Liturgical Space: A Very Weird Message

By |2018-08-13T15:44:29+00:00November 14th, 2017|Categories: Anglican Life|Tags: , , |6 Comments

Throughout the next several months I will be posting on the relationship of art and theology. We will look at how the concept of types (the participation of all creation in the divine),  compels us to embrace a sacramental outlook on life, and the artists role in that– as we have been given earthly substances (the perceptible) to communicate that which is only conceptual to our imaginations. This should challenge Anglican clergy to consider the use of space and art as formative, thought provoking, and evangelistic.

I was glad to hear a mega church pastor recently comment on modern, and specifically American church architecture. The room he was preaching in appeared to be dark, the stage elevated and well illuminated! He said, “The architecture of this room that we are in sends a very weird message about who the audience is.” However, he wasn’t suggesting that the architecture should be changed. He was instead suggesting that those in the ‘auditorium’ should change the way they saw themselves. In watching this short video clip, it appeared that the speaker didn’t think the architecture had something to do with shaping the audience—he simply acknowledged the weird message it sends, and that the attenders should not allow it to influence them. This should lead us to seriously consider the function of our sanctuaries.

I remember the experience that launched me into this liturgical/sacramental journey. My wife’s uncle invited us to stop by the church where he plays organ. We arrived and walked into the traditional sanctuary and I was stunned, struck by how moved I was by the beauty of this building. The vibrations of the organ shook the place, my eyes were drawn up to the heavens, surely the intention of the steeply pitched roof. The stained glass colorfully projected the story of our faith across the sanctuary. Images of the faithful were prominently displayed. The altar was firmly placed in the center of the church conveying the centrality of the Eucharist in worship.

It would be difficult to walk into that church and not be shaped by it. Dionysius suggests, we are in need of perceptible things to communicate that which is merely conceptual—therefore, we rely on images, symbols and architecture to shape identity. I like what James Smith says about the function of space, “Just the space of worship would tell a story that actually organizes time—an indication that here dwells a people with a unique sense of temporality, who inhabit a time that is out of joint with the regular…” He describes the space as “out of joint,” the sanctuary actually disorients the worshipper from the world they came in from. In this way, good liturgical space also sends a ‘weird message’!

Like our spoken liturgies, our liturgical space ideally should not start from the mission field backwards—adopting it’s tastes and preferences. In his book Senses of the Soul, William Dyrness writes, “(Images) order space and time…they serve as instruments of influence; and they displace rival images.” We should confess that much of the church has not displaced, but instead has adopted rival images for catechetical purposes.

However, the role of the church should be to recondition our eyes, to redirect our gaze. Hans Boersma explains that for the ancient Church, “Taste was something to be developed and brought up to par rather than something to be taken as a starting point and norm.” Therefore, as the Church, we acknowledge that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder.

Instead, our liturgies and our places shape in us a desire for that which is truly beautiful, reorienting their idea of time and space. Our places of worship are shaping the ‘audience,’ they teach us something for good or for bad. Therefore, we shouldn’t just ask if our sanctuaries are shaping our worshippers, rather we should ask how they are influencing those who gather to worship. Whether our churches gather in a cathedral or a school cafeteria, we should evaluate the liturgical function of our worship space.

How does your worship space shape the faith and life of those who worship there?

Gary Ball is church planter and rector of Redeemer Anglican Church in Asheville, NC. Gary graduated from Trevecca Nazarene University, in Nashville, TN. In addition to church planting, he is in the D.Min program at Nashotah House Seminary exploring the relationship of art and theology. Gary is married to Susannah, and they have three children.


  1. Barbara Zepernick November 14, 2017 at 9:32 am - Reply

    I so completely agree with the need for a worship space that is full of beauty that directs our thoughts and hearts to the Almighty. One thing I am hesitant to embrace is the quote of Boersma’s that says “beauty is not in the eye of the beholder”, because I have heard opinions from liturgical leaders that seem to claim that only a beautiful European cathedral and worship style is acceptable to God. Therefore Asian and African styles of worship and worship spaces are inferior. We need to be careful about speaking for God and what He finds acceptable. Only what is written in scripture can be taken as sure.
    Otherwise, thank you for this post. We need more voices speaking for beauty in worship that transcends this world.

    • Gary Ball November 15, 2017 at 9:57 am - Reply

      Barbara, thanks for the comment! Just real quickly wanted to clarify that the comment you were referring to was my comment, directly after Dr. Boersma’s quote. I was speaking in more general terms, not suggesting a one size fits all sanctuary, but to carefully examine how we are influenced by wherever we may worship. In general, as a society we have become more subjective in our idea of what is beautiful, calling ugly things beautiful…because what is beautiful for one person may not be for another (for instance). I am arguing for the church to be at the forefront in shaping identity, tastes, etc, rather than adopting the world’s ideas for catechetical purposes, specifically in this case, architecture.

  2. Shiphrah November 14, 2017 at 12:37 pm - Reply

    Just had a discussion about this comparing the upscale lobbies and windowless theatre style worship spaces where the focus is on the Screen rather than on God. We laughed, but agreed how creepy it is to realize how zombie like it seems to be reciting prayers to the Screen, to be reading Psalms to the Screen and singing songs to the Screen.

  3. Rev. Thomas Anderson, MSJ November 14, 2017 at 9:11 pm - Reply

    Fr. Ball, if you are not already acquainted with the work and writing of Daniel Mitsui, you might find some inspiration from his perspective on the juncture of art, architecture, and worship.
    Summula Pictoria 13 Nov 2017:

  4. Iwuchukwu November 16, 2017 at 4:01 am - Reply

    In my country, Nigeria, it seems to be a norm to focus on the screen rather than what you projected in this article which I completely agree with.

    The modern day Anglicans with little or no catechical classes have completely shifted from what is edifying to God as we go to him in worship and praise. I commend your intention to grace us with more of this.

  5. Fr. Stephen Hicks November 19, 2017 at 2:23 am - Reply

    Fr. Ball…a very well-written article…from a TNU grad no less! I see Nashotah has served you well. Our Lord’s blessings on you in your ministry.

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