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The elements of design reinforces the purpose of your message

Churches welcome congregants and their communities through inviting interiors.

By E.J. Potente

If you believe that the proclamation of the Gospel is the primary work of the church then you need to look at all of the conditions that support this activity. This involves the physical environment of the worship space and all of its parts.

Think of the ways in which a church communicates on Sunday morning. How are we welcomed into the precincts of the church? Is it clear where to park? Do we know which door to use? Is there a significant gathering space that precedes the entry into the assembly space? Can I hang up my coat? Where’s the rest room?

Today, congregations realize hospitality and inclusiveness need to be represented architecturally as well as theologically. It is more than a package for the message; it is a demonstration of the lessons learned through liturgy and scripture.

Fully participate in activities

There are many elements of design and architecture in sanctuaries that tell us something about the message and the congregation’s ability to fully participate in activities. What is the seating arrangement — is there a sense of the worshipping community or are there rows of straight ahead pews, too close together, with no provisions for wheel chairs and walkers?

Angling pews in traditional seating arrangements is a way of creating a more assembly-responsive space. Anytime you can shorten the distance between the presbytery and the congregation will create a more effective space.

Combining quality hardwood chairs with traditional pews often give more options for seating. This flexibility produces space for wheelchairs and allows whole rows at  the front to be removed to accommodate children’s events. Music ministry spaces with fixed pews are really at a disadvantage — there is always a problem fitting new musicians and new voices and the ease of movement is severely limited.

Chancel with marble floor of Atonement Lutheran Church, Racine, WI (left). The chancel of Star of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, New Berlin, WI (right). Font of Star of Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Font of Star of Bethlehem Lutheran Church.

Resonant requirements

Music ministry is probably the most noticeable element in liturgical settings and yet there are so many drawbacks to most set-ups. Too much carpeting, pew pads and sound absorbent ceilings can dampen the acoustics and disrupt the resonant requirements of the space.

Sound systems can be tailored for a specific acoustical condition. The idea is to allow for a brilliant environment but to place whatever sound absorbent materials are necessary to prevent speech unintelligibility in strategic locations but not dampen the general acoustics.

Another important interior element is lighting. Poor lighting makes hymn reading difficult for everyone and choirs are often most deprived of the lighting necessary to their full and active participation in their role as musical leaders of the congregation.

Lighting systems can be a complicated. Lights designed for specific purposes have to be mated to controls that allow for dimming and programming. These types of controls are extremely valuable for churches that require the capability of a number of lighting conditions.

Variations on a platform

Although there are often denominational differences seen in gathering and assembly spaces, the real variations are on the worship platform. The platform is called the chancel in most Protestant churches and addressed as the sanctuary by the Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church. The difference in terminology is instructive because it dates to the Reformation and the sense of the reformers’ regard for the universal holiness of the entire space, while the Roman Catholic rite organized the Eucharistic celebration and underscored the presence of Christ within the consecrated elements of bread and wine.

The Roman Catholic rite today emphasizes this presence of Christ within the Scriptures, the priest, the Eucharist and the assembly of believers and stresses the symbol of the altar to mark both the sacrifice of Calvary and its role in the Lord’s Supper, thus it is also a table. Consequently, the altar is the centerpiece of the sanctuary and is an essential piece of furniture.

The documents of the Second Vatican Council reformed the Roman Catholic liturgy greatly and emphasized the role of Scripture and preaching and eliminated a need for a lectern, stating that all that is proclaimed “represents the dignity and uniqueness of the Word of God and of reflection upon that Word.” Many Protestant churches today still maintain the discipline for separate places for the lessons, Gospel and preaching.

The Roman Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation of adults stresses the importance of adult baptisms celebrated only at the Easter Vigil and that the instrument for this baptism should be a copious amount of water, possible only in a font large enough to accommodate an adult.

Fonts with moving water

Consequently, these baptismal fonts are substantial and often complex, featuring moving water and an upper pool from which members of the congregation can take water upon entering and leaving. They are often located at the entrance to the assembly as a sign of the position of baptism as a first step in the lives of the congregation.

Many non-Catholic churches have adopted the moving water idea and the strong central position of the font within the building, but the idea of the immersion of adults has not become a common development among the reform churches in general.

There has been some interest in these churches in making the baptismal font more conspicuous during non-use times, perhaps giving some recognition to the place for baptism as a symbol of the acceptance of the worshiping congregation of the principles of their faith.

The composition of architectural elements within a space is equally as important as the individual pieces. What and how are all of the objects in the room made? What materials are used? Consider our sense of what quality is and what it is not.

For that reason always concentrate on acquiring high quality furnishings and lighting. Try for commissioned work in furnishings and avoid buying from catalogues if possible. It is important to have pieces designed and fabricated with your structure in mind; this goes for art as well. The quality of the environment strengthens the liturgical message.

Look at every aspect of the building from the parking lot to the chancel chairs and evaluate their role in delivering the message and exemplifying the Gospel.

E.J. Potente is the president of The Studios of Potente Inc., Kenosha, WI. [sopi.com]

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