Many Puritans wanted their congregants transported to heaven itself, not by means of architectural splendor but by the preaching of the Word of God. Thus, the worship space was stripped of ornamentation, and the entire building was designed around a single focal point: the pulpit. Keeping this function in mind, we see that the Puritan meetinghouse, though lacking the aesthetic splendor of the cathedral, is nevertheless well designed. And in achieving the end for which it was created, it begins to manifest the simple beauty of a job well done.
The same considerations are relevant to all the manifold ways that design manifests itself in the life of a local church. The bulletin is designed. The worship service is designed. The website is designed. Are they designed well? Do they support the mission of the church? If they are beautiful, is their beauty the beauty of a job well done?
For many years, churches have, by and large, given little thought to these questions. But in a culture of ever-increasing design consciousness, people are less and less willing to struggle through poor design. Most of us are exposed daily to exceptionally well-designed physical and digital experiences, and though we may not be conscious of or able to articulate what separates good design from bad, we can feel it. We feel well oriented or we feel lost. We feel clarity of expectation or we feel left to fend for ourselves. Most importantly, we ask where all of this is leading.
Design can help the church answer this question clearly.
Martin Luther expended tremendous energy on the details of how his books were printed and distributed, and God used his books, more than anything else Luther produced, to ignite a reformation throughout Europe. Undoubtedly, it was the life-changing content of these books that had such a transformative effect, rather than their design. In light of that, we might conclude that design is little more than a distraction from our real purpose. Should we not simply stick to what matters most, to the content of our message? But if the content matters, then it deserves design that supports, enhances, and elevates it, design that presents it truly and with clear purpose. Sadly, the church has far too often settled for design that undermines and debases the very content it so deeply treasures.
It is certainly possible to forage for food in the wild, but it is better to live in a garden. God planted just such a garden for humanity. Before the curse of sin descended on this world, God placed humanity in a designed space. And upon the completion of His redemptive work, He promises that humanity will once again dwell in a designed space: the city of God.
The arc of God’s redemptive history is bookended by designed spaces, and as we journey between them, we must endeavor to reflect God’s character and purpose by pursuing careful design in our encounters with fellow believers and the world around us. Doing so is nothing less than obedience to God’s creation command to subdue the earth—to work and to keep the gardens God places us in.