Saturday, April 12, 2008

Architecture as Evangelism

In a few weeks I will be returning to Israel with about thirty or so people in tow where I will once again guide, lecture, and sermonize at biblical sites and places Where Jesus Walked.

Every time I lead this excursion (I've lost count) I take people to churches, ancient churches usually constructed over places important to faith. Usually those churches take the architectural form of a basilica. Deriving from the Greek basilikos, meaning “royal,” the early Christian basilica reflects the time when Christianity defeated the Roman persecution by (Are you ready for this?) converting the Emperor himself (Constantine). Then, adding inspiration to injury, the church took over the Emperor’s palace architecture and adapted it to the service of Christ and His Kingdom.

That strikes me as odd, living as I do in postmodern America. You see, today it’s more often the other way ‘round; namely, Constantine converts Christianity. In today’s consumer-driven, user-defined church, the culture does all the talking and the church does all the listening. “The customer’s always right” is the real mission statement of many churches these days, and the consumer church it seems is eager and willing to adapt and accommodate to whatever culture wishes (or demands) in order to win its approval and curry its favor.

But it was not always so. The architecture of our spiritual ancestors reflected their conviction that though they were “in the world,” they were never to be “of it,” and even the architecture of the church said so. The church’s shape was always cruciform, both literally and figuratively Christ’s Body. The “head” of the cross (apse) was where the altar stood. It always does. The arms (transept) reached out to the world, ready to receive the nails they knew would come. The body (nave) was where the church gathered, always remembering that the church, if it is the Church, is the Body of Christ.

Out in front of the nave was a rectangular porch called the narthex (Greek for “casket”). It was here that the curious and the cautious gathered and listened in on the goings on in this “other world” called “The Kingdom of God.” They could not enter the nave (Christ’s Body) until they were ready to submit to the discipline and demands of the Body, to live (literally, to escape the “casket” and come alive) according to the “rules of the House,” an entry that demanded a cold, wet bath Christians called “baptism.”

An interesting ritual, this baptism. They stripped them naked as the day they were born, threw them into a pool of water, half drowning them, and coming up out of the bath, they gave them a new, white resurrection robe. Then the priest led them through the narthex to the door of the nave, knocked on the door, and when it opened, led them into Christ’s Body where they gathered with brothers and sisters and received the body and blood of Christ, their first communion.

It was how the earliest Christians did evangelism. They invited the cautious and the curious to stand out in the narthex until they were willing to come inside - literally and figuratively - and become part of the Body of Christ.

Kind of makes the invitation "Come to church!" take on a whole new meaning, doesn't it!

No comments: