After the fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France, endless conversations have emerged about the future of the landmark. The most interesting one, in my view, concerns how the hollowed-out structure should be rebuilt. While some are demanding that reconstruction aim for a precise replication of the previous design, the French Prime Minister announced a contest to redesign the building’s spire. This controversy will last for months, possibly years. Despite the passion on both sides, I’m not convinced there is a correct side here.
Whether we realize it or not, the conversations about rebuilding Notre Dame are actually discussions about the theology of sacred space. Ever since Eden, we humans have struggled to grasp the presence of God—most specifically, where God dwells. Our attempts to understand those places where heaven and earth collide leads us to label places as “holy.” This idea of holy spaces made the Notre Dame destruction so significant: it impacted people across religious lines. On social media, I was intrigued that my Jewish, Hindu, and even atheist friends were deeply grieved over this fire.
This tragedy provides an excellent opportunity for us Christ followers to reexamine our view on sacred spaces. This is something I consider often as it intersects my ministry with CDF Capital. CDF’s goal is to help churches grow and, most frequently, this involves assisting churches with facility issues. As congregations aim to be faithful stewards of their resources, an understanding of sacred space is integral to gospel efforts.
What Kind of Structures Do Churches Need?
It’s interesting to reflect upon the different ways that churches value their buildings. The greatest shift in the view of sacred space in the United States can be traced back to the explosive growth of the suburbs. After World War II, returning American soldiers sought home ownership opportunities outside the urban core. What were once smaller villages soon become massive communities. Among other things, the quick influx of new residents created a need for new houses of worship. And since the expansion of suburbs was so rapid, these buildings looked much different from the church buildings of previous generations.
This forces us to think about the kinds of sacred spaces we seek to create. Generally, churches buildings reflect one of two values: timelessness or utility.
Examine American churches built before the 1940s and you will likely discover most impressive structures. Made of natural materials—like strong timbers or quarried stone—the structures stretched to the sky. Quite often they featured intricate stained glass fashioned by artisans. The value of timelessness was on full display as it was a cultural value of those generations. Church members would marry, raise their kids, marry them off, and have their funerals all in the same sanctuary. This nod to eternity led those Christians to want buildings that would last long after they passed.
Compare this to the new church buildings that sprouted up in suburbia in the 1950s and following. In an automobile society, churches needed ample parking that consumed properties. Since these churches were newer, there were fewer generational ties and the buildings were much more simple. The sanctuary was smaller, with ceilings much lower. They had pews, but the materials to shape them were composite. The stained glass in these structures were essentially large swatches of colored glass. The value of utility was foundational here, where the foremost feature was functionality.
Today very few of the churches that CDF works with are concerned about timelessness. Most congregations want their buildings to facilitate flow and fellowship. Yet even though we no longer value timelessness, we must acknowledge that our houses of worship can serve as a reflection of how we view God himself. As we look to the Bible, we observe that these sacred spaces can provide . . .
“We are His sacred space. We’re walking tabernacles. Where we go, God goes with us.” —@houseofcarr
Space for Beauty
“Worship the Lord in the beauty of his holiness,” we’re instructed in Psalm 29:2. When King Solomon set out to construct the first temple, he employed craftsmen and artisans to ensure that the structure would be breathtaking. The temple was designed “so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God and that there is no other,” we read in 1 Kings 8:60. The temple’s beauty was to be awe-inspiring
This cultural value was clearly evident in the architecture of Notre Dame. I was fortunate enough to enter that building three times, and it’s still one of the most memorable spaces I’ve inhabited. I was humbled just to walk inside of it. Even though most of today’s church architecture is utilitarian, church leaders should consider how they can make use of their existing environments to evoke wonder and force worshippers outside of the norm.
Space for Solemnity
There’s an often-overlooked tidbit in describing how Solomon approached the construction of the temple. In 1 Kings 6:7, we read that the king commanded workers to do all of their loud work away from the building site. Stones were prepared in the quarry so that no hammer or iron tool was heard while it was being built. The lesson here was that the sacred space was other worldly, and the loud noises of life would not be tolerated there. The muted temple would create an environment for worshippers to “be still and know that I am God.”
Even though our modern church buildings are outfitted with robust sound systems (the modern version of previous generations’ stained glass windows?), our structures need to facilitate contemplation. Even though there are exceptions, even non-Christians respect church buildings because they are viewed as spaces of spirituality. Where in your church building are there venues for reflection?
Space for Royalty
Once more I think about Solomon’s temple, specifically the day it was first opened. After the priests withdrew from the worship hall, “the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple” (1 Kings 8:10-11).
Regardless of its architecture, aesthetics, or accoutrements, church buildings provide space for worshippers to encounter God.
This is something that the general public misses out on when it comes to landmark churches. When I visited Notre Dame, it was essentially an attraction. Sure, there were worshippers scattered among the throngs, but predominantly there were tourists talking loudly and posing for pictures. It was as if the King of the Universe were inconsequential in a building constructed for His glory.
Keeping Space Sacred
“Religious passion, when institutionally expressed, is essential for a community but is at the same time deeply open to distortion,” observed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. We must be careful when looking to our church buildings that we do not distort them on either side—whether we emphasize timelessness or utility. In order to arrive at a biblical view of sacred space, we must consider the role that Jesus plays in them. As He does in every instance, Jesus redeems.
Structures themselves aren’t holy; they become sacred when God inhabits them.
If I understand the teachings of the apostle Paul from 1 Corinthians 6, my list of sacred spaces becomes incredibly long. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”
We are His sacred space. We’re walking tabernacles. Where we go, God goes with us.
Last weekend Christians across the globe gathered together to celebrate the resurrection of Christ Jesus—some in structures of stained glass and some in humble huts. The diversity of these places of worship is unparalleled, all filled with millions of sacred spaces that moth or rust (or even fire) cannot destroy.
God calls His people into a story of transformation. We help Christians and churches embrace their part in His story by providing the three kinds of capital every congregation needs for growth. See how you can play a part in the story of transformation.