By Jeff Brumley
You can strip a sanctuary of symbols, remove all vestiges of beauty and deny any value the aesthetic may have in worship. But experts say those elements almost always creep back into the church — one way or another.
That principle was illumined by the 1936 book Worship by Evelyn Underhill, in which she showed that Protestants who reject visual symbols simply heard them expressed in “hymns rich in concrete images and emotional suggestion” — in other words, the symbols were experienced “by means of the ear instead of the eye.”
It’s also evident in a more recent Christianity Today Her.meneutics blog by Michelle Van Loon titled, “The Church Deserves Better than Ugly Decorations.”
Even in congregations devoid of intentional spiritual aesthetics, buildings become the repositories of tacky sacred art, gaudy banners and the spurned leftovers from various home decorating trends.
“At a time where home design has its own network in addition to a host of shelter magazines, maybe it’s time to ask different questions before we bring in either Granny’s doilies or the latest wrought iron wall art from the craft store to adorn our worship space,” she wrote.
‘A spiritual place’
The answers to questions Van Loon asks about the role of space in worship — its welcoming message and how it connects worshipers to God — have separated European and American Christians since shortly after the time of the Reformation. And while many — and possibly most — Baptists have ended up on the no-frills side of the debate, many have not.
First Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio, was built in 1913 by a group of Baptists who valued beauty in art, worship and architecture. The result was a structure that resembles a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox cathedral more than the typical downtown Baptist church.
“I think that’s really important” to play up the aesthetic, said Rodney Kennedy, First Baptist’s senior pastor. “We want to do everything in our power to show that beauty is important in the message of Christianity.”
The American Baptist congregation recently spent $400,000 to enhance the sanctuary, which is adorned with massive stained-glass windows, vaulted ceilings and mosaics of each of the 12 apostles on the building’s pillars.
Kennedy said aesthetics can be used to instruct the faithful on theological concepts and bridge the gap between the sacred and the mundane.
“Beauty touches us in a spiritual place that plainness just can’t get to,” Kennedy told ABPnews/Herald.
“Mostly, what you get is people having a sense of reverence and a sense of awe when they walk into a place like this — that is what the people who build this building were trying to say,” he said.
Distractions from the Word
But there was a time when Baptists were almost uniformly agreed on a “less is better” approach to church architecture and decoration, said Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
“Baptists started out as Puritans in terms of their understanding of the worship environment, which in many ways was anti-Catholic and anti-Anglican,” Leonard said.
Ornate decorations were seen as opulent distractions from the centrality of preaching, he said. Many Baptists referred to their churches as meeting houses instead of churches.
Art, along with musical instruments, did not make their way into Baptist sanctuaries until the 19th century, when murals of the Jordan River became popular behind baptisteries.
More religiously overt architecture and art thrived as Baptists moved into the mainstream and began competing with Presbyterian, Methodist and other traditions, Leonard said.
However, the aversion to aesthetics has not disappeared in modern Baptist or other churches. The megachurch movement sanitized its worship spaces in order to attract and keep the unchurched and those with negative views of Christianity, Leonard said.
And there are still many congregations that see such decorations as either idolatrous or simply distractions from the preaching of the Word.
‘It draws you’
But beauty can actually help worshipers better connect with preaching and, for that matter, with God, said Brent Beasley, pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
Broadway is currently undergoing a renovation of its sanctuary, including all new seating and flooring, repairs of cracks and a complete repainting.
The huge sanctuary, with its stained glass and immense ceilings, draws people into worship the moment they enter the room, Beasley said.
“You are drawn upward by the vaulted ceilings and the beauty of the stained glass — it moves you.”
The experience of sacred space prepares worshipers for the preaching to come, he added.
“It’s definitely the opposite of a distraction,” Beasley said. “It draws you toward the presence of God.”
Simplicity ‘a valid choice’
Churches that reject visible or physical representations of the holy usually acknowledge those elements in other ways, said Lisa Cole Smith, pastor and artistic director of The Church at Convergence, a congregation that supports the arts and is a member of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
“They do that with the Lord’s Supper and baptism … and the offering,” Smith said. “These are things that include a visual element — in other words, they require the use of our eyes.”
But Smith added that to be sacred, space does not need to be symbolically decorated.
“A bare space can have aesthetic beauty. Simplicity is a valid choice, like periods of silence.”
The key is to be intentional about connecting space with a congregation’s theological beliefs.
“It should not be a question of taste, but of how it reflects our view of God,” she said.