One can understand the concern expressed by King David in this Sunday’s first reading: “Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God dwells in a tent.” David wishes to build a worthy house for God’s dwelling. And isn’t that our concern too whenever a parish plans to renovate or build a church? We are taught to treat our church and the things within it respectfully and behave within it reverently.
While the concept of a church as God’s house is understood, many people are not aware that the church is our house, the house of God’s people. From the early days of our tradition, “church” meant the assembly of the faithful. The gathered people were the most important consideration. Such a place was called domus ecclesiae, “house of the church.”
The design of a church is to be shaped by the people’s needs for prayer and communal action. Church documents iterate that what encourages full participation of the people is to be primary. The people must see and hear well the altar, the ambo and the ministers. The assembly also needs to see enough of other members so that they can experience themselves as a community. All should be able to hear their common songs and responses so they can hear themselves as community. (Many churches have taken out carpeting which muffles their sound.) Our house of worship should help us gather together, remember and celebrate our Christian identity. While beauty and well-crafted materials are important, care is to be taken that the environment does not overpower nor distract from the full participation of the people. As our house the building should reflect the spirit of the community it serves. If the church does all these things it will also help to create the community’s spirit and symbolize heaven. The environment should be able to uplift the minds and hearts of the people so they are ready to encounter God. The church is then, also domus Dei, “house of God.”
The building we call church is a “visible sign of the living church, God’s building which is formed of the people themselves” (Rite for the Dedication of a Church and an Altar). We are the “living stones” of God’s temple, built by the Spirit, united by baptism, bonded together more closely through the Eucharist. The church building, which is our home, reminds us and speaks to all who pass by that truly God dwells among us.
Johnston is the former director of worship at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Manitowoc.