The Architecture of Worship

by Rev. L. John Gable

The Architecture of Worship by Rev. L. John Gable
April 30, 2017

At various junctures in the narrative of the Old Testament the leader of the people, whether it be Moses or Joshua or another, would instruct the people to build a mound of rocks as a perpetual marker that “This was a place where God did something significant!”, such as at the crossing of the Jordan River in to the Promised Land, or the renewal of a covenant between God and His people.  The purpose of the mound of rocks was very clear: in days to come others will pass that way and ask, “What’s that pile of rocks for?” and that question would invite the opportunity to tell the story of God’s great love and His mighty acts of deliverance.

In much the same way, I think that is a function that church buildings are intended to play in a community.  Look at Tab itself.  If you didn’t have any other cultural or contextual way to describe this facility you might just call it a “pile of rocks.”  But this “pile of rocks” is a continual reminder to us, and to all who see it, of God’s great love and His mighty act of deliverance in Jesus Christ.  It is a reminder that God is in this place and that He has taken up residence in this community, and that is the story we are privileged to tell.

So to help us in doing so, this morning I would like to talk with you about the architecture of worship.  I am not going to take you on a tour of the building.  Matt Kauffman is our resident expert on the meaning and symbolism of this beautiful church, but I am going to take you on a little field trip.  So, take a walk with me in your minds, and let’s start about 2 blocks south of here on Central Avenue, then let’s look north as we walk.

What is the first part of Tab that you see?  The bell tower or in some churches it might be a steeple.  Our bell tower has four spires, one of them, the one with the ornate top, represents Jesus, the other three the disciples Peter, James and John with Him on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Some have wondered whether we simply ran out of money when we built the church in 1921 and couldn’t finish the job.  But notice as we approach the building that our eyes are naturally lifted up, off of the ground, off of the world around us, to the God we come to worship.  The architecture itself is instructing us as to what we have come here to do.

The next thing we notice is how massive the building is in its neo-Gothic architecture.  It is a mighty fortress, “A mighty fortress is our God”, and the name of the church on the front monument sign, “Tabernacle”, is a reminder that God is present here among His people, just as He was among the Children of Israel as they sojourned in the wilderness.

We’ve now reached the front sidewalk and notice the steps in front of us, leading us up, to the entrance.  “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go (up) to the house of the Lord.’”  The temple in every ancient city was always built on the acropolis, the high point of the city, so people walked up to it.  As we walk up the front steps we “ascend” the hill of the Lord to worship God.  Psalm 122, which we read this morning is a Song of Ascent.

Interestingly, the steps leading up to the Temple in Jerusalem were irregular in height and in depth in order to get worshipers to slow down and carefully approach the presence of God.  Watch your step!

We swing open the massive wooden doors, as the high priest entered into the holy of holies.  In some Christian traditions the front doors of the church are painted red to symbolize that we enter into the presence of a Holy God by the blood of Christ.

Once inside the doors we enter the narthex and are surprised at how small and dark and low-ceilinged it is.  That is intentional.  Architecturally, we are being instructed to “bow down”, to humble ourselves as we enter in to the presence of God.  And the narthex is also aptly named.  The exterior part of your ear is also called the narthex, the point of entry that allows you to hear the Word of God.

Then as we enter the sanctuary our eyes are lifted up once again to the beauty and majesty, not only of the space, but of our God.  Hardly a week goes by that we do not have a visitor to Tab who wants to see the sanctuary and when they enter in, they are amazed at its beauty.  I was visiting with a guest this past week who I could tell was so inspired, so he asked me if he could take a picture; of course I said “yes.”  Then I asked, “So what are you thinking?”  He said, “I am humbled.”  Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way for us to enter in to worship each and every time we enter this space, to be both humbled and inspired as enter in to the presence of God?

Looking around the sanctuary our eyes are drawn to the magnificent stained glass windows.  Each one tells a story, the stories of our faith, and collectively they tell of the great work of salvation which God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  Even the room itself tells the story of our faith as it is laid out in “cruciform”, the shape of the cross, with the main nave and chancel areas, and side transepts making the form of the cross.  And if you look up you can see that it is shaped like a ship turned upside down.  Many in the early Christendom likened the church to Noah’s ark, representing a place of refuge from the storm and God’s act of redemption and deliverance.  One ancient writer rather sarcastically wrote of the Church, “If it weren’t for the storm on the outside one could hardly stand the stench on the inside.”  Be that as it may, the Church is a “sanctuary, a place of refuge.”

Looking toward the chancel area, again we see that our eyes are lifted up to the first level where we hear the liturgy of our worship and celebrate the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which in our tradition is called the Communion Table, not the altar.  Raising them a little higher we see the pulpit where the Word of God is preached and proclaimed, then higher still the choir loft where the choir sings the praises of our God, and higher still we get a vision of the Risen Christ in that beautiful window.

You might also notice the centrality of the Word: the communion table, the baptismal font when we use it, the pulpit and the choir all take center stage as they proclaim the Word of God, each in their own way.

You see, the architects who designed this building were not simply addressing issues of functionality (If they had been they would surely have added more bathrooms), they were also making a statement, a theological statement, about the God we worship, and we do the same when we design an order of worship.

Given that we have three different styles of worship each Sunday here at Tab, each offering essentially the same product packaged differently to help meet different needs or preferences, let me focus just on what we call the “traditional” order of worship.  Just as we are told that Jesus went to the synagogue “as was His custom”; so we have customs, too.

The service begins with the prelude.  This is not just background music over which we are intended to talk.  It is a part of worship that is intended to prepare us for worship.  It is music that is intended to invite and ready us to be in God’s presence, to set us apart from the “fever of life”, to prepare us to worship and receive the gift which God will give to us.

We then welcome people to worship and give announcements as a way to let the church family and visitors know what is going on in the life of the church and to give us a chance to reconnect after a week of being apart.

Then comes the Call to Worship.  In some traditions this is called the Prayer of Invocation, the people invoking God’s presence, telling God, “OK, we are here, come join us!”, but not so in our tradition.  We call the people in to worship, believing that God is already present, that God is the First Mover, the Initiator, and we are the responders, so the Call to Worship calls or invites us, God’s people, into God’s presence.

We then sing a hymn, a hymn focused on God and glorifying Him.  The opening hymn has the same purpose as the bell tower or the steeple when we first approach the church; it is intended to lift our eyes, our thoughts and our hearts up to God.

We are then led in a prayer of confession.  In order for a sinful people to enter in to the presence of a holy God something must be done to address our brokenness, so we offer our prayer of confession.  We recite it in unison, acknowledging our common sin and error, but then also allow time for silent confession in which we can “come clean” to God on our own.  Then with great joy, and relief, we received an assurance of pardon, a promise of Scripture, assuring us of God’s great pardon and forgiveness in dependence on God’s great mercy, and in response we hear and believe the Good News of the Gospel, “In Jesus Christ we are forgiven!”

Even without an organ prompt that announcement of forgiveness should get us up on our feet, and it does, as we stand to sing the “Doxology”, “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow….”, then to recite one of the great creeds and confessions of our faith.  “This we believe….”

Now with the slate of our tarnished lives wiped clean by the forgiveness of our sins we are free to move joyfully through our service of worship.  We sit beneath the reading and instruction of the Word of God.  On those weeks when we celebrate the sacraments of baptism or the Lord’s Supper we are given “visible signs of God’s invisible love and grace” through the water, the bread, the cup.  We respond to God’s graciousness in the singing of our hymns and anthems, in the lifting up of our prayers, in the giving of our tithes and gifts and offerings.  All of these are the ways we respond to the goodness of God’s love for us and give thanks for all He has done for us in Jesus Christ.

As the service comes to a close, we sing a hymn or song, intended to seal in to our hearts some truth we have heard in worship or to “fire us up and send us on our way” to actually go out and do out there what we have heard and agreed to in here.

And then, we stand to receive the benediction, God’s blessing.  There are many benedictions given in Scripture, the one I use most often is Aaron’s benediction from Numbers 6.  “The Lord bless you and keep you…”  In that moment, serving in the role of the priest, I lift my hands symbolizing God’s blessing and we close our eyes and bow our heads to receive it.

In the sending and blessing we are reminded that we don’t come to church, we are the church.  Where Christ is the church is; where we go Christ goes with us.  So when our worship ends, our service begins as we leave this place to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

This order of worship offers us a good structure not only for Sunday mornings, but for our daily devotional time as well.  We enter in to God’s presence by His invitation.  We lift our voices in praise, in prayer or even in singing.  We confess our sins and accept His forgiveness.  We study and reflect on His Word, then seek ways to apply it to the way we live our lives as we offer ourselves to Him in service.  Then we close our time in prayer and receive His blessing as we go about our day.

One aspect of the architecture of worship that I failed to mention because it is hardly visible, but it is essential, is the foundation, not only of this building, but of the Church, this mission and ministry and all we do.  We read in I Corinthians, “Each builder must choose with care how to build on the foundation.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”

“The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.”  He is the Rock on which this “pile of rocks” we call the Church is built, and there is no other.  “On Christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand.  All other ground is sinking sand.”