-Roman plan was fitting because the basilica was associated with dignity. He ordered church architecture to be monumental and of high order. In the terminating apse, the tribunal was replaced by the cathedra, the bishop’s chair from where the sermon was preached. The architectural floor plan was a single longitudinal room with parallel colonnades and aisles. The clergy had their special area, the chancel, raised above the laity. The previous portable wooden altar was superseded by a permanent structure decorated sumptuously with gold and jewels. Imperial in concept, ample in plan, and dominant among surrounding buildings, the new worship centers were architecturally distinct from all domestic buildings. The concept of this spacious worship structure has lasted for most of the history of the Christian Church until the present time.

An attitude emerged that God could be localized in a place similar to that of the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament tabernacle. God’s presence became associated with designated places. Worship halls became viewed as a domus dei, that is, a house of God. Thus, the importance of the chancel came into being. The attitude that God was of greater measure in the chancel became infused in the minds of the people. Remnants of this attitude have lasted over sixteen hundred years.

Altar sites were venerated. Eventually a baldachino or canopy was added further glorifying the embellished altar, a practice still in use in some churches today. Veils were often placed around the baldachino when the altar was not in use, screening its appearance from the laity — a visual statement of the inner sacred cell of the Old Covenant Holy of Holies, a dwelling for the Divine.

Thus, the chancel became the place for only the clergy. The literate were permitted to approach God. Corporate worship was to be professional.

This traditional church plan still holds symbolic weight today. It suggests that God is more alive in the worship hall than out of it. Leaving the worship space becomes a negative sign — the act of worshipers leaving the house of God implying that secular life is separated from religious life. Unfortunately the reality that God dwells among and within His people has often not been successfully communicated architecturally.

To be avoided in worship space design is the attitude that the chancel is remote from the worshiping congregation. The chancel and nave should visually describe one space. Should the communion rail be avoided because it divides space? A consistent use of colors, shapes, and building materials throughout the hall connotes a single room. Likewise, a best practice is that pastors sit on the same style of bench at the same level as the congregation. Or, possibly they with their families may sit in the nave with the rest of the congregation.