I am a fan of home buying and remodeling shows. I enjoy seeing the creative use of space and keeping up with design trends. Of course, I can’t help but roll my eyes at how little some things change — like the perpetual desire for an open concept, stainless steel appliances, and granite countertops.
Church stage design is equally predictable. For more than two decades, the same look has been almost universally popular: a black auditorium, a large, minimalist platform, and big screens. Then there is the ever-present concert lighting — predominantly in shades of blue and purple — with moving beams and subtle fog.
This look and feel has its place, but is it the right direction for every worship space? There is more to consider than just looking relevant.
Before investing time and resources in creating a cookie-cutter aesthetic, there are four questions ministry teams need to work through together. This discussion should include the pastor, a creative arts director or production leader, and the worship leader.
1. Where is the focus? It may help to start with a historical perspective. From the Middle Ages, every element of cathedral design was rooted in Christian symbolism.
In 1958, Rudolf Schwarz published The Church Incarnate to help European churches rebuild and restore their sacred traditions after World War II. Many of these principles were incorporated in American Lutheran and Catholic churches constructed in the post-war era.
In many liturgical congregations, the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, has long been the focal point of the service. The altar, which holds the Communion elements, is often in the center of the room. If the structure is an older cathedral design, the Eucharist remains at the front of the altar.
In the Anabaptist tradition, preaching is the focal point of the service. Everything comes back to the Word and the proclamation of the gospel. A wooden pulpit dominates the front, and the musicians and singers might be to the side or on the floor. This continues today in traditional evangelical circles.
Our Pentecostal and charismatic churches take a more pragmatic approach. Untethered from tradition, we have resisted heavy symbolism in favor of spaces that are simple and economical.
To accommodate big productions that were popular in the 1980s and ’90s, many larger churches adopted a theater-style stage. Eventually, the choir lofts disappeared, leaving vast, empty platforms. Stage lights, fashioned after the rigging at music events, became popular for worship settings in the early 2000s.
There is no clear focal point in many Pentecostal sanctuaries. Instead, there is simply a wide-open platform. This could suggest the performance of music as the focal point, placing the emphasis on the worship leader. Failing to create a focal point that goes beyond this encourages a performance-driven culture.
Think about what makes a space sacred, and let it impact the ambiance of the room.
I believe neither the preaching nor the music should be the focal point of Pentecostal worship settings. The most appropriate emphasis is the altar. An altar is not just the physical area around the front of the platform. It also is an expectation of participation. There should be spiritual engagement between the congregation and the platform, forging an atmosphere where life change can happen in the room.
2. What makes this a sacred space? I’m in a Facebook group for church design. It is alternatingly entertaining and brilliant, silly and interesting. I often see stages that would look great at a health coach conference but lack any sacred intention.
Our creative arts director recently went to Ireland, and his travels had a profound impact on how he understood sacred spaces. He saw little chapels with white walls and natural light, as well as grand cathedrals with stained glass. He gleaned insight that helped us reimagine what a sacred space can look like within our Pentecostal context.
There are many features that can make a space seem sacred. These can include traditional symbols, warm lighting, biblical imagery, and wood, stones, and other materials from the natural world. A more contemporary example is an oversized sermon illustration that makes the main point come alive.
Of course, the cross is the most basic sacred symbol. It is deeply meaningful to people from a variety of church backgrounds — and perhaps even some with no church background.
In our circles, we typically rely on visual and auditory cues. But what if we engaged all the senses? The smell of candles. The taste of Communion. The weight of the Bible in hand. We can’t always implement every sense in every service, but we can look for ways to keep it sacred and try new — and old — things in the process. Think about what makes a space sacred, and let it impact the ambiance of the room.
3. Does it work for this building? Don’t work against your building; work with it. Sometimes I grimace at the awkward mismatch between the platform and the rest of the room. A traditional space can receive a fresh look without losing its character.
We have two physical campuses that are very different. Our newer campus features a palette of mostly greys and browns with some natural light. There are beautiful rugs on the stage, and Edison bulb lamps cast a soft glow.
By contrast, the main campus building is essentially a windowless, metal box. This calls for a cleaner, more modern look. As much as I love the design of the new campus, it wouldn’t work here. It’s important to have the right fit for the space.
Don’t try to force it. Work with what you have.
4. Whom can we consult? It’s easy to recognize a design that came from the church board instead of a professional. It generally consists of bland variations on the same color.
Before jumping into a project, start with a Pinterest board. Look at hundreds of pictures to generate ideas. Join a few social media groups to learn about areas in which you lack knowledge. And if possible, hire someone to help you. It will be worth the expense.
If you can’t afford to hire an interior designer, tap your network and ask people who have more experience to come take a look.
Let’s be intentional about creating a spiritual place where people can connect with God. Do the work of thinking through what your worship space communicates. Whether your church runs 50 or 5,000, create a beautiful room that facilitates that sacred meeting.
This article appears in the Summer 2021 edition of Influence magazine.