The power, purpose, and place of church symbols

In his book, The Pastor, Eugene Peterson highlighted the various stages that went into the construction process of their church building and how symbol played an important role in the overall design.

For instance, he described how much thought went into the placement of the pulpit, at the center of the building, with the seats all around, emphasizing the centered-place that scripture should have in our lives. He went on to outline other elements as well (a good read).

My point in mentioning this is that even in church buildings where symbols may not be as defined as those in the Anglican, Orthodox, and Catholic traditions, the symbolic can still be very much present, pointing those who participate in weekly church gatherings towards a more clearly definable goal - God.

Empty rooms and blank walls

In a symbol-free or symbol-less concert hall setting, which is quickly becoming the norm in many Evangelical church buildings, the sense of definition and movement towards the divine is either largely absent or unidentifiable to most people.

In such a context, what would be the point of a symbol if its significance goes largely unnoticed or uninterpreted, and its effects are muted in terms of its intended trajectory?

Blank walls can be the breeding ground for the imagination, but in what direction?

Even an artist derives inspiration, not from an empty canvas, but from images, pictures, stories, and scenes played out in the mind that have been derived from living things and episodes. A painting becomes a painting only after paint is applied, not when the canvas lies blank.

Church symbols can stimulate the imagination with thoughts toward God. Click To Tweet

While we may laud the benefits of a symbol-free or symbol-less church building, the benefits of having a variety of intentional and interpreted church symbols in and around the building can stimulate the imagination with thoughts toward God.

It has direction built into its design that can lead people towards a specific direction - God. It would be difficult to ascertain how an empty room can have the same impact.

Taking people on an artistic journey of contemplation towards God

Context plays an important role. In fact, church buildings the world over, within a variety of settings and liturgical emphases, have successfully incorporated varying degrees of symbol into their gathering places, creating space for the imagination to come alive.

In the end, whatever our denominational or liturgical emphases may be, taking the time to incorporate a variety of symbols within the structure of our church buildings can take people on an artistic journey of contemplation towards God and should therefore be front and center in our design.

Church symbols can take people on an artistic journey of contemplation towards God. Click To Tweet

Places of worship are more than just buildings - they are cathedrals that symbolize the coming together of God and his people. And, all of our senses need to be stimulated in order for us to more fully discover the God who looks like Jesus; a God who draws near and meets with us within the materiality of our human structures.

Words and art need to come together in order for this to happen. Our emphasis on words is important, but art will take us to places where words alone never can. It will tap into the right-brain, imaginative construct of the human mind and draw us towards an invisible God.

Stimulate the senses. Stimulate the mind. Stimulate new life. Herein lies the power of church symbols.

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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