What does it mean to create an environment for worship? Just as we hang wreaths on the doors of our homes and light the walkways that lead to these doors, we furnish and adorn our churches to welcome parishioners and guests. If the church is a gathering place for a particular assembly of believers, then a hospitable environment is one that welcomes and supports this community when it gathers. And if evangelism is part of the church’s mission, then creating an environment that welcomes the wider community is a way of practicing this mission.
In our homes we display garden flags, jack-o-lanterns, and Christmas lights according to the season. The church, too, marks time, introducing us to the liturgical seasons of the incarnation cycle (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany), the paschal cycle (Lent, The Three Days, Easter), and the ordinary time of summer, autumn, and November. Creating environments within which worshipers come to understand and participate in the unfolding of these liturgical seasons is meaningful, challenging work.
One way to create an environment that celebrates a particular season is to utilize natural materials. Flowers and grasses that are in-season connect us to the natural world and suggest that the flux of life is a part of the Christian story. Simple, organic materials wordlessly proclaim the goodness of God’s creation.
Think (Five) Senses
Fresh flowers have another advantage in creating an environment for worship: they give off scents. Our five senses function to orient us to the space we inhabit. During a liturgical celebration, hymns engage our ears, colorful images direct our eyes, and bread and wine stimulate our tongues. Our sense of touch is activated as we smooth our hands over a hymnal or stroke the wood of a chair. Smell tends to be the sense that is neglected. Thinking of the church environment in terms of its appeal to all five senses will expand creative possibilities.
Liturgical seasons mark the passage of time and place us within the context of an unfolding salvation history. Effective, meaningful church environments respect the mystery of this story of salvation. The baptismal font and the table of the Lord’s supper more than anything else in the worship space point to the mystery of our salvation. Clean linens, appropriate vessels—even the presence of water in the font—are simple reminders of our privileged status as children of light, recipients of grace, and inheritors of God’s kingdom.