I have been reading a book about the design process for the Getty Center in Los Angeles. There are actually more photographs and drawings than commentary, but it has been fascinating to understand the thinking that went into the design. I always enjoy visiting the Getty Center, and walking the grounds and galleries will now be enriched through this greater understanding.
In a summary way, the thinking of all who collaborated on the project was to create a design that integrated all of the parts of the Center – the physical site itself, the buildings, the unique but interrelated programs of the Center – through the use of building materials and garden elements that would encourage a complementary experience for everyone who visits or works at the Center.
It was intriguing to read how they worked to incorporate the hilltop location, with its views of the city and the ocean, the layout of the buildings, the various gardens and fountains, so that it gives a unified feel to the whole, and thus serves the diverse needs of the museum visitors, the staff, and the researchers in an integrated way.
As I was reading, I began to think about the church, and the ways in which we either integrate the parts and allow them to enhance the whole of the church, or we approach those parts – the worship space, the gathering spaces, classrooms, perhaps a library and an art gallery, and the outside grounds of the church – in a piecemeal fashion. I imagine that when most churches are initially built, there is a definite sense, on the part of the architect and the church leaders, of creating a place that integrates all of these parts. But as time goes on, as one room needs new paint and fresh carpeting, and the people doing it don’t care for the original choices throughout the buildings, then often the new choices don’t complement the rest of the existing ones. Certainly, one can have a master plan to eventually change and upgrade the whole of the church, with those changes beginning in one room. But more often changes happen in one way in this room, and in another way in that room, and there is no thought of integrating the whole.
There is a sense in which the church buildings and grounds are an art installation. We tend to think of art as something that we display, or something that we experience such as drama, but the whole of the church can also be something that people experience in the same way that they experience art. If the buildings, and the lawns and gardens, the trees and rose bushes, all serve to offer a beautiful and integrated experience, then the programs of the church, the art of the church, and the experiences of God that we hope people have within and around the church, are all made deeper and richer. But just as the creation of art takes careful planning and a vision of the whole, so the church as an art installation requires thought, conversation and envisioning of the whole, so that everything works together to draw us closer to God and then to send us out in God’s grace.
As I wrote last week about the metaphorical doors that we can provide as a way into the church for people from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of interests, I began to think as well of the literal doors of the church building.
This is not, however, my thoughts about church architecture, though I find that to be interesting. And it isn’t any kind of suggestions for how to choose the best replacement doors for your building. But rather, it is a reflection on how those literal doors into the church can be a means of welcome and inclusion, or they can literally be a way to exclude people.
I mentioned last week that most people in my church enter through the kitchen door, just because it is the first one that they come to as they move from the parking lot to the church. It sometimes provides a little bit of congestion in the kitchen, especially for those who may actually be doing something in the kitchen as opposed to just using it as an entry way. Of course, there is also something symbolic about entering through the kitchen, as it gives a message that you are family if you come in through this door. Such a dynamic is true in our homes, if we have multiple points of entry, and it is true in the church as well.
But for first-time visitors, this may be a source of confusion, and even provoke a feeling of exclusion. If most people enter through the kitchen door, but newcomers need to use a different entrance, then we need to ask ourselves what message we are communicating to people. And it isn’t just the kitchen door. We have, for example, in addition to the front doors of the church, patio doors that are of glass and provide an easy view into the church. They seem welcoming to me, and yet on one Sunday a visitor came to the doors and asked if it was okay to enter through them. Now better signage may help that dilemma, but we also need to be very conscious of how welcoming our doors truly are for people.
Allow me to return for a moment to the metaphorical doors of last week’s blog. Some of those doors can also seem like exclusive ones - the women’s or men’s group for instance, or even the Bible study. We would say that anyone is welcome into those groups, but it is easy for them to appear to be exclusive.
When we use the arts as a door, however, in any one of their many forms, we usually discover that there is something new, perhaps something strange or uncomfortable, and even something intriguing in a new experience with the arts. Those very reactions are apt to be shared by both long-time members and first-time newcomers as well. The newness, and even the strangeness, provides opportunities for comments and exchanges of ideas.
There are many ways to make sure that we are truly a welcoming church. The arts help to provide an equal welcome, so that everyone might become an insider in the church.
One of the important things that I have read in the last few years was about having a variety of doors into the church. The author, Gordon Dragt, in a book with the intriguing title of, One Foot Planted in the Center the Other Dangling Off the Edge, wrote about such doors. He wasn’t talking about the fancy front doors of the church, or my own church’s kitchen door that usually serves as the main entry as people park behind the church, but rather the doors of entry that we provide through a variety of programs and services.
While some people may not be moved to enter on a Sunday morning to join in the worship celebration, they may find an entry point through an evening movie. While others may or may not find a Bible study to be a welcoming event, an evening of sharing entertainment and snacks may be perfect for them. I have read elsewhere that pastors and churches need to focus on an engaging worship experience because that is the main form of entry into the church. I attempt to do that every week, and yet, I try never to forget the other doors that we provide.
This came to mind once again in a recent Bible study, where one of the participants happened to mention how much she enjoys our concert series. I too find it to be an incredible series each year, and yet was aware that another person at the table almost never comes to the concerts, although she does buy tickets and gives them to friends. I remarked that while some people take advantage of our top-quality concerts, it just isn’t what other people find to be engaging at all. And that, I said, was a perfect example of why we provide a wide variety of ways for people to engage in the life of the church.
I just finished filling out our annual denominational report form, which includes a category wherein we are asked to report about our participating membership. Interestingly, participation is defined not just as being a regular in worship, but of supporting the church in any way. That support may be financial, it may be through attendance at events at times other than on Sundays, and it may even be through a desire to keep receiving the church newsletter. I always enjoy remembering that participation happens in a multitude of ways.
So while I believe that the arts are a creative entry point for some people, and that worship is what others are looking for, I also know that an active outreach program, a regular program of showing and discussing movies (certainly an art form as well), and even an evening discussion group all form a part of the picture of a church with open doors.
What doors can we build into our churches in order to be a true place of welcome, and a place with multiple opportunities for an encounter with God?
I remember well one of the first times that I introduced a couple of artworks into a discussion about the birth of Jesus. One was from around 1600, and the other was from the early 1900s. Each of them depicted the birth scene through the architecture and clothing of its respective period. Several people were astounded by the works, either finding them incomprehensible for their lack of authenticity, or noting them as being rather useless as far as providing us with any information about the actual birth.
What the viewers were looking for was something that depicted the time around 4 BCE, the time when Jesus is commonly understood to have been born. They were looking for the family, the shepherds and the wise men to be dressed as they had seen them previously in illustrations such as one might find in a Bible or in instructional materials for Sunday classes. What they were met with was a building that looked like the Middle Ages, and a barn-type structure from early America. And the people were not those from 2000 years ago, but from 400 years in the past and from just the last century respectively.
It was actually a most instructional evening, even though I wasn’t at that moment prepared for the reactions that I received. I learned that people often expect to see one thing, and are unprepared to accept an alternative vision. I learned that authenticity was understood as accurately reflecting the time period of the events portrayed in the work of art. I learned that art is sometimes understood as providing us with more information rather than being an encounter that enlarges our experiences.
What the evening meant to me was that I needed to provide a greater understanding of how artists may approach their work. I needed to explain that rather than the architecture and clothing being elements that should reflect the time of the events depicted, the setting of the artwork and the ways that people were dressed were meant to allow people to envision Jesus in their own lives.
One of the claims of our Christian faith is that Jesus not only walked the earth 2000 years ago, but that the spirit of the Risen Christ is with us now. The words and actions of Jesus are not just history, but they speak to us today and help to guide our own actions. In very real ways, Jesus lives among us. So, when the artist from 1600 used the architecture of his time, and the clothing of people who lived in his own village, he was saying that Jesus was very much a part of his life and the lives of all who lived around him. Jesus was their contemporary. And the artist who spoke through the early 19th century canvas was saying the same thing.
And that is always the challenge, to share with people how Jesus is our contemporary even today. Artists are among those who can help us to envision that relationship with Jesus. Our task is to be open to seeing him in our own time.
I once asked a Baptist minister friend about the activities that his church had during the Lenten season. He told me that his church didn’t observe Lent, that every week and every Sunday of the year should be observed equally, and that Bible reading and prayer should be something that we do every day and not just during a season of forty days.
Well, he has a point. We would do well to study and pray every day. But it is also true that we set aside particular times to attend educational classes, and now and then we may get away for an intensive weekend of prayer and meditation. Such focused times do have their benefits as well. And that is what the season of Lent provides for us if we choose it.
The Lenten journey began for our church on Wednesday evening with a soup supper and a time of worship. For those who wished, ashes were placed on the forehead as a symbol of repentance and of dedication to the weeks ahead. The lights were low at the outset, that everyone might feel a meditative mood. People came and partook of the bread and the cup, dipping the bread into the chalice. It is one of those worship gatherings where there were many different senses at work, inviting us to worship with our whole being.
One of our scripture passages for the evening was a portion from Exodus, wherein God speaks to Moses from the burning bush and tells Moses to remove his sandals for he is standing on holy ground. It is an incredibly powerful encounter. Yet, how do we envision what the passage describes? How do we engage our senses to envision something that was likely close to indescribable?
Artists attempt to describe it, through the words of literature, the dynamics of film, on canvas, and more. Such artistic expressions, when invited into the church, complement the words of the preacher and the music we share together, in order that we might experience God, our faith, our own lives, in beautiful and varied ways. Using all of our senses in worship provides us with a more full, and fulfilling, encounter with holy ground.
Welcome to my website. I hope you will discover a connection to the life of small churches, and the richness that the arts can bring to these churches.