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Worship in Beautiful Spaces

April 11, 2011

In a previous post, I explored the question of whether or not we, as humans created in the image of God, are created for beautiful spaces.  Helpful dialogue ensued, particularly around how this relates to the God who is present among his creation. In this post, I intend to explore a possible application of the proposal that creativity is fundamental to our humanity and a beautiful space is fundamental to our flourishing.  What does that mean for the worship space of the Church?

In Christianity, Art and Transformation, John de Gruchy spends his final chapter considering ‘art in the life of the church’, arguing that ‘no congregation should have to worship in a sanctuary that is unredeemed by beauty.’ (217)  The worship space should ‘transcend function’ and be a place ‘that enables the worshipping community to experience a sense of the transcendent.’ (216)  For de Gruchy, this is important for the worshipping congregation because the building ‘needs to express a theological understanding of what the church is and what it does when gathered for worship.’  However, it is also relevant to those outside the church because, as he argues, the ‘church architecture gives visibility to the values upheld by the church.’ (218)  Throughout the chapter, de Gruchy is operating from the position that ‘the environment within which people are nourished normally affects their development and their perspective on life.’ (242)

de Gruchy’s chapter is worth reading and is rich in its exploration of the theological importance of beauty and its application for church space. Building on his chapter, there are two points I’d like to make followed by questions to start our discussion.

(1) Beauty does not necessarily equal expensive.
The perceived high financial cost of beauty is a common argument against investing in art for the church, fueled by the belief that money is better spent elsewhere (such as on the poor). Writing from post-apartheid South Africa gives De Gruchy a unique angle on this issue.  For him, beauty is not in the expense but in the simplicity. He uses as an example of a simple candle in a shanty-town church that transforms the space. Beauty is much more than ‘any easy or artistic coziness’.  Instead, the ‘holy beauty’ of God reveals His glory. (225)  Cultivation to appreciate and discern this kind of beauty becomes part of our Christian formation. (242)

(2) The beauty of the space impacts our worship and our understanding of God, even if it is not conscious.
The field of interior design has known this for a long time.  Walls, doors, decor and room layout are all intentionally crafted to shape human response. If the space we occupy plays a role in our response, then a beautiful worship space should be something that is fitting and appropriate for the worship of God. Therefore, it is something that requires our consideration and reflection and surely cannot be considered irrelevant to our worship.

So, what is a beautiful space for worship? Could we define it as a place where humans created in the image of God are able to create, input, transform, and participate as fully fledged members of the body of Christ? If so, what does this mean for our models of worship, our use of space, and our engagement of the person?


Image By Andrew Smithson (Triptic Candles) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. tim basselin permalink
    April 11, 2011 3:13 pm

    Nice post, Sara. Thanks.
    Your writing about the expense of beauty made me consider a more static (and expensive) beauty like that of a great cathedral versus a more dynamic, simplistic (and inexpensive) beauty that reveals beauty in more interactive ways. One seeks an aesthetic realization of God’s otherness and greatness; one seeks an aesthetic connection between God and our everyday lives. Transcendence through ascent . . . transcendences through descent (to use Martha Nussbaum’s term). Obviously the church has in different eras concentrated on different aspects, and obviously I’m going to say we need both. But most of the churches I know don’t concentrate on either. They have NO theology of beauty, at which point it doesn’t matter what the expense is. Even inexpensive beauty costs time (which would be better spent on the poor, or in other traditions on the unsaved).

    I believe an embrace of art should be part of the church’s prophetic stance against individualistic/capitalistic ways of being in the world. I wonder, though, how well the two (church and art) can coexist. As a fallen power, church authority is always attempting to control. Since part of art’s role is to challenge the powers that be, the relationship will always be an uneasy one. In Chaim Potok’s book, My Name Is Asher Lev, the artist is ultimately exiled from the community, at least that part of the community he was close to, since his art particularly endangered the security and beliefs of those to whom he was closest. As an outsider, he may be able to get away with some of the challenges, but as an insider, he felt like a heretic. I wonder, then, do artists need to operate from outside of the fold?

    It appears I’ve gotten entirely off topic. I suppose I began to write more about prophetic art than about beautiful art (not to draw a clear distinction). I wonder, though, if a dynamic art, an incarnational art (a less expensive art), works primarily through prophetic means of challenging us. Flannery O’Connor referred to fiction as “so very much an incarnational art;” also Christ’s incarnation was/is a challenge to religious authorities.

    Perhaps, though, I’ve drawn a false distinction between inexpensive and expensive art, and merely used your reflections to jump off into an entirely different subject. If so, please accept my apologies.

    • April 13, 2011 5:22 pm

      Thanks, Tim, for your response and for taking the conversation further. I wanted to respond to a couple of your points.

      You’re right to say that the church has tended to emphasize either the immanence of God or the transcendence of God. This is especially the case when it comes to its architecture. The cathedrals of Britain provide great examples of the difference. For the former, consider Durham Cathedral with its stout columns and general heaviness. There is a strong sense of God being down with His people in their worship – some have even seen the columns referencing tree trunks to give further emphasis to God’s immanence/presence in the everyday. For the latter, consider York Cathedral with its thin columns and pointed arches. Everything about the space is designed to remind the worshipper of God’s otherness and his transcendence. The physical space draws one’s eye upward to the heavens. I think both play a role in conditioning one’s worship of God, at the very least by providing a visual reminder of a particular aspect of God’s character. I think you’re right to suggest that we need both but I do think it’s a false to assume that transcendent equals expensive while that which is immanent is inexpensive (both cathedrals cost a fair amount of money). Thinking a bit more about this, I don’t think that the issue is primarily how money is spent, even though that seems to be a common objection to the arts. It comes down to how you invest what you think is valuable, whether time, money, or energy. You make an interesting suggestion that the arts could be seen as a waste of time, perhaps something that is becoming increasingly valuable in our busy Western culture. However, I would challenge your comment that churches who don’t invest in the arts have no theology of beauty. I think that the better way of seeing it is as a limited or diminished theology of beauty – even a lack of engagement points to some kind of theology of beauty. The reason I make this statement is because if there ever is to be a vibrant relationship between the church and artist, then it’ll be important to find out where the church is starting from – what theology they are operating within even if it’s not realised – and build upon what already exists. Also, if beauty is something fundamental to humanity, then it’s impossible to have no theology of beauty. It’s possible to have a not very well thought through one or one that is perhaps lacking in taste or development, but I think it’s unfair to assume no theology.

      Secondly, I think that you’re right to diagnose difficulties between the artist and church. I’m researching church patronage of the arts and can attest to the fact that the relationship has not always been pretty. However, I don’t think that this necessarily leads to the assumption that the artist has to work from ‘outside the fold’ for a couple of reasons. One, it seems to assume that artists are something exempt from understanding the church as a body of equal parts who all have an important contribution to make. The rocky relationship between the artist and church surely pushes us to examine the nature of the relationship and make adjustments so that the artist can be incorporated into the body. Two, and this relates to the first, I think that part of the problem that you’ve diagnosed points to a church that does not understand herself in relation to the artist. This is especially pertinent to the Protestant church, specifically evangelicalism (although not exclusively). In my opinion, this road back to right relationship will be full of mistakes, but surely this is impetus for pursuing excellence in reconciling the artist and church rather than abandoning the quest altogether.

  2. j.morgun permalink
    April 13, 2011 11:05 pm

    I like what Elaine Scary points in “On Beauty and being Just” and would love to add some of her ideas to de Gruchy’s… Within the word ‘beauty’ is also the idea of fairness (in both senses of the word). Aesthetics, especially within the context of a worship space, must be keenly aware of issues of justice, and should be reflected in use of space, materials, labor and stewardship of resources. A beautiful cathedral built by migrant workers in a wealthy neighbourhood means something different (and indeed, could actually cease to be beautiful) than a beautiful cathedral built in the inner city… or better yet, a beautiful church built by the community for the community – of course it takes a great deal of creativity and imagination to accomplish such feats!

    Lovely post, thanks for this!

    • April 14, 2011 11:07 am

      Thanks for adding Scarry’s thoughts to the conversation! I haven’t read her book yet but look forward to doing so in the near future! I like the idea of including fairness/justice in the discussion – it seems that beauty would lack if it did not lead to the flourishing of all who are involved. I love the idea of ‘a beautiful church built by the community for the community’ – it’s a vision that can push us onward as we grapple with these difficult issues.

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