Rearranging the Furniture: The changing face of worship space

When we build, let us think that we build forever.” Nineteenth-century critic James Ruskin’s comment certainly doesn’t qualify as the watchword for today’s church architecture. These days, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of a decade.

In the last few decades, a growing liturgical movement has made its impact felt on North American Protestantism. A quick look at services books from 1978-1993 shows a clear trajectory: stress on the sacraments as communion with God, the lectionary as guide to the full gospel, observance of the seasons of the church year, and scriptural preaching as God’s Word made present. A growing appreciation of symbolic representations of interaction with the divine has led to new arrangements of liturgical spaces and liturgical centers. Many Protestant seminaries have begun to require a course in worship for future pastors, and universities have also begun producing scholars trained in Christian worship. These are all encouraging signs of progress.

Function Determines Design

Clearly much of this is the result of ecumenism, in which Presbyterians borrow from the liturgical strengths of Roman Catholics, who borrow from Baptists. A growing consensus that we gather for the Word and the sacraments has led to new arrangements of worship centers and spaces. Take, for example, the recent remodeling of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. A historic church, the church of Henry Sloane Coffin, George Buttrick, and David Read, Madison Avenue Presbyterian now focuses on a pulpit, a large communion table, and, in the central aisle, a font large enough to immerse an infant. At Madison Avenue, prayer is offered from the communion table; the Scriptures are read where they are preached. The ambiguity of having both a pulpit and a lectern—which all too often reflected an era of topical preaching when Scripture and sermon were isolated entities in the order of worship—is avoided.

On the other hand, the development in the 1990s of the church growth movement represents a different liturgical direction—one in which liturgy is seen as a barrier to seekers and is largely eliminated. At megachurches such as Community Church of Joy near Phoenix, the communion table is quietly shunted aside after the Lake Wobegon service for migrants from Minnesota. At Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, a communion table is totally absent. Megachurch buildings are meant to look as “unchurchy” as possible in order to remove any barriers to evangelism. Willow Creek, for example, could be mistaken for a nearby corporate headquarters. Participation is not a goal as the congregation relaxes in theater seating. All that’s required in this setting is a small portable lectern on the platform and room for actors and musicians.

That view is a complete contrast to the thesis of early twentieth-century author Elbert M. Conover (1885-1952), director of the Interdenominational Bureau of Architecture, who believed that church architecture itself is a form of evangelism. In Conover’s influential books on church buildings, there was no mistaking either interiors or exteriors with anything other than a place for Christian worship.

A Design Timeline, Roman Catholic-Style

Wholesale changes in worship after Vatican II brought many opportunities and challenges to the Roman Catholic church as well. The most obvious departure from tradition was the [First] “Instruction for the Proper Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” of September 26, 1964, which decreed that the altar be made free-standing. Almost overnight, there ensued a period of very provisional-looking main altars, as if all this would soon go away and the old altar regain its dominance. But the new altars have remained, and many of them came to be designed as altar-tables.

The key word in these architectural reforms was participation. A period of liturgical euphoria ensued as accepted conventions came crashing down. Sunday Mass shifted from being a time for private devotions to being a time for corporate liturgy. Three readings from Scripture became the norm, as did a Sunday sermon. Many congregations learned that Catholics could sing, especially Protestant hymns. Reflecting this altered liturgical sensitivity, thousands of images and multiple altars were removed. In fact, probably more plaster saints bit the dust during the ’70s than medieval images had in the sixteenth century.

In this period of rapid change, some clear leadership came in the form of a booklet put out by the American Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (1978). Written largely by the late Robert Hovda, a former Methodist turned Catholic priest, this classic statement insists that “among the symbols with which liturgy deals, none is more important than this [the baptized] assembly of believers itself.” For nearly a quarter of a century, Environment and Art has provided encouragement for those seeking to build for the reformed liturgy.

One of the favorite forms for new Catholic churches became a fan-shaped plan with the congregation spread 180 degrees around the altar-table, pulpit, and a new item of importance— the presider’s chair, for the priest to use when delegating readings, prayers, and music leadership to lay people. Important leadership in contemporary Catholic church architecture has come from Frank Kacmarcik, who remains the leading Catholic form maker. With firm roots in the Benedictine community of St. John’s, Collegeville, Minnesota (to which he returned after “retirement”), Kacmarcik’s work can best be described as ascetic. It is no accident that the illustrations of the first edition of Environment and Art are all Kacmarcik’s work, with a single exception. Kacmarcik’s liturgical designs are marked by an emphasis on the three liturgical centers: pulpit, altar-table, and chair. (One of his classic designs, St. John the Evangelist in Hopkins, Minnesota, eventually brought a demand from the congregation for a more visible cross than a narrow strip of chrome imbedded in the joints of the masonry.) Kacmarcik also gave impetus to making the baptismal font a significant size.

By the 1980s and ’90s a new interest in the process of Christian initiation had reached many parishes. This led to a preference for baptism by immersion. In 1980, a hundred thousand Baptist and other churches had facilities for this, but no Catholic churches did. Now many Catholic parishes have made provision for baptism of infants and adults by immersion. Most interesting is the fact that the impetus for this change has been local. No one in Rome or Washington has mandated such major changes. The result has been a fascinating variety of local experiments, such as placing the baptismal pool where the high altar once stood. St. Benedict the African in Chicago built a baptismal pool holding ten thousand gallons of water. In that respect, ironically, Baptists have had the strongest sacramental sense all along, although usually basing their arguments for immersion on Scripture, not sacramental theology.

With such mammoth changes underway, it is not surprising that a reaction should follow. Efforts to “re-Catholicize” the liturgy seem largely based on nostalgia, especially among younger Catholics who have no memory of the Latin Mass. A new document, Built of Living Stones (2000)—which narrowly escaped being published under a Latin title—reflects the conservative reaction to changes in the liturgy. Much more legalistic in tone than Environment and Art, it seems more regressive than progressive.

Another factor that has had an impact on worship spaces has been the shortage of priests, which has tended to focus priorities on the building of large churches. As the scale of the worshiping community expands, the dynamics of the liturgy tend to change toward more passivity.

One thing is clear—we will continue to see even greater variety in the places designed for Christian worship as churches continue to develop liturgical literacy. There is every reason to believe that the variety of possibilities will increase in the future rather than diminish as mainline churches and those still just a cloud on the horizon develop new spatial needs and resolutions.



Rethinking Liturgical Spaces

What does your worship space say about your liturgical practices? Whether your congregation is contemplating a renovation of its worship space or simply wants to be intentional about the full, conscious, and active participation of worshipers in weekly worship, giving serious thought to the six basic liturgical spaces—gathering, movement, congregational, choir, baptismal font, and altar-table—is a worthwhile exercise.

  • Gathering space helps form the community. It provides space for coming together in Christ’s name.
  • Space for movement should enable us literally to worship with our feet. Wider aisles and platform space permit more opportunities for processionals, coming forward to the Lord’s table, and liturgical dance.
  • Congregational space should contribute to the understanding that we all are actors in the dramatic interaction of worship, not passive participants of a “worship experience.” A commitment to the primacy of the Word probably implies abandoning secondary liturgical centers: lectern, prayer desk, communion rails, and conspicuous clergy seating. Pulpits should suggest the majesty of God’s Word without being overpowering examples of authoritarianism.
  • Choir space demands a rethinking of why we have choirs in our worship. (Not as a form of entertainment.)
  • We need to think through baptism as a communal act. What is the visual significance of water in baptism? The font is an important reminder of the baptismal covenant and God’s promise (Acts 2:39). Fonts that hold a generous amount of water make a stronger statement of God’s will to forgive and allow for a variety of modes of baptism.
  • How can we best make the altar-table both visible and accessible in worship? Altar-tables should suggest both our offering of our “bodies as living sacrifices” to God (Rom. 12:1) and God’s feeding us. Standing by the altar-table for prayer, for example, makes a good and important statement about the object of our worship.

James F. White ( is author of 19 books on worship and was for many years professor of liturgical theology at Notre Dame University. He currently is the Bard Thompson Professor of Liturgical Studies at Drew University and also a visiting professor at Yale University.

Reformed Worship 64 © June 2002, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.