Church Symbolism

Church of the Light, Tadao Ando, 1989

1 Kings 5:3-5

You know that David my father could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet. But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side. There is neither adversary nor misfortune. And so I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord said to David my father, ‘Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my name.’

I am not an architect or a designer but I am a student of literature and history and pop culture and I love symbols. Often symbols can communicate feelings and emotions and ideas much more powerfully than long form expressions. The symbol of the cross, for example, may lack the ability to clearly express all of the Christian faith but it powerfully communicates what is central to it. Writers and artists of all sorts use symbols to quickly communicate things to audiences all the time. Types of clothing, animals, colours, music; all can be used to convey elements of a story or a character.

Recently two different types of symbolism have got me thinking about how we construct churches and what we communicate to the community. The first type of symbolism that set my mind in gear was my recent entrancement with minimalist art, particularly (and perhaps unsurprisingly to regular readers) in regards to superheroes. The superheroes of comic books are characters that quite possibly have more stories, revisions, crossovers and interpretations than any other characters in modern literature. Yet they and their logos are some of the most iconic symbols in culture. To take those characters and symbols and strip them down to their essential elements (which is what minimalist art does) is fascinating to me. There are many creative ways this can be done.

The second type of symbolism that found its way into my consciousness is explained in this article about what is for many modern cities their modern-day cathedral; the sports stadium. The writer here laments the lost opportunity that the new sports stadiums in New York represemt. Gone in the USA are the iconic stadiums of yesteryear. In many ways only Wrigley Field and Fenway Park in baseball and perhaps Lambeau Field and Arrow Head stadium in American Football show what stadiums used to be. Instead America has chosen to build largely uninspiring blocks of concrete and steel while around the world other nations continue to see value in building stadiums of beauty.

Beijing National Stadium (The Bird's Nest) in Beijing, China

Architecturally, churches in the West seem to me to have suffered similar fates to the sports cathedrals of yesteryear. In the boom years of the seeker-sensitive movement,churches were constructed without much of the traditional symbolism of older church buildings. This no doubt fit with the philosophy of the seeker-sensitive movement (which was desperate to move away from the trappings of dead religion) but it also meant that we lost one way to communicate Christ and the gospel to our congregations and community.

Formerly our medieval and Victorian brethren built cathedrals and chapels in the shape of the cross. Vast fortunes were spent to elevate the church buildings of God above those buildings that surrounded it. It is a subject that has even fascinated non-Christians, to which the success of Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth is somewhat of a testament. Are there not ways today that we can create architectural symbols that communicate the essential elements of Christ and the gospel to our culture today?

Chapel of Reconciliation Berlin, 2000Chapel of Reconciliation Berlin. 2000

It is important theologically to remember that the church is a body of believers, not a building. We the people are to be salt and light to the world. We are to be the ambassadors of reconciliation. We do not want to build beautiful buildings only to have them filled with people who are dead in their own hearts towards God. We do not want our boasting to be in great buildings but only in what Christ has done for us.

But we do have to meet somewhere and it is still a regular enough occurrence that for convenience of time, space and finance that we build houses of brick and mortar that the gathering of the saints can meet in. Considering this I feel as though there is a place for us to use the church buildings that we meet in to communicate the gospel and the character of Christ to a world that loves symbols and is drawn in by them. This can still be done even when we do not build buildings from scratch or we are operating on a limited budget, it just requires more creativity.

Chapel of St Ignatius Seattle, Washington, 1997Chapel of St Ignatius Seattle, Washington, 1997

You can read more (no doubt superior) thoughts on good church design here by someone who clearly knows more than me on this subject. I leave you with some closing questions. Is your church considering a new exterior or interior design? Are you building from scratch? How are you seeking to give God the glory in the design that you choose and how are you communicating the gospel through it? Are you seeking to creatively engage with a community around you that loves symbolism or focused only on mere functionality? What is your church building communicating about Christ and his church?

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3 responses to “Church Symbolism

  1. I’ve often wondered why we don’t have churches in shopping malls! Or outside. Imagine if you went to the local huge shopping mall and saw a church front there with lots of people, etc. Just a thought…

  2. I wonder how much of the “traditional symbolism” of older church buildings reflects older sensitivity towards seekers: lots of paintings for illiterates, lots of gold for philanthropic nobles, etc.

    • Hi Jenny, thanks for commenting. You could definitely be onto something there. Certainly the paintings and stained glass windows were used to communicate the gospel to an illiterate population. Especially seeing as up until the reformation the bible wasn’t even taught in anything apart from Latin. Communicating through pictures was probably a good thing. I don’t know if grand church designs were used to attract the wealthy but if it was that probably wasn’t a terrific method biblically speaking.

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