Photo: Eric Bartlett Photography. The Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, St. John's, NL.

Church design, sacred spaces, and the loss of symbol

"Never let the design compete with the message for attention. It should rather facilitate it." (Michael Hyatt)

If the medium is the message, what message are we communicating when the emphasis on interior design evident in many contemporary churches (the medium), often lacking or devoid of symbolism, has often trumped the importance of our controlling message (Jesus and the kingdom of God)?

In such a climate, the message is not competing for attention, it has lost the competition altogether.

More and more Evangelical churches spend a considerable amount of time trying to make the interior of their buildings look like a concert hall. In their attempt to create the perfect ambiance conducive to facilitating a worship experience, their building has become the medium, whether they realize it or not.

Imagination is vital if faith is to be reflected on and lived in deeper, more compelling ways. Click To Tweet

However, this medium, as it stands, is void of meaning; it has no message attached to it at all. Rather than allow our controlling message of Christ to inform and shape our church designs, we have instead created an empty medium, void of meaning. In such an atmosphere, the design has no message to promote. Empty church designs have created empty messages.

Yet, imagination is vital if faith is to be reflected on and lived in deeper, more compelling ways.

I've visited churches where not even the symbol of the cross was present.

What message are we communicating in such an atmosphere?
Where is the sense of wonder and awe as we sit and contemplate the beauty of the cross as it stands in front of us, pointing us to the most powerful story ever told?
What meaning can be derived from a symbol-less church?
What will draw our imagination toward thoughts of God?
What message are we facilitating if not a Jesus-shaped one?

Sadly, many contemporary church designs have often not facilitated our controlling message, but have created a message all its own. However, it proves to be an empty message, because anything that distracts us from our controlling story is void of meaning.

A visit steeped in symbol

I remember visiting The Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John's, Newfoundland a few years ago. I recall feeling a deep sense of wonder as I looked around and reflected on the symbolism that surrounded me.

On each post there was a picture that highlighted various moments during Christ's passion, focusing my thoughts on the moments before and after his death. The sacrament table at the front was made of glass, and inside lay a sculpture of Jesus, laying there, reminding me of his sacrifice.

Imagine for a moment the impact this would make when participating in communion. Everything around me seemed to have meaning and significance. And, I have to say that I was deeply impacted by it all and felt close to God.

Symbol has the power to peak the imagination and draw us closer to the invisible God. Click To Tweet

The story of the gospel and the testimony of the divine can be found in every inch of space; speaking, drawing, inviting, and calling. Contemporary church design may be suited to put off a good show, but something profound is missing in its lack of symbol. The design is competing with the message for attention and the design has won.

Never allow the design to compete with the message or we will run the risk of losing the message altogether. Instead, allow the message to flow through and impact our designs so they function as the symbols they were meant to be.

Cross, art, sculpture, biblical depictions in stained glass, and wood carvings can have a significant impact on our faith development, while serving as constant reminders of the story that saves.

I'm not calling for every church to look like the picture above. I am, however, inviting each of us to reflect more on what our church buildings reflect in its overall structure and design.

What does this building communicate?

Do what we see, hear, and read as we enter a church building cause us to focus our collective attention on God and the story of Christ? Instilling within us a sense of wonder and contemplation? Or, are we entering empty spaces, void of symbol and meaning, lacking communicative power?

Wherever it is you gather as a church on any given Sunday, or any other day of the week, spend a few moments during the service to look around to see if there is anything in the design of the building that draws your attention closer to God, to Christ, and to one another, and ask yourself the question,

"What message does this building communicate?"

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Jeff is a columnist with ChristianWeek, a public speaker, blogger, and award-winning published writer of articles and book reviews in a variety of faith-based publications. He also blogs at