How to Lay Out Our Worship Space

Larry Wilson

New Horizons: February 2011

Church Architecture

Also in this issue

Reforming Church Architecture

Betty Andrews: A Woman of Prayer

For church officers, what we believe and confess informs and influences how we oversee, plan, and conduct public worship. We try to select content and order our services based on what we know to be true about God, Christ, sin, grace, the means of grace, and so on. Our doctrine molds our practice. In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, our Confession and Catechisms summarize what we believe God's Word teaches on these matters, and we have a Directory for Public Worship (DPW) to spell out agreed-upon guidelines for worship that accord with that teaching.

For the person in the pew, however, it's the other way around. I think we should expect that, for the average Christian, his faith will be molded more by his worship. And this is a very important reason why the ongoing biblical reformation of the various aspects of worship is so important.

In that light, we should give careful consideration to how we lay out the space in which we worship. To be sure, the people of God—and not the building—are the church. Moreover, the true sanctuary is in heaven where Christ is. Even so, it is unwise to ignore the fact that while congregations first shape their buildings, afterwards their buildings play a large role in shaping them.

The Layout of the Worship Space

Under the old covenant, God specified the details for the tabernacle and the temple. But he gives no such blueprints for worship space under the new covenant. Instead, he calls for and gives wisdom to implement the principles of his Word in a variety of locations and situations. In our Presbyterian terminology, the layout of the worship space is not one of the elements of worship (the things we do in worship); it is a circumstance of worship (how we do them). For example, God commands us to sing his praises. That is an element of worship. But as we sing, will we stand or sit? Will we use songbooks, song sheets, or projected words? These are circumstances of worship. The sessions of the local congregations are free and responsible to make judgment calls about what is more and less appropriate in these things. What God tells them is, "All things [the elements] should be done decently and in order [the circumstances]" (1 Cor. 14:40; cf. Confession of Faith, 1.6).

Surprisingly, when the Westminster Assembly formulated its Directory for the Publick Worship of God, the most time-consuming controversy that it faced was the question of how to order the circumstance of distributing the bread and wine during Communion. Some commissioners felt strongly that communicants should be served while seated around literal tables. Other commissioners believed that it was much better to have the elders seated at a table in front of the congregation, from which they would then bring the bread and the wine to the people who remained in their pews, thus symbolically sitting around a table together. They debated this matter for weeks. Finally, the Assembly settled on the formulation that the table is to be "conveniently placed, that the communicants may orderly sit [either] about it or at it." In other words, they agreed on the Lord's Supper as an element of worship, and then they agreed to leave it to local sessions to arrange the circumstances for this element. But underlying it all, they also agreed that how these circumstances are arranged is by no means unimportant! Nor do they just fall into place without some sort of forethought.

Pulpit, Font, Table

If it is really true that an assembly of public worship is not merely a gathering of God's children with each other, but is, before all else, a meeting of the triune God with his covenant people, then is it not wise to try to arrange the worship assembly space to somehow express and emphasize that fact? Implying that it is, the OPC's DPW says,

The session does well to ensure that the public worship assembly space is so arranged as to reflect and reinforce God's initiative in drawing near to and gathering his people through the ministry of the Word and sacraments. (I, C.4)

The triune God is the chief actor in worship, working faith, hope, and love in his people by his means of grace. Of worship, God says, "You shall not bow down to a foreign god. I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it" (Ps. 81:9-10). Accordingly, the DPW goes on to suggest that:

Because the pulpit, baptismal font, and communion table facilitate the part of worship which is performed on behalf of God, it is fitting that they be positioned so as to draw the focus of the congregation upon the Word and sacraments, and that they be easily accessible and visible to the entire congregation throughout the worship service. (I, C.4.a)

Of course, this does not give any one-size-fits-all recipe. Sessions still have to make judgment calls about how to implement these things. But if we really believe that God himself acts to create faith by means of his Word, especially its preaching, then shouldn't that have a significant impact on how we arrange our worship space? For this reason, it has generally been the case that churches have made the reading and preaching of God's Word very prominent.

There was a day when churches—especially Reformed churches—were marked by large, eye-catching pulpits. Ministers had to climb quite a few steps to get into them. This visually emphasized the centrality of God's Word. Over time, those high pulpits became less common, but some sort of visual emphasis on the centrality of the Word remained.

Musicians and Musical Instruments

This centrality of the Word is becoming less visually manifest as churches have begun to incorporate a variety of musicians and musical instruments to accompany congregational singing. In some circles, they are pushing pulpits out of the way. We might wonder what that signals. Does it communicate our beliefs about worship or does it obscure them?

Again, while congregational singing is an element of worship, its musical accompaniment is among the myriad of circumstances over which sessions must make judgment calls.[1] But how might we express that these circumstances are not part of God's means of grace to create or confirm faith, but instead are part of the congregation's response of addressing God with songs of praise? Our DPW suggests:

Because musicians and musical instruments serve the part of worship that is performed by the congregation, it is fitting that they be positioned with or behind the congregation. (I, C.4.b)[2]

Again, there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for how this might always look. But it can be done. For example, Bethel OPC in Wheaton, Illinois, has its pulpit, baptismal font, and communion table in the front of their simple, but elegant, worship space. At the back they have a balcony where musicians and musical accompaniment support the congregation's worship.

But this layout does not work only for so-called "traditional" music. I worshiped at New Life OPC in La Mesa, California, on several occasions when George Miladin was the pastor. That church's facility also had the seating gathered around a pulpit, font, and table, which were front and center. They incorporated carefully selected contemporary songs into their worship, along with their hymns and psalms, accompanied by contemporary instruments. But the musicians and the musical instruments were somewhat behind and alongside the congregation. This arrangement powerfully communicated their conviction that God's Word and sacraments are the means by which he especially works in the lives of his people, and that musical accompaniment serves congregational singing, which is addressed to the living God.

Ideals and Reality

Of course, sessions have to consider many factors—the space available, acoustics, and so on. Many of our congregations worship in rented facilities, as I too have done for most of my ministry. And when we do have the opportunity to build or acquire a facility, our ideals have to match up with our bank accounts. There are too many situational variations to prejudge exactly how biblical principles should be implemented in every case. And in the ultimate sense, it doesn't matter. Thankfully, we serve a Savior who can strike straight blows with crooked sticks and whose mediation covers our sins and shortcomings. Believers can worship "in spirit and truth" (John 4:24) anywhere, from catacombs to cathedrals.

Still, isn't it important for us to do our best with what we have? When I was in seminary, a fellow student was very conspicuous for his clothing. In one sense, he dressed well; he always wore a coat and tie. But the color and pattern combinations that he selected could best be described as bizarre, producing an almost hallucinogenic effect. That shouldn't be important, should it? He was pious, orthodox, and gifted. But alas, weaker brethren like myself, while trying to listen to his good preaching, kept getting distracted by questions like, "How could his wife let him out of the house dressed like that?" Surely we do not want the way we lay out our worship space to have a similarly distracting effect.

Maybe the question of how to lay out our worship space boils down to this: How can we best remove distractions from what is really going on in our worship? Since the chief reality of worship is the triune God himself, working supernaturally in his people by his means of grace, how might we express and emphasize that expectation in the way we lay out our worship space?[3]


[1] Incidentally, some disagree that instrumental accompaniment is a circumstance of worship and therefore is legitimate, but that issue is beside the point of this article. For now, simply note that while the view that congregational singing should be a cappella is allowed within the OPC, the OPC also allows instrumental accompaniment to congregational singing, which is the practice of the great majority of our congregations.

[2] We tend naively to think that church buildings have always had organs and/or pianos and choirs in the front of the worship space, but that was actually a nineteenth-century novelty introduced by the revivalist movement.

[3] Other facets can also be considered. See the author's "Suggestions toward Reflecting and Reinforcing Principles of Biblically Reformed Worship in Our Church Buildings" (Ordained Servant, October 2001), at http://opc.org/OS/pdf/OSV10N4.pdf.

The author served on the committee that produced the OPC's Directory for the Public Worship of God that came into effect on January 1, 2011. New Horizons, February 2011.

New Horizons: February 2011

Church Architecture

Also in this issue

Reforming Church Architecture

Betty Andrews: A Woman of Prayer

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