The chandelier is fashioned from fingers, toes, skulls, and a whole skeleton’s worth of other bones. There are chalices, candelabras, pillars, and other artwork, all forged from the remains of saints. In fact, over 40,000 people are crammed into this Sedlec Ossuary, a small church in the Czech Republic—at least, parts and pieces of them are. The obvious question is why? You might say that, inside this Bone Church, an artist has literalized the verse, “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). These skeletal “witnesses,”gathered from the nearby church cemetery when the citizens eventually ran out of burying room, were artistically arranged to form this most unique architecture. And while it’s a bit creepy, this creation confesses a truth about which today’s church is often mute: that within the walls of God’s house, we are never alone. Now let’s slip inside another church. This one is worlds away from the Bone Church’s rather raw architecture.
Welcome to Lakewood Church, in Houston, Texas, where Joel Osteen serves as pastor. Maybe you’ve heard of this popular preacher or seen his books. Osteen’s congregation has mushroomed over the decades to out-mega all other mega churches. To fit everyone in, they transformed the sports arena, where the Houston Rockets used to play, into a 16,000-seat worship facility. One end of the stadium was gutted and remodeled to become what traditionally would be known as the chancel. Two 30-foot waterfalls gurgle and splash on either side of this platform. Three massive screens project images of the preacher or other worship leaders. Several hundred LED lights allow for multiple mood settings. What is most obvious, however, is what is absent: crosses and crucifixes, altars and icons, baptismal fonts and stained glass, along with just about everything a traditional church might have. And, needless to say, in Lakewood Church, there hangs no chandelier of saints’ bones.
So from this tale of two churches, what can we learn? When you visit other churches with friends, or check out churches around your college campus, does the art and architecture of those churches really matter? Is it all just a matter of taste and practicality?
Here’s the point: There was nothing haphazard in the construction of either of these churches. From the carpet color in Lakewood to the bone choices in Sedlec, the architects of each venue did not work willy-nilly. They had a theological “vision” for what a church should be, even on the level of the senses—how it should look, feel, sound, smell, and what kind of taste it should leave in your mouth. In short, doctrine determined design. Theology designed architecture, and architecture signaled theology. Sometimes, when you walk into a church, what you see is indeed what you get.
If you’re like me, you wouldn’t want to sip Christ’s blood from a chalice of human bones, but neither would you want to sip Starbucks from a comfy stadium seat while gazing at Osteen’s smile beaming from a monstrous screen. Somewhere between the super-earthy of Sedlec and the swank-and-sexy of Lakewood, there’s a church that captures the reality of what church is: a gathering of wounded, hurting sinners around the throne of God and the Lamb, surrounded by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, to become united with the crucified and resurrected Christ. That’s the church we need.
I mentioned earlier that within the walls of God’s house, we are never alone. That’s because the church on earth and the church in heaven are not two churches, but one. And never are they more together as one than in the liturgy. Earthly soil becomes heavenly ground. We are surrounded by heavenly believers and angelic hosts. So why not make the invisible, visible in art? That’s one purpose of pictures and icons of the saints; those images remind us that the church is bigger than what we see. Also, since Christ is not only the central message, but the sole message of the church, shouldn’t the architecture proclaim the same? For example, crucifixes preach the only knowable God; altars, the table from which we feast upon the body and blood sacrificed for us; fonts, the bath in which the filthy garments of sinners are made white in the blood of the Lamb; incense, the smoke of supplications wafting upward to Christ’s throne. All of these, in their own way, serve the Gospel. They preach the God who became a man with all His senses, that we, with all our senses, might receive His life and worship him.
The art and architecture of a church deeply matter. They are the embodiment of theology. They should be catechetical, teaching the faith; beautiful, imitating the God who makes all things well; catholic, expressing the totality of the church on earth and in heaven; and Christ-centered, focusing upon the One who is the be-all and end-all of the church. For when people step into the space in which the Lord is present, the goal is not for them to say, “This is none other than a stadium!” or “This is none other than a practical place for worship and, afterward, basketball!” No, they should confess with Jacob, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” (Genesis 28:17).
Chad Bird is a member of Crown of Life Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.