Sight, Place, and the Presence of God
by R.C. Sproul
A great debate and controversy over what is proper worship before God is going on in our time. As I have wrestled with this question, I keep going back to the Old Testament. I know this is a dangerous practice because we now live in the New Testament era, but the Old Testament gives detailed, explicit instructions for worship, whereas the New Testament is almost silent on the conduct of worship. In the Old Testament, I find a refuge from speculation, from human opinion, and from the vagaries of human taste and preference because there I find God Himself explicitly demanding that certain things take place in worship. I believe it is both possible and right to mine principles for worship from the Old Testament, for the Old Testament books remain part of the canon of Scripture, and while there is a certain discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, there is also a continuity that we must not discount.
One of the principles I learn from the Old Testament is this: the whole person is to be engaged in the experience of worship. Certainly, the minds, hearts, and souls of the worshipers are to be engaged, but when we come to worship on Sunday morning, we do not come as disembodied minds, hearts, or souls. None of our experiences are purely intellectual, emotional, or spiritual. The experience of human life also involves physical aspects. This means that all five senses are involved in the experience of living. We are creatures who live life not merely with our minds, hearts, and souls, but with our senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.
I do not have enough space in this brief article to touch on how all five senses are engaged in worship, or even to explore the full dimensions of even one of the senses. So, I want to consider just one way in which the visual sense can be impacted so that our hearts are moved to worship.
Surveys routinely tell us that the two leading reasons why people stay away from church are that they find worship boring and they find the church irrelevant. These reasons, especially the first one, astound me. I have often said that if God Himself were to announce that He would appear at my church one Sunday morning at 11 a.m., there would be standing room only at the appointed hour. I am sure that no one would come to that service, witness God’s arrival, and go away saying, “I was bored.” When we read the biblical accounts of people’s encounters with God, we see the whole gamut of human emotions. Some people weep, some cry out in fear, some tremble, some pass out. However, we never read of anyone who was bored in God’s presence.
So, given the fact that worship is, in its most basic sense, a meeting with God, how can we account for the surveys that tell us people come away from church feeling bored? I must conclude that they are experiencing no sense of the presence of God. That is tragic, because if people have no sense of the presence of God, they cannot be moved to worship and glorify God.
One of the elements that helps people gain a sense of the real presence of God is the form of the worship environment. I used to enjoy asking my seminary students, who were Protestants, whether they had ever been in one of the great Roman Catholic Gothic cathedrals. Many had, so I would ask them to share their visceral response upon walking into a cathedral. Most would say, “I felt a sense of awe” or “I felt a sense of the transcendence of God.” That gave me the opportunity to point out how the architecture of the cathedrals, the form of the worship environment in those buildings, put my students in the “mood” for worship, as it were. That, of course, was the very reaction the cathedrals were designed to spark. Great care and thought went into the design of the cathedrals. The designers wanted a form that would quicken in people a sense of the loftiness of God, of the otherness of God. It saddens me that Protestants do not usually take the same care in church design. Our worship environments are often utilitarian. Sanctuaries are designed along the lines of cinemas or television studios. Such environments are not wrong, but many people would testify that such settings do not inspire worship in the way traditional church interiors do.
It behooves us, I think, to note the great care with which God gave His people plans for the tabernacle, their first worship environment. Like the temple that followed, the tabernacle was a place of beauty, glory, and transcendence. It was like no other place in the lives of God’s people. We need to understand that our church architecture communicates something to our visual senses, and, therefore, that architecture can promote or hinder our sense of the presence of God.