Is Your House of Worship Welcoming?

Volume 48, Issue 1 :: by Mark G. Boyer

Photo: Mary Constance/flickr

How do houses of worship across all faiths create welcome and hospitality? While the following perspective comes from a Christian—Catholic and Protestant—point of view, the principles are applicable to Jewish temples and synagogues and Muslim mosques, not to mention any other places that people name sacred and gather in for worship.

The building for Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu worship can either help or hinder welcome and worship. Because worshipful actions are communal celebrations, they are enacted in the presence of and with the internal and external active participation of the people. Therefore, when people make decisions about the design of a new church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or the renovation of an old one they should consider how their choices will affect the ability of the people to be welcomed and to participate fully.

This means that the design of the building must welcome congregants and reflect the various roles and functions of all the people. While all present participate in worship, not all have the same roles. People should be welcomed and then fully involved in worship led by a clergy member, others who assist the clergy, musicians, song leaders, cantors, etc. The physical building should reflect not only the welcome and unity of the assembly and its clergy and foster its active participation, but also provide the space for each person to exercise his or her ministry.

One thing that may hinder welcoming and participatory space is the arrangement of the seating. Certainly, pews lined up in rows so that worshipers can see only the backs of the heads of other worshipers do not foster welcoming or participation. Stadium-style seating with worshipers arranged so they can see others’ faces does welcome and invite participation.

Exterior Qualities

People are first welcomed by the exterior of the building. Is the grass cut, are the leaves raked, the bushes trimmed, the snow removed? Bits of paper and other things littering the outside of the building do not provide a welcome; seasonal plants near doors, awnings above doors, and inviting entryways do welcome people. Drive around a neighborhood and look at all the ways homeowners decorate their front doors with wreaths, living plants, yard decorations, etc. All those items invite others to the front door of the house. What is true of the home is also true of a house of worship.

Gathering Space

After the building’s entrance, the next opportunity for welcoming is often referred to as a gathering space, narthex, or vestibule. Before any person welcomes others, the space itself welcomes them through its large doors, ample room for socializing, and well-lighted interiors. Especially welcoming is natural light streaming through glass. In some traditions, stained glass or colored glass windows provide just enough color and light to invite and foster quiet, but serious, conversations. The gathering space of a church is where social media are replaced with face-to-face conversations. This is a church’s living room, where people enter into a space that is filled with natural light, natural plants, and plenty of room to stand around and talk, usually in a circle or semicircle.

The gathering space is not unrelated to the rest of the facility. It is a decontamination chamber. One leaves everything from the rest of the world—household chores, laundry, family feuds—in this space, which one passes through to enter the sacred worship space. Thus, there is a unity of the space which houses the assembly of worshipers when it gathers for worship. The building should be designed and constructed to express the order needed by the members of the assembly. Likewise, when leaving, the members of the congregation leave the worship area and pass through the gathering space, preparing to re-enter the world that was left behind.

This in-between space must be uncluttered. It is not a place for overburdened bulletin boards covered with layers of brochures. The chaos of the bulletin board tells everyone to stay away; no one wants to attempt to create order from the multitude of brochures and documents pinned there. Restrooms, the crying room, and the doors into the worship space should be clearly marked. Table displays should be kept to a minimum with no clutter, frequently attended in order to straighten, and removed after the first or second week they are displayed. Clutter is not welcoming.

The gathering space facilitates the formation of the entrance procession with the minister, if there is one. For example, in Roman Catholicism, the Rite of Becoming of Catechumen is celebrated in the gathering space. Parents and godparents with a baby to be baptized are welcomed, and those who have died are welcomed for the last time with funeral rites. In warmer climates, the gathering space can consist of a square or a cloister where candles, palms, and fire can be blessed, and from which processions can be formed. In other words, before people actively engage in worship, they first participate in greeting and welcoming each other and taking care of basic human needs.

Worship Space

Instead of thinking of a church as a physical structure, one might consider it the gathering of the assembly of worshipers. The building is a house for the community when it gathers for worshipful celebration. As such, the building is like a skin sheltering the worshipers. It should be an incarnation of the spirit of the people of a parish or a worship community, of the spirit of the larger community in which the building is located, of the spirit of the diocese to which the parish belongs, etc. In other words, the building makes visible the worshipers living in a particular time and place. The construction of a new sacred space or the renovation of an old one does not begin with the building and then attempt to fit the people into it; the design begins with the people and their worshipful activity and forms a structure around them.

The doors of the worship area have both physical and symbolic dimensions. First, they serve to make the building secure from the weather and other dangers. Their appearance in terms of size and weight add dignity to the building. Second, the doors are a sign of welcome to all who wish to come in and find a safe and secure place.

Floor Plans

Based on the Temple in Jerusalem, over time Jewish synagogues and temples developed a basic floor plan whose elements remain to this day. Likewise, Islam developed a design for a worship space that continues to influence the construction of mosques to this day. From the days of house churches (homes where the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth met) to our own day and time, several general floor plans have emerged as practical designs for worship. One of the earliest, adapted from the Roman courts of law, is the basilica. Usually square or slightly rectangular, the basilica provided an outer cover or skin for the assembly. Originally, basilicas provided no seating; people stood; this facilitated the welcoming. They could move closer to the areas of activity so they could hear. They could adjust their place so they could see. This fluidity enabled participation because people could see and hear each other.

Gradually, the basilica emerged into a cruciform floor plan. The top end of the cross housed the sanctuary. The arms contained shrines and altars, and the bottom or long end of the cross contained pews or chairs for the people. While there might be a door in one of the arms, the entrance was usually at the long end of the cross. Pews were arranged so that they resembled the two columns of text found on pages printed after the invention of movable type. The members of the assembly watched the action take place in the sanctuary, the top of the cross, where the minister, representing Christ the head of the Church, enacted the liturgy for the people. Members of the assembly saw only the backs of the heads of the persons sitting in the pews in front of them. Thus, both welcome and participation were at a minimum. The focus was on the altar at the front. The huge Gothic cathedrals of Europe and the U.S. are cruciform in shape and limit participation not only with pews or chairs lined up in rows, but with pillars that block the line of sight, and a long distance from the back row of pews to the sanctuary. The closest one can get to the sanctuary is the rail that separates it from the rest of the church.

In the past 60 to 80 years, the theater design has emerged. Christian worship spaces are built in squares, semicircles, hexagons, or octagons. The sanctuary is placed in a corner of the square or against the wall of a semicircle, hexagon, or octagon. Pews or chairs are arranged so people are on three sides around the sanctuary. Even though worshipers can see each other, see more around them, and find themselves closer to the action, they still face a single platform sanctuary, reminiscent of a stage, against a wall. Furthermore, a stage, like that found in movie theaters, performing arts centers, and live-performance theaters, does not foster welcome or participation; people come to watch, to be entertained, to be passive. Even when performers leave the stage and mingle with the members of the audience in order to foster welcome and participation, once the performer returns to stage and the house lights go down, people become quiet and resume their roles as observers. Churches with huge video screens reinforce the nonparticipation of members of the assembly.

A floor plan more welcoming and participatory is that of the stadium, which is circular or elliptical. People are arranged all around the center of action. No one faces a wall. All are in full view of each other and all interact. The stadium model is nothing other than the living room model on a bigger scale (house churches revisited). In most people’s living rooms, furniture is arranged in a circle or an ellipse so that people can see and hear each other, enjoy mobility, and participate in whatever is taking place in the room. About the only place in sacred architecture where the stadium model has been employed is in monastery churches or chapels, where it is referred to as antiphonal seating. Monks sit together on opposite sides with usually a presider’s chair at one end and an ambo or reading stand at the other. One side listens to the other recite a strophe of a psalm, then the other side listens as the next strophe is recited from the opposite choir. All are led by the presider and all focus attention on the reader’s lesson. Not only can the monks hear each other, but they see each other. The space between the two choirs is usually stark or minimally decorated, because anything in between would hinder active participation.

The building or worship space should facilitate various gestures, postures, and processions because these enhance welcome. The space should facilitate sitting for preparation, listening, and silent prayer; standing for prayer and song; and even kneeling in adoration and penitence. On some occasions, such as Palm Sunday, the congregation may gather in another space and process into the worship area. The aisles in the worship area should facilitate the movement of congregation and clergy into their spaces.

Five Basic Principles for Welcome

1. Suitable Worship Space

The building in which worship takes place should be dignified, noble, and welcoming. It should be worthy and a sign and a symbol of heavenly realities because it represents both the immanence and transcendence of God (or Allah), a God who chooses to be live with people yet who cannot be limited to any one space. This means that particular attention must be given to the congregation’s area along with the musicians and the sanctuary area, whatever is needed for worship. The space must make it clear that the entire congregation worships as one.

There are three aspects to the principle of suitability: First, the space must facilitate the action—processing, standing, kneeling—of the worship, no matter what it may be. In a gathering area, the space must facilitate the action of gathering, talking, moving. Second, the space must enable the welcome and the active participation of the congregation. Active participation requires that people can both see and hear each other. Third, the general arrangement of the sacred building must be such that it conveys the image of the gathered worshipers, allows the appropriate ordering of all the participants, and facilitates each in the proper carrying out of his or her function.

2. Simplicity

Simplicity refers to the state of being free from ostentation or display. It is applied to the decor of the building. Worship invites through noble simplicity rather than ostentation; in other words, less is more. More is clutter, and clutter impedes the welcome of all. In fact, clutter does instruct the congregation; it tells people that the worship in which they are engaging is not important. If it were, there would be no clutter.

3. Genuineness

In a plastic, throw-away society, it is easy to neglect genuineness. The materials used for construction and furnishings should be genuine. Genuine means that a thing possesses the apparent qualities of appearance. Wood should look like wood. Stone should look like stone. There is an authenticity to live flowers and plants that silk and plastic cannot begin to convey. There is a genuineness to wax candles that electric candles or tube candles cannot approach. Fake appointments of any kind imply that the worship is fake, too. That which is genuine invites worshipers into sacred spaces.

Works of art must nourish faith and devotion, be authentic, and come together with elegance. While it is easy to buy silk flowers, genuine living flowers and plants foster a greater appreciation for the gift of life that God has given to the community. Like human life, real flowers wilt and die. Likewise, any type of statuary, iconography, light, shrine, symbol, or sign must be genuine. There is a lesson to be learned from what is genuine.

4. Audibility and Visibility

Two of the primary requirements that ensure participation by the total assembly are audibility and visibility. In order to foster active participation in any kind of worship, members of the assembly must be able to hear everyone. Yet, microphones needed to amplify voices should be arranged discreetly. In this modern age of technology, with wireless microphones and multiple speakers, it should not be too difficult to ensure that everyone can be heard if the acoustical design of a building is kept in mind.

Audibility entails more than simply hearing what is being said. While modern amplification devices enable one to hear at a great distance, that does not imply that one is actively participating in worshipful action. The assembly also needs to be able to hear itself, especially when it sings.

Visibility implies that the worshipers can see the clergy and that the clergy can see the members of the assembly and make eye contact with them. No seat should be so far away from the place of worship that the distance and lighting level impede participation in worshipful action. Visibility also means that members of the assembly can see each other. Worship spaces should be designed so they do not imply passivity and impede active participation for all involved. The arrangement of seating must call the congregation to active participation and provide space for those in wheelchairs or with walkers.

5. Dignity

The place of worship is distinct. It is deemed worthy, honored, or esteemed by what takes place there. Not only is the space dignified, but the furnishings within it contain an inherent dignity. Any materials used for sacred furnishings must be considered to be noble, durable, and well suited for sacred use. The principle of dignity must also be applied to anything else used in worship, such as candles, Bible, scrolls, Qur’an, books. Welcoming people to worship is one way the dignity of every person is upheld.

The principles of suitability, simplicity, genuineness, audibility and visibility, and dignity inform the ability to create welcome and inclusivity. They also guide those who are charged with maintaining places of worship to eliminate whatever impedes them. By implementing the five principles explained above, the members of a congregation will be welcomed to worship and will actively participate in it.

The author of the third edition of The Liturgical Environment: What the Documents Say (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), Mark G. Boyer is a part-time instructor in the Religious Studies Department of Missouri State University, Springfield, Missouri. He is an award-winning newspaper editor and the author of 40 books on biblical and liturgical spirituality. His email is: [email protected].