Friday, October 4, 2019

From the Ground Up

Typical floor plan of modern
church building

Copyright © Edward Riojas

We’ve all visited churches that resemble, um, something else. The sound system might be impressive; the seats comfortable. It may be obvious that an interior designer gave serious thought to color schemes and fabric options and lighting. The church may be visually more closely related to theater than theology, and that is a problem.

The design of a church is something few of us can change. Short of a bulldozer and unlimited cash, congregations are pretty much stuck with the building that has been handed down to them. Thanks to overly-creative, but liturgically-senseless architects, church buildings can become their own stumbling blocks.

I should probably digress here and explain that I don’t have it in for architects. My brother, Steven, is a respected architect, and I fully appreciate that the discipline goes far beyond my understanding. I do, however, appeal to the wisdom of early architects. Without massive databases laying out specs of building materials, they accomplished some pretty impressive feats through common sense and a little trial and error. Their vision, however, is what is most impressive.
Floor plan of Winchester Cathedral

One need only look at floor plans to see immediately what those architects were about.

Perhaps it was originally introduced to structurally accommodate a dome, or maybe some architect simply saw an opportunity, but the transept quickly became an important feature in churches large and small. Transepts, simply put, are short additions running on a transverse axis to the larger sanctuary space. Their placement, however, is important.

Whether the transepts were used for a choir area or side chapels or extra seating, their presence forced the floor plan into the shape of a cross. Even as cathedrals became more elaborate with adjoining rooms and cloisters, the cruciform shape remained conspicuous.

This architectural formula became so prevalent that it trickled down to smaller churches. Even if a simple country church doesn’t have transepts, there is often the residual suggestion of one in the layout. An open space between the pews and the chancel forms a cross with a central aisle.

One pastor recently postulated that this may be the reason why many churches place a Baptismal font in that intersection instead of outside the sanctuary proper. It’s placement would coincide with the corpus of Christ, and the wound which issued blood and water.

There is yet another reason to appreciate the floor plans of older churches: While it may be hard for parishioners to envision an overall layout of the sanctuary for sheer size, it still gives great comfort knowing that they stand squarely on the cross.

Floor plans, from left, of Amien, Salisbury, and Cologne Cathedrals


  1. There are many aspects about the layout of modern churches that lend themselves to concert auditoriums more than places of worship. And thus, the "worship" service is treated as such. Colored lights,spotlights, 7-10 band members and applause between each song....ìf it looks like a concert sounds like a concert-it's a concert! Give me one talented organist and a hymnal!

  2. I agree with Bob. My church is Gothic style in the early 1950s. We have a wonderful organ. However, we underwent some remodeling about 15 or so years ago that has diminished the look of our sanctuary somewhat. And then a praise team came in, singing "performance" style songs that most people couldn't follow. That team recently fell apart as our pastor accepted a call to a new church and several team members ended up leaving for school, new job, etc. With our intentional interim pastor, we are apparently trying to allow the "contemporary" folks a say in the worship style. The whole situation is so frustrating. Let's stick with the lovely style of our building and our organ.