Normal people don’t ask those questions, Ned.
She hadn’t meant it to come across like that but the words had already left her mouth. She was right, of course; ‘normal people’ don’t ask those questions. They don’t even notice those subtle things that, having been a theatre director and designer, I have learnt to do.
I am talking about what we are communicating to others; how we use our space, what is said and not said to those who come through the doors of our church for the first time. Familiarity blinds us all sooner or later and it takes a deliberate and intentional act of will to keep your senses alert.
I have been completing a space audit of our worship spaces, a process outlined in Angela Shier Jones’ book ‘Pioneer Ministry and Fresh Expressions of Church’. Essentially it advises everyone to take a fresh look at the space you use for worship and gatherings and ask the question, ‘What does this say about us?’
In our church buildings, here in York, we suffer from clutter. We are not unique as I have often seen similar, if not worse, examples in many other churches. We Christians love to add new things to our church buildings, to our life together; new fabrics, banners, visual aids, new services, alternative times of prayer, the list goes on. We are not good at the necessary ‘spring cleaning’.
Before you think that I am just a normal young, passionate clergy whose mantra is ‘clear out the old, bring in the new’, I want to offer a thought stemming from my time as a designer. It is often the old which communicates the most. History is a powerful tool and we as human beings connect intensely with it. Being new doesn’t necessarily mean being relevant!
When I began to design a set for a theatre production, one of my first questions was ‘What is this space already saying?’ I’d look at the skeleton of the space and look for interesting areas. I’d try and feel the natural atmosphere of the space; is it dark or light? Is it uplifting or oppressive? What are the natural focal points? The same questions must be asked of our worship spaces
In churches that suffer from clutter the first question that needs to be asked is; what is it that you are communicating before anyone has said anything?
‘Normal people’ don’t realise that spaces speak to people, subliminally but powerfully. They get a sense which is hard to shake off. Clutter distracts people, it draws the eye in hundred places at once and people get over-stimulated. If you then stand up to say something to them you have more of a task than if you stand in a cleaner, clearer space. A worship space needs a deliberate and intentional focus; the communion table, the lectern, a cross, the paschal candle, whatever you want but choose one (perhaps two but no more!)
Once you have selected a focus construct everything else to support and draw the attention to it. Know that that is what people see and are drawn to in worship and work with it. If the focus is wrong for a particular time then change it but be deliberate. If, for example, the focus of a space is usually the lectern/ pulpit but you want to talk about bread and wine move items of furniture around or light the communion table to draw the eye away from them pulpit.
One of our churches has a communion table that is large and dominates so much so that when the bread and the wine is placed on it you struggle to see them on it. The focus is the frontal and not the elements on top. Behind it is a banner of the Mothers’ Union which only helps to distract the eye away from whatever sits on top of the table. This may be what is intended but I suspect no one has actually asked or considered this. By moving the flag to the side and getting a smaller table for the small intimate space would help draw the eye to the elements or at least quieten the noise created by such a large dominating piece of furniture.
What does your worship space say about your community? When you walk into the church building what is it you first see or feel? Open your eyes and become aware of how the physical space often speaks louder and the words we use.
Editor’s Note: Much of this could also be applied to the ‘digital space’… what are we communicating with that space?