Updated: Apr 14, 2020
Over Easter I have been revisiting a thought of old. It has surprised me how deeply moved I've been by the fact, that for the most part, our modern churches are architecturally a far cry from the beautiful and intricate landmarks of the past. The likes of the well known Sistine Chapel, Notre-Dame de Paris, even New Zealand's own Church of the Good Shepherd in Tekapo has simple yet profound beauty. It is not to say that our modern churches are not extremely well designed and executed, but for the most part they are designed with a functional directive, and geared towards the elements that work with stage performance. There is nothing wrong with that, that is not my point. What saddens me about it is that in decades and centuries to come, people aren't likely to travel the world to behold their worship through feats of art and architecture in the same way we do of other chapels holding centuries worth of history. There isn't a great difference in our current designs that distinguish them from other functional industrial establishments, other than the people, purpose and presence of God. Priorities of course! But what happened to the value of beautification of old that we felt was an over indulgence? We also seem to focus more on what is affordable and quick, rather than multi-generational longevity. Many Cathedrals of old took over a hundred years to build, often spanning generations just be established. Certainly we have modern technology that accelerates our process today, however the amount of intricate detail which give their exteriors and interiors beauty is what people will travel the world to behold.
I have been thinking about how my friend I have known since early school days walked her road towards Jesus. Part of that journey included a defining moment while touring Europe. She went into an old church, and it was there as an unbeliever that she had a tangible encounter with the Spirit of God as He revealed Himself personally to her. Could He have done that anywhere? Of course. However I believe that building provided an invitation to encounter Him. Maybe one we often don't give our friends in the same kind of way? Selah.
"Some modernists considered the second Vatican Council to be a kind of revolution in the church and that everything old had to go and everything new was necessarily a good thing. Therefore, for the last forty years there has been a stripping of the altars. Beautiful old churches were renovated. All the beautiful old stuff was pulled out and modern furniture and fittings were installed. New churches were built in a style that was consciously modern in an attempt to “connect” with modern people, but also to convey a “new” understanding of the Mass as the “family meal" excerpt from Patheos.com
It's 'Just' A Building.
In our attempted expression of a new wineskin, we can have a tendency to just throw out the baby with the bathwater. The opulence of beautiful, artistic churches seen as a waste when there are the poor and needy, where finances could be directed instead of lavishing buildings. Extravagant worship will always confuse a religious mindset.
"A woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very expensive perfume and she poured it on Jesus’ head as He reclined at the table. But when the disciples saw it they were indignant and angry, saying, “Why all this waste [of money]? For this perfume might have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware [of the malice] of this [remark], said to them, “Why are you bothering the woman? She has done a good thing to Me. For you always have the poor with you; but you will not always have Me. When she poured this perfume on My body, she did it to prepare Me for burial. I assure you and most solemnly say to you, wherever this gospel [of salvation] is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told in memory of her [for her act of love and devotion].” Matt 26:7-13 Amp
Jesus wasn't negating what He had always said, that the poor and needy were valuable to the Father, and we are are told to love and support them. One act of love and worship, does not negate the other, but so often we behave like it does. We are not great with co-existing tensions of truth, often trying to relegate more towards one way or another, while excluding what we don't understand or challenges our weakness instead of inviting the Lord to be glorified in our weakness.
The extravagance of the grand churches of old (and new) serve a purpose, to point people towards the worship of Jesus. The domes and ceilings were designed to point peoples gaze upwards, to realise their eternal home is heaven and to serve as a reminder that we are surrounded by a heavenly reality. The artworks of sculpture, carvings, mosaics, paintings and stained glass windows also becoming a poor mans bible for the illiterate viewer to experience the revelation of the way to salvation. Artistic beauty therefore had function, but was perceived as a sacred imitation of God the creator. What an example of co-creating with God!
God always had very specific functional and lavish design when it came to His places to tabernacle (reside or dwell) with His people.
It was 'just' a Garden... Eden means delight, or in ancient Hebrew 'to see/know the door to life'. Everything in creation was designed by God as both a functional and extravagant expression in which to tabernacle in life and delight with man.
It was 'just' a box... The ark of the covenant seems like a strange way for the tangible presence of God to dwell with man. Yet this was the extravagance of His desire.
It was 'just' a temple... with big, expensive curtains. Yet behind the opulence of the temple and those curtains the presence of the Lord dwelt so He could be right in the midst of His people.
He was 'just' a man... Christ. The Holy One dressed in our fragility and humanity, a humanity both wretched and yet the glorious workmanship of His Father. Never defiling such a vessel by His own hands, but allowing our defilement to become His own.
We are 'just' flesh and bones... the indwelling habitation of God with mankind. The creation of His very hands and design, with His breath, His Spirit. Even in our imperfections, what extravagant temples of worship that even angels are in awe!
Every vessel pointing our direction to worship and intimacy, and the revelation of the way of life.
So if it's not 'extravagant' in beauty, it's not worship? That's not what I am saying. What I am drawing connection to is our worship of co-creating beauty with God, beyond functionality. What happens when we go beyond co-creating in function and invite God into the extravagant beauty of co-creation? Not this or that, but this and that.
For the most part we like to be efficient people. But what if part of the new wineskin is a beautification? Not just making ourselves more efficient human beings of spiritual disciplines, but also developing our inner beauty. Beauty that then spills out in it's co-creating with God into our external worlds.
What if God wants everything that makes us comfortable or secure, other than His Spirit of comfort, to be shaken right now, would we let Him beautify our comfort zones? We are a generation of creature comforts, that get put out and entitled when that is challenged or disrupted. Just turn the wifi off for any length of time on your household and you will hear about it. At the start of lockdown as I was drifting off to sleep, I felt anxiety that didn't seem like my own and then had an image in my mind about not being able to go to The Warehouse (a store here in NZ). I thought that was so strange because I didn't really care if I couldn't get to go there or not. Then the Lord showed me that we have made the false security of convenience a sneaky idol in our lives, and it was a soul tie that needed to be broken. That was one area as to why there was so much anxiety and panic buying. So I prayed and broke that soul tie on behalf of myself and others and the anxiety left, replaced by God's presence at the centre of our security.
A beautiful church serves as a landmark and signpost evangelising of the extravagance of God to the world. A beautiful Church, a beautiful bride. We are not just a sack of bones. Beautiful and extravagant acts are always invitations to look upwards to a heavenly home, to gaze through our windows that portray salvation revelations.
Does that mean we should start building churches with stained glass windows and elaborate pictorials? No, not necessarily, though I'd not protest to a modern renaissance. I am however a bit obsessed with the idea of as much glass for walls and ceilings as possible while perusing Pinterest for ideas for my dream home. I'm mainly drawn to the idea that homes should let as much natural light in as possible, and the idea of inviting the beauty of creation outside to be extended inside. I think we can all understand that concept from being stuck in our homes longing to be connected with the outside again. We were not created for confinement, rather for expansion, so this restriction rubs up against our design, yet invites us to look at expanding within. I grew up mostly with an incredible bay window bedroom view that gazed out over the ocean and hills and homes. I could sit and look for hours happily. Funny how vision invites expansion, even while not moving an inch. Are we mostly windows or are we mostly walls?
Consider... we are mostly a literate people now. We don't have to rely on another person to inform us, in fact we have more personal access to information than ever before, too much it feels. And while words can paint beautiful pictures themselves, how often do we spend experiencing God through sight? Do we stop to gaze at beautiful things, wondering at these messages that cause us to pause in awe at who God is as regularly as we function in our lives? Yet this world is constantly demanding the focus of our gaze, dictating it's own perversion of beauty that testifies little of life. Though at times they gain a glimpse, and a hope.
These are my suggestions as we continue to consider the intentions of the Father for us going forwards:
Consider what it could mean to co-create in beauty with generational legacy that has the ability to last for centuries.
Don't throw out the beauty for the sake of the new or functional.
Take more time to look for God in the beauty.
Ask the Lord what He wants to beautify in your life, and what beauty may have given way to compensating with function.
Ask the Lord to show you what co-creating beauty in the world that points to the beauty of His splendour could look like for you in the new.
Have a look at these churches and take a moment to consider their beauty in their varying ways.