This week’s comic is written and illustrated by Ryan Lockett, a Principal Architect for Integrated Design in Raleigh. He’s a good friend who always draws the most amazing comics all over the white board when he teaches youth Sunday School at my church. I’m thrilled with his artwork for Wesley Bros Comics this week, and I hope you’ll also enjoy his thoughts on church architecture below. Also, be sure to pre-order this year’s Wesley Bros Liturgical Calendar in the Etsy Store!
29…Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
Whenever I have the privilege to travel to an unfamiliar city, I like to explore the older parts of town and visit any gothic church buildings I can find there. While the cathedrals are always impressive with their carved stone vaults of marble and limestone, my favorite buildings are usually the smaller parish churches. Many of these beautiful old buildings feature timber roofs, fashioned with curved wooden arches, that resemble the hull of a boat. This is not by accident. From Noah’s Arc and Jonah’s whale to the fisher-disciples of Galilee and the shipwrecked apostle Paul, the Bible is full of stories set on a boat at sea in frightening conditions. Indeed, Christian life is often described in terms of following Christ on an uncertain journey in which we may be tossed about on the waters.
In this context it is easy to see why early Christian architects incorporated the symbolism of this journey into their building designs. In fact, they defined the main congregation seating area as the “Nave”, which is from the Latin root word “Navis” and shared by terms like “Naval” and “Navigate”. They understood that the members of the church should function like the crew of a ship navigating towards the Kingdom of Heaven. Traditionally, the Nave faced the Chancel which in turn faced the rising sun. Most Christians at the time understood “eastward” to be facing Jerusalem and the Cross. The sun would rise behind the stained glass of the chancel, casting a heavenly light and creating an other-worldly experience for medieval Christians. All of this reinforced the idea of a journey to the Kingdom of Heaven. In modern times we have many different perspectives on buildings and how they relate to our faith. Jerusalem is not always due east, but following Christ with the aim of serving God’s Kingdom is still the central message.
The most successful church building projects are those which support a vibrant congregation that is “all onboard,” focused on the ultimate goal of serving God. In this respect buildings are always secondary to the Gospel mission. In modern church construction even affluent churches are often faced with limited budgets and have to make choices between funding one building project over another. Hopefully these decisions are made with the ultimate mission in mind, whether that involves something as momentous as a new sanctuary for expanded worship, or as simple as a coffee bar to attract young people. It could even be a project that speaks to what kind of people we are, such as a handicap ramp to accommodate the more physically challenged among us.
Many times we feel like we have failed as a church when we can’t raise the all the funds for a visionary building plan in one capital campaign. We would do well to look at some of these older churches and realize that most of them were built in phases over multiple generations. Some of the larger cathedrals took hundreds of years to complete. The mason who laid the cornerstone might be the great, great, grandfather of the mason who laid the capstone. The original planners understood that they might not see completion of the master plan in their lifetimes. Likely, a very different congregation inhabited the building at its completion, and in this way, we are always building for the church of the future.
Peter had the faith to step out of the boat, but he could not make it the full distance to Jesus. However, the beautiful thing about this story is that Jesus met Peter half-way and completed his mission. Jesus said that he would build his church on Saint Peter “the rock” and while he didn’t mean a physical church building, I think we should remember Peter’s faith. When we build, we step out in faith with the hope of meeting Christ. We tell a story with our building and we bring others along with us on this journey to the Kingdom of Heaven.