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The difference between a meadow and a garden is design. The meadow, its beauty notwithstanding, is the product of unheeding and uncoordinated wind and rain, the flight of birds, and the passage of bees. By contrast, the garden is the fruit of deliberate planning and conscientious hands. Every garden, whether the aim is formal symmetry or naturalistic abandon, is designed.
For this reason, it is notable that God first placed humanity not in a meadow but in a garden—in a designed space.
In gardening, as in all types of design, the fundamental act is not creation ex nihilo (out of no preexisting matter) but the careful curation and arrangement of existing elements to support a desired end. Genesis 2 tells us that God “planted” the garden of Eden. It was undoubtedly a place of exquisite beauty, but also a place of profound usefulness. This unity of beauty and utility lies at the heart of design, and it is what distinguishes it from pure art.
The vast majority of life is spent in direct contact with the designed world. As we inevitably discover, not all of this design is good. Perhaps we find ourselves misdirected by unclear road signage or frustrated by a confusing website. Alternatively, we are pleasantly surprised when great design elevates even the most mundane tasks to moments of aesthetic and functional delight.
What role, then, should design have in the life of the church today?
Good design leads people down a clear path toward a clear goal. Poor design leaves people confused and frustrated. As those with a deep concern to lead people well—to a willing Savior and a life of discipleship—Christians must value design and look for ways to support the wise deployment of it for God’s glory.
The design of church buildings is a helpful case study. Architecture has had a profound influence on the church and the watching world. Most of us probably judge church architecture on the basis of whether it “looks nice.” But good design is more than skin-deep. A more important question is, Does this design support the aim of the church?
For centuries, the soaring cathedrals of medieval Europe were the greatest architectural monuments of the Western world. Constructed to distinguish sacred space from daily life and to lift the eyes of congregants heavenward, they still have a palpable effect on modern-day visitors. The success of their design spans centuries. In contrast, the simple Puritan meetinghouse seems to be a design failure. Its basic geometry and rough-hewn frame do not inspire awe. But we cannot judge the design unless we know its intended purpose.
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.