Thursday, April 22, 2010


Of all the elements of this house design to talk about first I chose: a wall. Oh, but what a wall it is! It is the wall of stone I mentioned before, with a (seemingly) random group of windows. It is the thickest white line at the upper left of the plan on this page. Two feet thick, to be exact. Solid granite. The idea for this element came from ancient church architecture. The west wall of medieval European church buildings was typically built much thicker and with fewer openings than the others. This wall is called the "westworks." It was built as a symbolic shield against evil, sin and death.

The people of this time were attentive to the symbolic content God placed in the natural world. The west is where the sun sets. The sun is a symbol of Jesus - as he said, "I am the light of the world." The setting of the sun then is a symbol of the death of Jesus. Darkness follows. The west takes on all the meanings associated with the crucifixion: the sin of the world, the evil plots of people and demons, the murder of love incarnate. The westworks is an expression of fierce resistance to God's enemies, both outside and within.

By contrast, the east is where light is reborn. After a time of darkness and cold, the sun/Son rises again. This is why the east end of a medieval church is the location of the "rose window" - a huge opening to admit the morning light as soon as it appears, and let it stream all the way back to the westworks. In my house too the window on the east side is the largest in the room.

My site is conveniently situated so that I could orient the whole house east to west without failing to relate to the street. But there is a slight skew that will be obvious, and which I like very much - because it indicates immediately that this house is oriented according to a different order than that of this neighborhood.

So what of all the holes in my westworks? Early on in the design I sketched these, and felt them to signify some violent attack. If the wall is the defense, the holes punched randomly, uncaringly, into it are the offense - a shotgun blast of demonic attack, perhaps, into this rocky shield. Scars remain, for sure, but what happens inside is key. I plan to build translucent shells over the openings, perhaps of thin-cut balsa or bass wood, so that the light coming through creates a brilliant red-orange glow in the room. And on one opening I plan to place a stained glass cross I made. Here then is an expression of something for which God is well-known - taking the evil intentions of people and bringing good from them. The symbolic attacks on my wall are transformed into lanterns to light the room at sunset, and to bring to brilliant life the cross of Christ.

This cross has a mirror at the center of it. I've imagined covering the large east window with translucent material too, but leaving a pinhole somewhere to allow a laser beam of morning sunlight to traverse the space, hit the mirror on the cross at a certain time of the year (Easter?), and reflect back to a spot on the opposite wall where a small inscription reads, perhaps, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"

A historian of medieval art and architecture pointed out that prior to the 16th century it was difficult to find a badly oriented church. They all faced east, in other words, and built up their defenses on the west. They were attuned to the spiritual content of God's creation. So what happened after that? The Reformation. The French Revolution. Enlightenment! Science! We began to study nature from a purely naturalistic perspective - its function, its efficiency, its atomic structure - anything but its spiritual expression. The sun is a ball of burning gases that heats our earth and makes life possible; it is not a symbol of the God who died and rose again to ... make life possible. Naturalistic explanations of the universe have blinded us to the arrows everywhere pointing to its Creator.

The middle ages are sometimes termed the "dark" ages, and there are many good reasons to call them that. Mass illiteracy is one of the smaller ones. But we moderns have plenty of our own darknesses, one of them being another kind of illiteracy. If in medieval times most people were verbally illiterate; in our time most people are visually illiterate. We've lost the practice of reading the visual metaphors God has placed all around us.

Some may object and say that we can understand symbols in nature. Indeed we still have the God-given faculty of recognizing and interpreting visual symbols. But for a long time we have not practiced it, because we haven't trusted symbols with truth. We don't look to speechless physical things to discover life-changing truth about God and ourselves. We trust God's verbal works but not his visual works. This is why our church buildings face every which way, and why our worship spaces are caverns meant to shut out every trace of the natural world.

But God has always used metaphors to communicate, both verbal and visual. A gospel writer tells us that Jesus never spoke without using a parable. A parable is a metaphor, a symbol. And another gospel writer tells us that Jesus was there at the creation of everything, that nothing was made without him. He spoke in parables then too, but visual ones, designing every creature, rock, tree, and star to say without words truths about himself and the world and humanity. He told us this through David's singing, "God's glory is on tour in the skies, God-craft on exhibit across the horizon. Madame Day holds classes every morning, Professor Night lectures each evening. Their words aren't heard, their voices aren't recorded, but their silence fills the earth, unspoken truth is spoken everywhere." (Ps. 19:1-4)

Then Jesus comes to earth and points to his own physical designs and asks us to see in them the spiritual truths they have been proclaiming for millennia. A seed falls into the ground and dies before it can flower, and Jesus tells us that we too must die before we live. A branch withers if it is severed from its vine, as we wither if we let go of Christ. Every physical thing was made to represent a spiritual reality.

The westworks is one of many symbolic elements of this house. I've conceived of the whole place as a collection of symbols, and as one big symbol. Much of this house then - like a medieval church, and like nature - is incomprehensible without a mind to symbolic expression.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


I want to start a church for Christians.

Sounds redundant, but it's not.

I have been a member of several different churches over the past two decades that could be described as "seeker" churches. The most recent is Port City Community Church (PC3) in Wilmington, which I've attended for the past four years. Out of all the churches I've attended or visited, this one probably displays the most complete fulfillment of "seeker sensitive" ideas. The fog machines, the light show, the rock band, the big-screen video, the auditorium-like worship space, the casual dress, the secular architecture - the whole environment has been carefully and consciously crafted to be attractive to people who are "seeking" - those who have not yet become Christians but are interested. The strategy of seeker churches is to provide an environment that is familiar to those comfortable with secular American culture, and put off by traditional church. The ultimate goal is conversion. This process of attracting and converting is articulated subtly in PC3's mission statement: "Reaching people and helping them walk with God."

In short, PC3 and churches like it have created a Sunday service that focuses primarily on non-Christians rather than Christians. Of course no Christian will complain about a sincere evangelistic effort (which I believe PC3's is), especially when the target audience is truly interested in understanding our faith. But what happens when this evangelism takes over the hour on Sunday historically reserved just for Christians to gather for worship?

A few years ago I read an article about one of the biggest and most influential seeker churches, Willow Creek Community Church, near Chicago. The article reported that their Sunday service would be changing to provide deeper biblical, expository worship and teaching. The reason for the shift was that many of the Christians in attendance had complained that they were not being fed spiritually. The worship songs and sermon had become so "light" and basic in an effort to help the unchurched understand the faith that those who had been walking with Christ for some time were not learning much or being challenged.

I have had the same experience with seeker churches over the years, including PC3. Usually when a service is over I think, "I'm sure lots of people there really needed to hear that, but it wasn't for me." Case in point: Last Sunday the entire message was about convincing me that God loves me. That's always great to hear, of course. But I'm at a point in my faith where I don't need to be told that anymore. I know it. I accept it. I love it. Now what?

Seeker churches tend to expect that Christians, as a secondary audience, will get something out of the service too. This is true - I wouldn't have attended PC3 for the past four years if I did not worship truly or learn and grow some from the messages. It's just that I (and plenty of others, apparently) realize that this worship and growth is small compared to what it would be in a service devoted to believers.

So it's easy for me to understand the criticisms from other Christians that seeker services are not deep enough, not biblical enough, not challenging enough. I've spent a lot of time over the years writing the same criticisms. But recently my thinking on this issue has evolved. I think now that asking a seeker service to tend to the spiritual needs of Christians is asking of it something it wasn't designed to do. PC3's Sunday service is designed down to the last detail to tend to seekers. That's the reason PC3 was started; it's in their DNA. Asking it to do something else is like asking an apple to taste like an orange. If you're a Christian, a seeker church is not about you.

So why don't seeker churches simply provide an additional service just for Christians?

I met with the pastor of PC3, Mike Ashcraft, a few weeks ago for coffee. We talked about church mostly. He confirmed to me that the focus of PC3's Sunday service is evangelism. He cited the Great Commission ("Go and make disciples..."). I told him that this focus has left me with a desire for deeper worship and fellowship with other believers. His response was that we will worship together as believers for eternity in heaven, so we shouldn't strive for that here on earth; right now we have work to do helping others to Christ.

This sounded rational at the time, but later I wondered, is it biblical? Is there biblical precedent for putting off some spiritual activity on earth just because we will do it in heaven? The more I thought of Jesus' teachings the more I thought exactly the opposite is the case: If we're going to be doing it in heaven, we are called to get it started here on earth. Manifest the Kingdom. Jesus prayed, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Then I imagined using Mike's reasoning for another argument: "Because we will worship together with all races in heaven, we don't have to try to desegregate our churches now." That makes the problem a bit more clear. And then there is the verse that cautions believers against "forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some" (Heb. 10.25).

There's nothing wrong with a seeker service in and of itself. PC3 in particular has a great thing going on, and Mike clearly has a God-given gift for helping seekers get acquainted with - and get hungry for - this God of his. But if this evangelistic service is not supplemented with a time for believers, then we're either expecting from that service more than it can provide, or we're ignoring Scripture. Whatever the reason, both we and the world suffer as a result.

Surely there are Sunday services primarily about the faithful, but I don't know of any in this area. When I visited many different churches a few years ago the services tended to fall into one of two types: traditional and mostly dead, or seeker.

What would a service for Christians be? Would it just have a more in-depth sermon? I don't think so, and I doubt Willow Creek's Christians were satisfied for long with this. We need a totally different kind of service.

Lately I've been attending a "Taize" (pronounced tuh-ZAY) service with a small group on Wednesday nights. This is the closest experience I've had to the kind of service I feel believers need. I haven't looked it up yet, but apparently the Taize service comes from a monastic tradition in France. It's essentially a Bible study, except more meditative. We read just one or two verses aloud, then sit in silent reflection for a few minutes. Then we discuss our thoughts about the verse. We are silent for a few more minutes. Then we pray. We sing a song together. We are all believers.

Last week the verse we read was Luke 23:46, a prayer of Jesus from the cross: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." Someone noticed a footnote in their Bible to Psalms 31:5, which is word-for-word what Jesus prayed; he was quoting this verse. Then we started reading the rest of the Psalm, and quickly realized that this entire chapter could be read as the thoughts of Jesus as he was dying. Allusion after allusion spelled out Jesus' experience in that moment, his social situation, his forthcoming burial, and even hints of his resurrection: "My life leaks away ... To my enemies I'm a monster ... Behind locked doors they plot how to ruin me for good ... My friends are horrified ... Forget me like a corpse in a grave ... Your granite cave a hiding place ... Embarrass the wicked ... Expect God to get here soon."

Expressions of awe quietly erupted around the room: "Oooohhh," "Wow," "Whoa." We were in awe - together - of Jesus and his Word. This is different from being in awe by yourself, or being in awe with a mixed group of Christians and non-Christians. There were no seekers or skeptics there to say, "Well, how do we know God intended..." No. We know God intended it. We are the faithful. We.

It is a special thing to gather with other true believers, to sing to God and hear our voices, to read God's words to each other. It is nourishing. I've described it as a "spiritual massage" once a week. It's a place where we can be ourselves as believers. There is no evangelism. It is a rest. We need this. In turn it makes our work in the world, including our evangelism, stronger. It is food for the way. This is why we are commanded never to give it up. Of course seekers are welcome to join us, but they are not the focus of attention. Here they are witnesses to a romance between redeemed and Redeemer, and may feel like jealous voyeurs. This is a kind of evangelism too.

I mentioned in a previous post that one hope I have for this Church House is that it become the setting for a Sunday worship service. My Taize experience has given me some ideas about what this time can be like. Silence. Word. Prayer. Song. One thing I want to add is communion, which is notoriously infrequent at seeker churches. I can't recall the last time I took communion at PC3. This is understandable, given the seeker focus. You can't celebrate Christ's death if you don't yet trust him for your life. But the closer I grow to Christ the more I crave the Lord's Supper. I'm starving for it.

I heard a woman say that her gathering decided to start with communion, and nothing else. God would be allowed to fill the space around the remembrance of his sacrifice.

I read about a gathering in Africa that followed a rhythm of reading, response and prayer. Someone reads a passage of Scripture, the people respond in song, then everyone prays as they are led.

There are many examples to draw from for such a service, including 2000 years of church history. This is just a beginning.

Seeker services make the congregation into an audience, entertaining them with a rock concert followed by a lecture series. This is fine for them. It allows them to do what they were meant to do. But I imagine a gathering of Christians to be almost the opposite. The people gathered do not sit as an audience but rather act as a body. "Liturgy" means "work of the people." The people pass the elements of communion to each other, they pray together, read the Bible to each other, sing together. Maybe there is not even a sermon, or a "pastor." As Christians we are already the Church. The crucial thing now is to gather.

So what does my house have to do with this special assembly? Can't we do this anywhere? Indeed: "Where two or three are gathered..." But the architecture of this house was designed to inspire us to consider God, to draw us into worship - much like God's designs in the natural world. Seeker churches create buildings that are conducive to making the unchurched feel comfortable. This is why they resemble shopping malls or convention centers or theaters. By contrast the Church House is designed to be conducive to Christian worship. The architecture is meant to reflect various aspects of God, his beauty, order, perfection, as well as truths about our world and the human condition.

I think next I will talk more specifically about this architecture. Perhaps I'll do this as a series of (shorter) posts, each discussing a specific design feature of the house and what it is about. I've only mentioned a few so far. Meanwhile, I need to pick out my windows.