Eyes Fixed on Him

Christ Preaching in Nazareth, 14th c. fresco
Christ Preaching in Nazareth, 14th c. fresco

“The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” (Luke 4:20)

 * * *

Rather than meditate on the story told in today’s text, I’d like to riff on this one sentence and think about the spaces in which we meet to worship. This sentence communicates well the purpose for the rooms in which we gather for worship as Christians:

They should be designed so that they fix our eyes on Jesus.

I am a traditionalist when it comes to the sanctuary. In my opinion, it should be a different kind of space than any other we encounter in our daily lives. It should be a space designed to communicate Christ. That’s the bottom line.

Saying that does not commit us to any particular level of  “artsyness” or “churchiness” — I have seen gymnasiums transformed into spaces that encouraged a focus on Christ, and I have seen elaborate sanctuaries that did not. However, what is unacceptable is the sentiment that it doesn’t matter where we meet or how we set up the place of worship. Sure, Paul and Silas could worship in a jail in Philippi, but they didn’t have any say in their surroundings. We usually do, and if we do we ought to make sure they direct our attention to Jesus.

In my Lutheran tradition, this means that the sanctuary should draw our attention to a few important things that emphasize the central truths of our faith:

  • The Altar. By placing this symbol front and center, we show what (or better, Who) is at the heart of our faith. God is really present with us through Christ in worship and gives us sacramental grace. We direct our attention to him right there at the front and center of the room and offer him our prayers and praises. From him there we receive grace through his gifts of bread and wine. There we present our offerings. From there we hear his words of forgiveness and benediction.
  • The Pulpit. By placing this piece of furniture prominently in the front, the Word of God’s grace in Christ, the Gospel, stays before our eyes as well as our ears. I am in favor of substantial pulpits, not merely lecterns on a stage provided for a speaker’s convenience. Jesus the Living Word is proclaimed to us through the life-giving Word of the Gospel from God’s written Word the Bible. We do not come to hear a motivational speaker or rhetorician, but one who holds forth the Word of Life. For this reason, I also think preachers should be robed, so as not to draw attention to themselves, but to present themselves “in uniform” as those who represent the King and his Kingdom.
  • The Font. The font should always be visible and prominent in the sanctuary. Worshipers should pass it either when entering the nave (the place of the congregation) or when approaching the chancel (the place of the altar). This is a visible reminder that we can come into God’s presence to worship only because we have been washed clean through baptism, having died with Christ and having been raised to walk in new life (Hebrews 10:22, Romans 6:1-4).
  • The Cross. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified…” (1Cor. 1:22). The sanctuary should have a cross that is prominent and visible to all worshipers, for our focus when we gather should be on the One who loved us and gave himself for us. Churches for the past generation have done away with crosses and other religious symbols, and in my view they have thus communicated that their gatherings are more about signs of power or the teaching of wisdom than about a crucified Savior. We must instead be relentlessly insistent about this: our sanctuaries should express that our services are about the Jesus who died for us that we might have life.

christ-preaching-in-the-synagogue-at-nazareth-14th-c-fresco-Visoki-Decani-Monastery-KosovoOther Considerations

As much as possible, the sanctuary should be a place of light. Natural light through glass and stained glass reminds us that we have received the light of life and are children of the day and not the night.

Two sanctuaries that I love actually have large glass windows on the front wall, behind the altar, so that the backdrop for the chancel is filled with natural light. The first is Denise Spencer’s Catholic church in Kentucky, where the windows behind the altar allow the congregation to see the beauty of God’s creation. This sets Christ’s redemptive work in the context of the world God made. The second is the chapel at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Behind the altar are windows through which the congregation looks out on the busy streets of Chicago. This reminds them that the Gospel they hear and receive in the sanctuary is to be lived and proclaimed out there, in the real world of daily life.

Those who provide music for worship should not be front and center, but should either be off to the side or in the back. A worship service is not a concert, and the musicians should not be prominent. The chancel is God’s space and should be reserved for altar and pulpit — it is not a “stage” for performance.

Artwork, icons, statuary, and other decorative elements should be kept as simple as possible so that they communicate clearly and definitely and point to Christ and the Gospel. I personally think that such things as stained glass windows which tell the Biblical story or which follow the stations of the cross or another theological scheme are wonderful aids to worship and understanding, especially for children. Using the colors of the liturgical season tastefully in the sanctuary can be a helpful way of visualizing the story of Christ as well.

And may I say once again: none of this need be elaborate or “high church” or ostentatious. Indeed, in most cases I think it better if our sanctuaries have a simple and natural feel to them, so that our intentions are clear that what we do is about Christ and not about showing off our sophistication.

May we do all we can so that when people come to worship, their eyes may be drawn to Jesus and fixed on him.

81 thoughts on “Eyes Fixed on Him

  1. If this is what you got from my post then I am not communicating my point well or am being heard through a filter. Done with this topic, moivng on…….


  2. In your analysis I think there is a third point you are missing: the proper place of tradition in shaping identity. I would suggest that many of these things can either draw our attention to Christ or not, not because of what they are in and of themselves, but because of what the church has made of them through the centuries and our continued efforts to use them in a Christocentric fashion.

    The contemporary church has argued that because they are old and traditional they no longer have power. I would argue just the opposite: because they carry the weight of history, they can have even greater power today. However, this does not happen automatically. Each generation must carry on the tradition with fresh enthusiasm, adding to it and altering it in appropriate ways.

    What has happened in churches in the revivalist tradition is that they have received and developed traditions that are rooted in the 19th century rather than earlier. Some churches today have even shallower roots in the 1970’s and 80’s church growth and seeker movements that grew out of revivalism. No one is without tradition and no one truly starts from ground zero. The question is whether we cut down the old growth forests and save only the more recent trees, or find a way to include both as a way of honoring our entire family heritage.


  3. Mike, I never implied or stated these things were bad because of their pagan origin. I was simply pointed out that the church, in order to be relevant to pagans. adopted many pagan forms into worship. This should make us analyze two things: first, was the church wrong in doing this? Second, which of these things function today to draw our attention to Christ?

    I fully agree with your main point that church buildings and furniture should be designed to bring the focus on Christ. I may disagree on whether a particular item actually does this for the people we serve, however.


  4. Sorry, but my point is not that these things are bad because of their origin. That would be committing a variation of the genetic fallacy.

    My argument, again, was against Steve’s original post which implied churches were abandoning things like candles, vestments, pulpits, banners, etc, in order to outsiders, but in doing so were moving away from a Christ-shaped worship. I am simply pointing out that many of these things arose EXACTLY TO APPEAL TO OUTSIDERS and thus have no sacrosanct status. They are not New Testament. They are not apostolic. And therefore, each must be examined to see if it really does serve to be christo-centric in its effects to the people we intend to serve.


  5. What you call “divisions” are actually differences of opinion concerning methods. This is something which Christians are free to disagree on, and they do not create division in the body of Christ, only diversity. But communicating Christ through any means possible is hardly a “non-essential” difference. The other day I had a low-church evangelical friend tell me that whether to Baptize infants or not was a non-essential difference, but ordaining homosexuals was outright heresy. Everybody has their priorities, and I think keeping Christ at the heart of the church’s worship should pretty high on the list for every Christian.


  6. FWIW, many Lutheran congregations use the movable wooden table for their altar. I understand the third century isn’t considered the “early church,” but it is still darned early in the development process. However, I do believe Newman is wrong about a few things. While the Kyrie may have been present in pagan cultures/religions, it is also pulled directly from scripture, especially accounts in the Gospels of those in need of healing addressing this prayer directly to Jesus, in person (which is what we believe happens in the Divine Service as well).

    And if by “ecclesiastical chant” he is referring to Gregorian, he’d be wrong again because we all know that the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, whispered the modes into the ear of Pope Gregory the great.

    On a more serious note… I don’t really see the problem with any of these things being of secular origin. I am going to continue to wear my wedding ring and decorate my Christmas tree all the same because they have taken on culturally defined symbolism that are universal. In worship, anything that points to Christ is a harmless way to “recommend the religion to the heathen.” What often replaces these tried and true traditions is often something that distracts from Christ in order to “recommend the religion to the heathen.”

    I can understand why some might object to the complexity of liturgical science which demands your pointy hat be exactly the right length and the strict observance of the feast of the 138th fruit. But since all Christian churches will read and expound on Scripture, baptize and celebrate communion, I can’t see any harm that could possibly come from structuring your worship space to highlight the importance of these things. Of course, in some churches, these things aren’t really important at all, and I would argue that their use of space reflects this rightly.


  7. There’s nothing wrong in “co-opting” what is good/true/beautiful in a culture, in order to lead those in that culture towards Christ. We did it with the Greco-Roman pagans, we’ve been doing it ever since (on a regional scale) with pagans in every land we evangelize. Faith has to find expression, if a culture offers ready-made, non-syncretic means of expression than those should be used.


  8. The attitude of the RC Catholic church is that, if a hymn contains correct theology, it belongs to the universal church, and may be used in RC Catholic worship even if it was written by a Protestant Christian; it’s the content, not the source, that matters.
    May you and your wife encounter the Lord everywhere along your journey to and in your new church home.


  9. See the quote from Newman. The early church didn’t invent them (or at least many of them) They are post-Constantine and were co-opted from the pagans in order to appeal to the pagans. I am a little surprised so few see the irony of this.


  10. My wife and I are putting our swim suits on and preparing to swim the Tiber this Easter. The thing I’ve found most interesting in attending Mass is that the Catholic hymnal used draws extensively from Protestant hymnody. There has not been a Mass since we’ve been attending last summer that has not used one familiar tune, at least. And there are weeks where all of the hymns have deep Protestant roots. Even Luther’s Ein Feste Burg is in there. Yesterday’s tunes included HYFRODOL (near and dear to us as the tune to one of our wedding hymns) and a tune I recognized as one of Louis Bourgeois’, the great composer of the Genevan Psalter in the 1550’s. (Calvin must be spinning in his grave.)


  11. I’m 54 years old and still recall my mother’s statement about turning to look at the choir-loft during Mass: “You’ll turn into a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife. Face the altar and pay attention.”


  12. The “performance ethos” is not something subject to our control, since it involves the personal attitude and perspective of every musician participating. The best we can do is encourage and teach the role of music as servant to the word and sacrament ministry. So long as the altar and pulpit remain front and center, the exact position of instruments is really not something we can be very assertive about. I like having the choir not only in the back, but also in the loft, because the sound of invisible, disembodied voices floating down from above reminds us that we join with the angels in heaven when we sing the praises of God. However, having the musicians in front, but off to the side, is acceptable as well, because it ties in with the idea that the music serves the ministry of the Word by proclaiming its message and always singing in support of it.


  13. Though I appreciate the reasoning for having choir and musicians in back, I myself don’t prefer it or think it necessary. Personally, I like them off to the side as representatives of the congregation who are helping lead the congregation in worship. They can help direct our attention to the presence of God, which is represented at the chancel.


  14. They aren’t a part of the Gospel. But they are shaped by it and proceeding from it as a method of communicating it. If the Gospel is dear to your heart, then the only legitimate reason for rejecting these things is for something that does what they do better. But that is never the reason churches don’t have these things.


  15. It is OK…the typos and the opinions. Please note that we are ALL throwing around opinions and feeling, not delineating doctrine (our personal version or anyone else’s).


  16. About as weak and sporatic as you remember overall….BUT…this is our second week with a brand-new (to us) pastor, one who has a rich and powerful baritone voice. Best set of pipes ever from the altar, and I have been in a lot of churches for Mass!


  17. Wow, you are relatively local. I worshiped for a time at St. John’s(Lutheran) in Orange. I wonder how many other commentors are in the SoCal area? I know Steve is too.


  18. Daniel, to use one of Newman’s examples, I don’t imagine you have any doubts about the preciousness of your wedding ring and how it signifies to you the loving bond you have with your wife. Yet that at one time was apparently a pagan rite. Some Christian traditions, in fact, have only begun accepting it in the past few generations. For many of us, however, it would have been unthinkable to not exchange rings as symbols of our vows.

    Symbols have contexts in which they bear meaning, and historically and traditionally many elements of church architecture and design as well as liturgical practices have been loosed from their pagan connections and have come to signify elements of the Gospel within the context of the communities that practice them. Some of these practices can remain parochial, connected to one stream or another of tradition. However others become broad symbols of “mere Christianity.”

    That is how Robert Webber can argue, for example, after studying thousands of different worship traditions, that there is a basic fourfold pattern of Christian worship that undergirds them all.

    I would suggest that elements like altar (table), pulpit (in one form or another), font (some visible representation of baptism), and cross (whether crucifix or plain cross) have become symbols of this broad variety. They do communicate Christ because, through long use they have come to embody our theology and represent Christ for us and before the world. And frankly, sometimes I think the world gets confused when we abandon our own symbols!


  19. I quite agree that the theology, architecture, or liturgy of the church should never be designed with a goal to attract outsiders. It is poor ecclesiology and a mistake.

    My point was that, according to Newman, the church made THIS mistake in adopting many of the practices some people now see as sacrosanct.

    I don’t want to repeat this mistake, nor do I want to continue its forms without question.

    Yes, let’s design everything so that, as much as it lies within us, it all points to Christ. But let’s not assume that practices co-opted from the pagans (in order to reach pagans) necessarily have a christocentric function.


  20. I’m fine with making sure that we practice genuine hospitality toward those who are outside the church. However, I still insist on my main point: whatever we do in setting up our worship spaces ought to point to Christ.

    IMO, we do ourselves no favors when we downplay Jesus and the Gospel as a means of reaching outsiders. Many will argue that matters of architecture, design, and furnishings are “neutral” and don’t matter as long as we are proclaiming the message. Are we really 50 years after Marshall McLuhan and we still don’t see that such a position is indefensible?

    And does reaching outsiders require the kinds of radical breaks with history and tradition that we have seen in those 50 years? I suggest (and will write about it this week), that truly engaging people in our culture has little to do with presenting ourselves as “like them, only Christian.” It has much more to do with being radically countercultural in a variety of ways. And one thing that is absolutely countercultural is simple, thoughtful, Biblically, theologically, historically, and traditionally informed Christ-centered worship.


  21. No, Marcus, you didn’t use the phrase “reinvent the wheel”; I used it. And I wasn’t referring to you when I did. I was having a back-and-forth with Daniel (see above). But since you waded in: I readily agree to your point that a heavy-handed use of ceremonial and empty ritual can be excessive as well as alienating. Obviously we have not inherited a monolithically unified liturgical tradition from the past; there have been many fractures and splits, and there is much diversity in the inheritance that’s been passed to us. In addition, recent scholarship suggests that the liturgical practices of the earliest generations of Christians may also have had a greater variety of expression than previously thought, including even certain things that have been taken for granted by the major Christian liturgical traditions, for instance the elements used in Holy Communion, and the words and gestures that accompanied the Communion/Meal. Given the fact that Global Christianity, which is growing exponentially, tends to be much less traditional liturgically, traditionalists like me are just going to have to get used to being one party among many. So I’ll take a dose of the humility I thoughtlessly recommended to Daniel above, and do my best to accept the pluriformity of Christian worship practices in the world as an expression of the Spirit who cannot be contained by any set of human practices.
    It’s amazing what correction followed by a few minutes of reflection can yield.
    Peace, my brothers.


  22. Mike, I agree with your last two paragraphs completely, and really don’t have a problem with your post as written. My original comment in this thread was not directed towards you, but to Steve, who implied that we would be in dire straits unless we had “our pulpit, our altar, our lectern, our pews, our candles, our font (prominently placed), our hymnals, our vestments, or liturgical banners, and our cross.”

    If Cardinal Newman is correct (and I don’t think anyone here can match his authority on the development of church doctrine and practice) then at least some of the things Steve listed developed not for theological reasons, but in order to “recommend the new religion to the heathen”. In other words, they developed in order to make the church more relevant to those outside it.

    I think the implications of those last two sentences are well worth pondering.


  23. Actually I was refering to the article, not the responses. I feel like we are being asked to agree or explain why we think the list of ‘shoulds’ is wrong and I’m not sure it’s necessary to focus on such divisions. We have a large percentage of the American Christian population running off to buy a sex book by Discol or build Noah’s ark out of popsickle sticks out in a corn field or something. We need to stick together not focus on non-essential differences.


  24. Elizabeth, you are making a pretty errant generalization of the commenters on this post. Did you read my earlier posts?


  25. Yes, I know about unofficial patterns in non-litergical churches. Of course you have no way of knowing that I know the difference between or similarities among an ‘order of worship’ and the ‘Book of Common Prayer’ or the ‘Church Calendar’, but I do.. I have a Masters in Anthroplogy, so I see my denomination within the the cultural construct that it is…..as I do you’re as well. While I appreciate the rich symbolism and deliberate formation of a worshipful environment that you describe, the number of ‘shoulds’ that appear in your list is what I am responding to. If this was reading as a list of exclusively personal preferences or an explanation of choices rather than what reads to me as ‘properness’ or ‘rightness’, I would have no issue.

    And no, I will no respond by doing the same because I do find beauty and worshipfullness in the high-church buildings that I have visited. I served as an ASL interpeter at a Lutheran church and every time I signed ‘God’, there he was in a stained glass window. We walked the side halls fo National Cathedral this October to take in the wonder of the details. But I have also found beauty and worshipfulness in the simple mountain Baptist church my great-great grandfather established soon after the Revolution, or the stone churches, or even the chapel at Jamestowne. And don’t get me started on the beauty of communion with my husband and kids at the base of a waterfall 🙂

    I think when we dictate what is a ‘should’ for a sanctuary, we assume that everyone has the same needs and personalities. As for devisive, I suppose I am simply not sure why this topics is raised as it was. Rather than a fomat for discussing variations in what we individualy find facilities our own worship experience, to me, it just seems a reason to form sides.


  26. I never used the term “reinvent the wheel,” Robert F, and it actually shows great humility to be in a continuing process of assessing and reassessing the symbols that we use in worship. In contrast, it’s awfully pretentious to rest so heavily on these symbols that we assume that everyone can engage these symbols in the same way and draw the same meaning.


  27. We are advocates on Internet Monk (as was Michael Spencer, its founder), for thoughtful and Jesus-shaped liturgy. ALL churches have liturgy, Elizabeth. Liturgy is nothing more than the pattern by which we worship. In my experience, “low-church, non-liturgical” churches are often more set in their ways with regard to their worship patterns and practices than anyone else. We also think that many of the non-liturgical churches have missed out by not appreciating the history and tradition of the Church.

    These are our opinions. It is the purpose of a blog to state our opinions. But we also love participating in discussion with people who have different ideas. So, please don’t take the fact that we may state our opinions strongly as “divisive.” Consider it an opportunity for you to respond by doing the same.


  28. Ignatius:

    Take care, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup that leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop, together with the council of presbyters and the deacons, my fellow servants), in order that whatever you do, you do in accordance with God. (Philadelphians 4:1)

    An “altar” can just be a simple table on which the communion elements rest. And Mark, an “altar” need not signify a place where a sacrifice is actually taking place but may refer to the place where one is being commemorated. Otherwise Lutherans would run from the term as fast as possible.

    As for baptism, the church probably baptized in various locations. This doesn’t really affect my point, which is that is a salutary practice in our churches to have a visible reminder of baptism (which, of course, many if not most churches do).

    It is beyond argument that one of your main points is correct: practices have evolved. But I think people are misunderstanding my point. Nowhere did I say that these things come from biblical commandments on the level of what God revealed to Moses as the divine pattern by which we are to worship.

    I am saying that they point to Christ and that whatever we do in setting up our worship spaces ought to point to Christ.

    As I said in the article, “what is unacceptable is the sentiment that it doesn’t matter where we meet or how we set up the place of worship.”


  29. Anyone else find it impossible to resist turning around to look at a choir that’s positioned in the back? Maybe it’s just me. But there are other ways to control the “performance” ethos, I think.


  30. “This is that the concert ethos is not created, and so that an appropriate symbol is front and center, with worship directed toward it.”

    A necessary clarification … I of course mean worship directed not at a symbol, but at what that symbol represents to worshipper.


  31. I am at some sympathy (but not agreement) with those who want to interrogate whether certain symbols are still appropriate. I am willing at least to listen when substancial and appropriate alternative symbolism is suggested. Don’t think an altar in the front of the sanctuary is appropriate? Well, OK, then what do you want there instead, and is there a valid theological rationale for it?

    What I don’t particularly like is the dismissal of the symbol of the priest/pastor as mediator, only to bring in something that “engages” the “culture” by substituting for the altar or the cross or pulpet a Personality whose antics and persona make that particular person and his message the mediator. Then, you’ve substituted the general symbol of a mediator for a personality cult (from the frying pan to heart of the the volcano!). Even worse, slam a big screen TV and a worship band up there, in a culture where muscians are Rock Stars. Then you’ve lost all your theological symbolism and again you’ve got a personality cult.

    Symbolically, I have a hard time with contemporary worship because of the basic setup of the service. Yeah, I don’t esp. like CCM….but its beyond that. I’d be more sympathetic if the “worship band” were placed in a particular location–to the site, or behind the congregation, somewhere they are not visible. This is that the concert ethos is not created, and so that an appropriate symbol is front and center, with worship directed toward it.

    I had one too many services in college where breathy singers left people leaving the service with comments like, “So-and-so is just so on fire for God!” I don’t think the singers were striving for that result, bit it’s the result they got.


  32. Ah, Robert, no apology needed, but thanks. I think we are just coming from different backgrounds. I was in a mainline church as a child, but spent all my teen years and bible college years in baptist background, followed by an Evangelical Free seminary, and then serving three non-denominational churches. In other words, I am low church more out of circumstance than anything else. I have no desire to change anyone’s liturgy. I am just trying figure out my own role in the low-church I find myself a pastor of.


  33. All of those things cited by Newman are very good, and used/understood properly serve their purpose of directing one’s heart and mind towards God. Any of them could change, or vanish altogether; but being human we will always need something tactile. As for what Chaplain Mike listed – even an altar (as opposed to a simple table) is not strictly necessary, though it is fitting. It’s also fitting that the Word be proclaimed and “broken open” from a place apart; that we be reminded of our baptism into Christ by means of the font; and above all that we look upon Him whom we too pierced with our sins and Who died for us, *as* He died for us.


  34. We don’t have to have a lot of that stuff (we are free not to), but we do it because it anchors us in Christ, and keeps us from floating hither and yon at somebody’s whim.


  35. I love this site, but for the first time I feel like I am being told that my ‘low church’, non-litergical denomination isn’t meeting the ‘basic standards’. This feels divisive.


  36. Thank you Daniel. This is one time I am not even a little bit in agreement with Mike.

    My Christ is risen, there is no need for an altar – all sacrifices necessary for salvation have been made (c.f. Hebrews).


  37. Daniel,
    Perhaps suggesting a lack of humility is putting things in a less than irenic way. My apologies. But what I see happening in the attempt to re-invent liturgy and worship for each local congregation is the creation of thousands of little island-churches with only the most tenuous connections to each other, churches that skate on the thin ice of relevance until the ice melts, at which point the relevant worship they devised quickly becomes irrelevant, and there is not enough awareness of the rich soil of traditional forms of worship to even attempt a ressourcement or reconnection.
    Once again, sorry if I gave offense.


  38. HUG,
    Sometimes you Tiber swimmers make me miss the RC Church; I guess I’m a Tiber swimmer, too, but I swam in the opposite direction. At least one good thing that’s come out of my little dip is that I’ve learned to sing, both with the congregation and in the choir, something that I never did as a kid growing up post-Vatican II and then as a young man fruitlessly trying to reconcile with Mother Church. Tell me, how is the congregational singing in the RC Church these days?


  39. Hi Robert. My words were a call to be thoughtful and intentional about how symbols become interpreted by the people we are trying to serve. I don’t see how this reflects a lack of humility.


  40. I could be wrong Mike, but I understood the earliest church to baptize outdoors. The early pastors used everyday garb. As for altars and communion, the most definitive quote I have seen is this:

    “The earliest Christians had no altars, and were taunted by the pagans for this. It is admitted by Origen in his reply to Celsus (p. 389), who has charged the Christians with being a secret society “because they forbid to build temples, to raise altars.” “The altars,” says Origen, “are the heart of every Christian.” The same appears from a passage in Lactantius, De Origine Erroris, ii. 2. We gather from these passages that down to about A.D. 250, or perhaps a little later, the communion was administered on a movable wooden table. ”

    As for some of the other things (like vestments) Cardinal Newman, in his influential Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, writes about how many of the medieval church practices came about:

    “The example set by St. Gregory in an age of persecution was impetuously followed when a time of peace succeeded. In the course of the fourth century two movements or developments spread over the face of Christendom, with a rapidity characteristic of the Church; the one ascetic, the other ritual or ceremonial. We are told in various ways by Eusebius, [373:1] that Constantine, in order to recommend the new religion to the heathen, transferred into it the outward ornaments to which they had been accustomed in their own. It is not necessary to go into a subject which the diligence of Protestant writers has made familiar to most of us. The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints, and ornamented on occasions with branches of trees; incense, lamps, and candles; votive offerings on recovery from illness; holy water; asylums; holydays and seasons, use of calendars, processions, blessings on the fields; sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure, the ring in marriage, turning to the East, images at a later date, perhaps the ecclesiastical chant, and the Kyrie Eleison, [373:2] are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the Church.
    Newman, John Henry Cardinal (2011-03-24). An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Kindle Location 5245).

    Thus Cardinal Newman locates these items as arising in the third century, and as way of syncretizing with pagan practices in order to “recommend the new religion to the heathen”.


  41. “Each church and pastor, then, needs to reflect on”….. how to reinvent the wheel? The catholic traditions of Christianity carry such richness in worship resources that it requires a real lack of humility for a local pastor or church to think they could possibly liturgically-engineer, out of largely parochial rather than universal and conciliar concerns, more meaningful and theologically coherent worship.


  42. Let’s see, what did the early church have?

    Most congregations probably met in a home, so they had a space. They had some kind of font or pool in which to baptize. They had bread and wine with which to celebrate communion, so they likely had a table to put them on from which the officiant led in the prayers. As early as Ignatius we have talk of “the altar.” They had scrolls of the Hebrew Bible and perhaps copies of NT letters, so they had the written Word, and if it was a large group, the speaker may have had a designated place from which to present his message and read the Scriptures. They sang hymns so they may have had instruments and singers. As the art in the early frescoes and catacombs shows, they visualized their faith in pictures and symbols.

    Are these not the very things I talk about in the post? I would call these things essentials because one simply does not have a Christian meeting with real human beings in space and time without them.


  43. How long does it take for an “assimilated” symbol to become “indigenous”?
    100 years?
    I haven’t heard much lately of Wicker Men, Lares & Ancestors, Olympian deities, Riding Odin’s Horse, or other “indigenous” symbols & customs of Northern & Southern Europe.


  44. Let’s check the space I was in from 0930 to 1100 PST this morning, St Boniface in Anaheim (built 1961):

    Altar right in front of us, with larger-than-life crucifix on the apse wall behind it.

    Stained glass clerestory on both sides; seven windows on the left for the Seven Cardinal Virtues, seven windows on the right for the Fruits of the Spirit, each personified by a saint who was known for the particular virtue or fruit. Below the clerestory, a frieze of the Stations of the Cross in mosaic.

    Choir in a dedicated choir loft above and behind the congregation.

    English-language Mass, Third Sunday in Ordinary Time; first reading about Ezra & Nehemiah rebuilding the Temple, second reading from one of Paul’s epistles, Gospel reading of Jesus reading in the synagogue and declaring the subject of the reading “fulfilled among you this very day.” Nicene Creed.


  45. One of the great tragedies of the last 40 years in churches has been the wholesale abandonment of these things, often for no better reason than “We don’t want to do it that way,” or “That’s too traditional (or Catholic)” or “We want to be ‘relevant’ to the likes and dislikes of others,” or in many cases, “None of this stuff really matters.”

    For an example of what happens to “Being Relevant(TM)”, search YouTube for that cutting-edge RELEVANT comedy revue of the 1960s, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In”.


  46. In that case, some of the important symbols of Christianity, such as the symbolic cross or crucifix, were not indigenous to most of Europe either, but were assimilated into the many and varied local cultures across Europe with the expansion of Christendom. The cross both as a symbol and as a method of humiliation and torturous execution was only indigenous to the Roman Empire (and Republic?) and other societies that utilized it as an instrument of death and terror. The cross is not really a symbol indigenous to the subculture of Christianity; it was assimilated by Christianity from Roman civilization as a fit visual icon of the sacrifice of Christ, but that assimilation didn’t happen until the (I believe) third of fourth century C.E.. Before that, there is no historical evidence of the cross used as a pictorial or visual symbol of Christianity. In fact, it only was adopted as such a symbol after crucifixion as a form of capital punishment had been abolished.


  47. This discussion reminds us that the meaning and rationale for all visible symbols (and others as well) should be continually communicated, not simply assumed. One of the great tragedies of the last 40 years in churches has been the wholesale abandonment of these things, often for no better reason than “We don’t want to do it that way,” or “That’s too traditional (or Catholic)” or “We want to be ‘relevant’ to the likes and dislikes of others,” or in many cases, “None of this stuff really matters.” There is a serious lack of understanding that habitual practices function on a corporate as well as an individual level, and that the “liturgies” and elements that we are now using to replace the simple, functional elements I suggest here have transformed the church in many of the ways we’ve critiqued here on Internet Monk.


  48. Chaplain Mike,
    I take it that you would agree with me that a large white butterfly decorating the crosspiece of the center altar cross at Easter is a big sacred space faux pas? And yes, I’ve seen it done, just this last Easter season at the ELCA church my wife serves as Music Director.


  49. They probably had meeting places/house churches a lot more like what Cermak described. If they even had that much. But the lack wasn’t from an attempt to be “relevant”, either.


  50. Marcus, I agree with you. A symbol does not carry its own interpretation. The same symbol can mean quite different things to two people, based on their culture and background. For example, for many people a minister in a robe conveys a message that he is a priest or mediator (or at least a different type of person than the “laity”). When this happens, it undermines the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and can thereby take a person’s eyes off of Christ and onto this “mediator” of Christ.

    The same thing can happen, to use another example, with the pulpit. It can become in many people’s eyes a way of setting the speaker apart has someone unique and God-ordained. Thus, at least in the church I grew up in, it served to reinforce the preacher’s status rather than point to Christ.

    Again, I am not saying that this is always (or even normally) the case. My point is that the interpretation of the symbol cannot be assumed in a culture like ours. Each church and pastor, then, needs to reflect on what does and does not point people to Christ within that church”s tradition and in the eyes of the people they are actually serving (and those they hope to serve).


  51. There seems to be some confusion over the term indigenous, which refers to something that occurs naturally within a culture. By its very definition, something cannot “become” indigenous. A symbol can be assimilated into a culture, for sure (and I’m happy to see the cross and the altar as assimilated symbols in any culture), but that does not make that symbol indigenous.

    I will agree with you, however, that a lot of mainstream denominations and church communities, for the sake of “marketing” Christianity to a wider base, have eliminated those icons. That is a concern for me as well.


  52. And my point was that regardless of origins, these symbols are now indigenous. It is the white, male dominated American-import religion (mostly of the prosperity gospel type, but also baptists and other evangelical groups) that do away with these symbols.


  53. Both Latin America and Africa have been heavily influenced by European colonization in the past five centuries (that phenomenon also included the missionary movement). Even though folks from other cultures identify these symbols as Christ-centered, we cannot separate them from the cultural identity of the missionaries that initially introduced Christianity to them.

    Again, this doesn’t invalidate or discredit the use of these symbols; my only concern is that we need to contextualize them, as opposed to assuming that they have universal meaning to all peoples everywhere.


  54. Marshal McLuhan was a devout Catholic, and I assume that liturgal space had great significance for the man who coined the phrase, “the medium is the message”.
    But McLuhan’s focus was on not merely on the liturgical spaces and practices, but primarily on Jesus; he stated that Christ Himself was both the medium AND the message.


  55. Regarding your second point, I’m not sure most world Christians would agree. I have spent time in Latin America, and they all “do church” about like what CM describes. We worship with a group of Sudanese refugees, and Anglicanism is by far the fastest growing Christian tradition in their area. In neither case do the people associate the symbols or setups with white, male, or European. They identify them with Christ. Anecdotal, I know, but something to consider.


  56. Don’t get me wrong; I love the suggestions in this post. However, I would throw in a couple of caveats, maybe just to play devil’s advocate:

    1. The symbols and suggestions that Chaplain Mike suggests have significance within a particular cultural context. Nowhere in the NT did anyone state that these symbols were required for authentic worship (with the exception of Communion elements), only that there were certain comprehensive principles that defined authentic worship.

    2. We should probably acknowledge that these symbols gained their significance within a White-identified, male-dominant, European-based tradition. By saying this, I don’t mean to negate the validity of these symbols, just to contextualize them within a particular faith tradition.

    3. It might be a good idea to check in with our respective congregations every now and then, just to assess whether or not the worship traditions and artifacts we use in our church are actually doing what we say they are doing. I’m not saying toss out the cross and the altar, but let’s not make assumptions without proper assessment.


  57. We still have our pulpit, our altar, our lectern, our pews, our candles, our font (prominently placed), our hymnals, our vestments, or liturgical banners, and our cross.

    Some are chucking them to appeal to more people.’

    Where do you end up when you go down that road.

    We don’t want to find out.


  58. I’m trying to figure out if the chapel at the old Campion Hall where I used to worship in college fits the bill here. It was a plain small room, but Fr. Pacwa would put up a cross on the wall that he had brought with him. He set up a table for an altar and lectern and he had a chair. He also robed for the occasion. We sat on the floor or stood (depending on the order). It definitely had no natural light (or window for that matter). Now Madonna della Strada, Loyola’s main chapel, did, and is gorgeous and probably fits all of your criteria (the font was designed to look like it was flowing right out of Lake Michigan (which is on the other side of the glass doors) but it was on the other side of campus and not conducive to my schedule.


  59. Thanks Chaplain Mike ~ that was one of my first impressions when I visited the Lutheran Church. Everything told me about Jesus from windows to altar cloths to the peace in the sanctuary. This post will help me to see more. That was one thing that made me “cringe” as a new believer. I went to my first “Bible” church and there were BIG chairs up front facing the congregation. Sort of like wooden thrones and the pastor and others leading worship sat in those. Very bad “message”.


  60. On my last trip to Rome, I attended Mass in the morning at the back altar of St. Peter’s Basilica – Gregorian chant echoing off the mosaics and gilded stonework; incense curling up towards the Holy Spirit window; every detail expressive of the glory and majesty of God and drawing one into worship. In the afternoon, it was Assisi and the crypt church built around Francis’ tomb: a chamber with rough-hewn rock walls and his coffin in a pillar of earth in the center, no adornment whatsoever but pure simplicity, drawing one into quiet prayer. The two places could not be more different in form but they spoke equally of God


  61. My congregation is the “new” parish in town~the original Catholic church is downtown (on Church Street, with eight or nine other churches!) and was built by German-American workers who came to town to build the railroads and work in the shoe factories. Downtown is stained glass, carved pews, and a soaring altar.

    Meanwhile, we have lots of natural light, blonde wood, and chairs that can be re-configured as needed. BUT…..the altar is front and center, as well as a cross with corpus, as in most Catholic churches. (We tend to focus as much on Good Friday as Easter.) What I like, personally, is a clear glass window above the crucifix and altar, which has horizontal and vertical lines within the circular window, reminisant of a cross. From this window, the seasons change, a tree limb blooms and dies, and evidence of God’s seasons and permanence are there, within the sacrifice of the Mass.


  62. These are some good guidelines. I’m happy to say that I attend a (Baptist) church that fits all of these criteria (save for a large pulpit, the church isn’t big by American standards.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: