With the coming of the reformation, particularly with the coming of Calvin’s reformation in Geneva, came a shift in the architecture of the Church building. In the architecture of the medieval Roman Catholic church, the central item in the front of the church—the area that everything in the church pointed, so as to direct one’s attention toward—was the altar. In the Roman Catholic service, it is the Mass that is central to worship, and since the altar was central to the Mass, the altar was made to be the focal point of the church.
Yet, for Calvin, it was not the Mass that was central—in fact, the Mass was done away with altogether as being unbiblical and in contradiction with Christ’s sacrifice being once and for all time as pointed out in Hebrews 10. For Calvin, the Holy Scriptures were central along with their exposition and proclamation. Thus, as a result of the Calvinistic influence, the pulpit and the scriptures were moved to the central part of the church symbolizing its importance and its centrality to worship.
This abovementioned transition is fairly well established in history, but I began to reflect recently on other changes that seem to be taking place in church architecture as churches move away from a traditional church model to a more non-traditional, assembly room/warehouse model of worship. Architecturally, what is center? In many instances, the stage has been cleared as to place nothing at the central point. One of the trends that ties in with this has been a move toward a translucent pulpit, almost as if nothing is there at all.
Now, I confess that I have a bias toward a traditional church worship and traditional church architecture with the Lord’s Sacred Desk (the pulpit) placed centrally in the church to visually make the statement, “This is the most important thing we do!” And, I suppose that by posting these views here I will be stepping on the toes of some folks even in my own denomination who have embraced a more non-traditional model. I know that when you are reaching out to unchurched folks, many times they feel intimidated by the traditional elements of church architecture and worship—then again, is church supposed to be about making people comfortable or is it supposed to be about pointing toward Truth (and Truth never makes people feel comfortable, not even me). The traditional architecture and the scriptures presented remind us that we are part of a tradition that is far older than we are.
But can we set our biases to the side for a moment and pose the question as to what this new, non-traditional architecture points toward? In other words, what does the eye focus on, what does the church layout communicate as being central? I would suggest that in the absence of the pulpit or the altar, what is presented as central is the man, whether that man be the pastor or the worship leader, it seems to be the man that all of the eyes turn toward. It is also worth noting, and this is where many more toes are going to be stepped on, that preaching has also reflected this change. The systematic and consecutive exposition of scripture has largely been replaced by topical and practical preaching. This does not mean that the preaching is not laced with scripture, it is, but the scripture becomes secondary to the topic and the topics tend to be very anthrocentric, dealing more with how to live in this world than with how God has revealed himself to this world.
In making this assertion, please do not think that I am rejecting application in a sermon—sermons must be laced with application, but I would suggest that application needs to be drawn out of the scriptures, while in the non-traditional model, the scriptures are used to support the application. In the first, the scripture is the primary focus, in the latter, the application is the primary focus. In a very real sense, this is reflected in the changed architecture where no longer is every eye drawn to the pulpit, but where every eye is drawn toward the man. Every decision we make carries with it ramifications, and I think that we must be careful in seeking new models and contexts for church worship, for when we change the focal point, oftentimes other changes follow as well.