I recently attended a worship service that was housed in a square warehouse building where about fifteen hundred people gathered. The scene will be familiar to many contemporary church-goers: Before entering the service, everyone gathered in the foyer outside the main worship space, grabbing coffee and baked goods, which they brought into the service. The atmosphere was intentionally casual; the preacher and most of the band were even wearing jeans and T-shirts. The room was wall-to-wall carpet, comfortably air-conditioned with soft chairs. In the centre of the room was a stage for the band and preacher, above which hung a screen—much like you would see at a basketball game. First there was a half hour of praise and worship-style music, and then a half hour sermon. The songs were sung by the worship leader and accompanied by a guitar band, drums, and a few back-up vocals, with song lyrics projected on the screen for congregants to sing along at appointed times.
This space was designed for a particular form of worship in which congregants mostly relaxed in their chairs while those on stage either sang or spoke, not unlike a band performance or a comedy show. This structuring, of course, is quite intentional—neither the church’s leaders nor the parishioners would argue otherwise. The ordering is intended to focus everyone’s attention on what is taking place at the centre, which the space does quite well. There are no ornaments on the walls, not even windows. There is nothing to take away the focus from what is happening at the centre.
Intentional ordering of church space is nothing new, although it has certainly shifted over time. Most churches throughout history (and still today) are designed in the shape of a cross, which has the obvious intent of ordering those gathered for worship on Sunday in the cruciform shape, with everyone’s attention facing the sanctuary, usually at the east end of the church building. Many of these churches have lavish stained glass windows that depict various stories throughout Scripture, generally regarding salvation history, the life of Christ, or the lives of saints. They are intended both as stories to be read and as a continuous reminder of the nature of God as beauty.
The contrast between the two forms of church buildings is stark. The first building, which we might describe as minimalist, is a space designed to house the worship of a gathered body. The second, more traditional structure is a space to be inhabited by worshipper and worship. The first limits the act of worship to the time in which the building is occupied, and once it’s vacated, it could conceivably be used for some other purpose. The other is part of the very fabric of worship and the lives of those who inhabit it, such that there is an inability to reduce it to a mere space within which worship occurs—its design and ornamentation is intimately bound up together with the act of worship. Even if the liturgical space is occupied later for another purpose, it does not escape the life of worship embedded in its walls. The difference is between inhabiting a space and enacting something within a space. What is missing from the warehouse or shopping mall church is a deep connection with what the Christian worshipper believes and thinks. The homogenous space neither requires anything from nor offers anything to its occupants—”Capacity 1784.”
Of course, a cruciform structure with stained glass windows is not the only home for the worship of a church. To make that claim would denigrate the already faithful worship taking place in impoverished countries, and yes, even in many warehouse churches. But we ought to still be aware of the material effects of our surroundings and ask how each form influences our imagination. Do our spaces of worship lend themselves to habitation? Do our liturgies alter how we speak, hear, perhaps even walk? Are the spaces and actions of our worship extensions of God and a creation groaning for its consummation in Christ, or are they unwitting extensions of the spectacle?
To inhabit a space is entirely different than what one does in a minimalist space designed for brief periods of occupation. But in both cases, the building initiates, organizes, and directs movement and behaviour. In other words, the space of liturgy limits or expands what we imagine worship to be, conditioning us to certain forms of passivity or engagement. And in many contemporary church buildings, the setting for worship, the secular imaginary of the autonomous individual—the spectator—is sustained in full force. The space shapes us to occupy it in certain ways, while conditioning how we relate to God and others. Natural wood pews and porous stained glass elicit a certain response, calling us to inhabit the space through prayer, study, contemplation, and quiet conversation with God and others. The empty, carpeted warehouse asks nothing of us except that we leave when the music is over, much like you are expected to leave a restaurant when you’ve finished eating.
Long ago, the Psalmist understood and articulated how our forms of worship work on us. Referring to idols, he says, “Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them” (Psalm 135:18). In other words, we come to resemble the mediums we use in worship, whether this occurs in church or at home. How we worship bears an implicit theology. It reveals who we are and what we believe about God. The words of belief are inseparable from the practice of those words.
We live in what Guy Debord aptly calls the “Society of the Spectacle,” which creates and sustains individuals’ autonomy. In other words, our politics, economics, and social ordering rely on and are built around a logic of autonomy; in this logic, we are compelled to imagine our human nature as completely separate from all others—even God. It is the world of individual human rights and sovereignty which we hail as secularism. This spectacular world also “works on us” in ways that rarely enter our awareness. We like to think of ourselves as objective, unaffected by our surroundings, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our contemporary sense of the self is deeply influenced by the social practices in which we engage on a daily basis.
In his book Desiring the Kingdom (Baker Academic, 2009), James K. A. Smith explores how these mechanisms of society work on us and bound our imagination. He describes this in terms of liturgical formation, showing how various cultural liturgies (like those in the shopping mall) transform our sensibilities—long before we are aware of their effects. The social rituals of our offices, restaurants, grocery stores, sporting events, and mass transit, each in their own way, significantly affect how we make our way in the world. Smith argues that these social liturgies depend upon and embody a particular understanding of what it means to be human. He further argues that we are fundamentally animals who desire—”whose primary mode of intending the world is love, which in turn shapes the imagination.”
Since its inception, the church has understood the human as a liturgical being, and throughout the history of the church it is the embodied life of Christ—not simply intellectual comprehension—that has defined what it means to be Christian. But in the modern world, Christians have often considered formation to be the function of the didactic, passive, proposition-driven lecture or sermon, and less about embodied actions and rituals—though this trend shows signs of changing.
What is inescapable, however, is what Charles Taylor points out: What we understand is intricately bound up together with how we are habituated or disciplined to understand. The disciplines of secular society prime us and teach us to understand ourselves as autonomous, contingent upon no one else—not even God—for our existence. If the church is to prime us to sense ourselves as contingent upon God, it depends on the shared action of the church’s liturgy—that is, how we worship shapes what we imagine to be our relation to God, each other, and what we mean by the word “human.”
This is no less the case, as Smith has shown, for the cultural liturgies of the spectacle that permeate our society. Implicit in these formative practices is an understanding of human flourishing that runs deeply opposed to the Christian life; however, we are so conditioned by these habits that we do not think of them as competing for our allegiance, but rather as means to ends within broader society. Certainly the mall is a morally neutral space, right? No one is there trying to evangelize for belief or disbelief in God. The fact that we think of something like the mall, however, as morally neutral shows that we have been convinced that we are first and foremost “rational animals,” not beings whose understanding is embodied and conditioned, always acting within a society or community with accepted (and unaccepted) norms and customs. If worship, however, is more than an intellectual assent to belief in a transcendental being, but is a whole bodily comportment, what then do our acts of worship reveal about the “God” we worship, ourselves, or how we relate to others? And what does the space in which we worship together teach us about how we ought to relate to God and others?
The case, of course, is more complicated than this. But let’s consider the screen and projected image for a moment. We usually think that words projected on a screen are the ones that really matter. But the words on the screen find their meaning in their association with the screen and the projector. The same is true of the printed word in a traditional worship setting. The printed or projected word may be a Scripture passage, or they may express a Christian truth, but the mediums through which they come to us help shape how we relate to the words themselves. The words—projected on a screen or printed on paper—become things we consume through looking at them, and over time, they can change how we relate to words generally, in a similar way to email and texting. The meaning of the word is in its use, and the medium of communication is not inconsequential to its meaning. The printed or projected word, spoken or prayed in a service, changes the word from something to be heard to something we read, and often sustains an individualism that the church exists to counter.
Imagine the transformation if, in our services of worship, we only printed or projected the words that everyone spoke or sang together (with, of course, exceptions for the hearing-impaired), leaving the rest to be heard by the congregation? This has deep resonances in Scripture as well: “Faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10:17), “Blessed are those who hear” (Revelation 1:3). Ultimately, what is important is to recognize that how we communicate changes the way we relate to the words that are communicated, and they condition us to relate to others the same way.
As Pierre Bourdieu has argued, we perceive or make sense of the world, often unwittingly, by a certain social conditioning of the body—habitus. I have suggested that we live in and are conditioned by the society of the spectacle, one that proffers and sustains the human as an autonomous individual. But the Christian understands the interrelatedness of all people in an exclusive relation to God in Christ. If we can relate to anything, and everything, it is because our Creator has a relationship to the created in its particularity. And to gain an awareness of this social reality in Christ, a person must engage in particular habits and practices that bear this relational logic. When we are habituated by the life of Christ with the body of Christ, we can discern the body in the manner of which the Apostle Paul invokes—and only through this discipline will the church be able to be aware of its own complicity in the society of the spectacle.