The very spatial mediums we use to communicate those messages shape and architect us in powerful ways. In fact, as a medium, the literal physical spaces we use may actually subvert the very messages we are preaching.What if the arrangement of spaces are actually speaking louder than what we are saying in our sermons?
Trained by the Climate
This exploration into how physical spaces shape us is called an Ecology of Gathering. Ecology is the branch of biology that looks at how organisms relate to one another, and to their physical surroundings. If we apply this field of study to our worship gatherings, then the non-living components (abiotic) of a worship gathering would be: the stage, the positioning of the chairs, the instruments, the volume of the instruments, the symbols, the place where the communicator stands, the video screens, the lighting, the communion elements, etc. The living components (biotic) would be the people who are present at the gathering, including the collective vibe created by group dynamics. The premise of an Ecology of Gathering is that the non-living components dynamically interact and stimulate the living components (biotic), creating a living spiritual climate. This climate communicates a message, and over time, this climate-controlled message trains us into a certain way of thinking and behaving.
The Early Jesus Movement
The first-century church had an Ecology of Gathering. Over and against the Jewish Temple-centered practices and the Greek Mystery Cults of the first century, there was an Ecology of Gathering unique to the early Jesus-followers. The early church went through a new but vital transition that did not allow them to rely on public temples as the primary space for gathering. Meanwhile, the Mystery cults were primarily clustered together by shared social interests and were characterized by a volume of impressive rituals. The early Jesus movement was not bonded together by mere social or political rituals. In 1 Peter 2:5
we can see the transition from the Old Testament model where only a certain group of people (Levites) could dictate the gathering, to a more participatory model where every person is considered a priest, opening worship up to the priesthood of all believers. The clearest picture we have of an Ecology of Gathering is found in I Corinthians 10-14
. Paul guides the Corinthians into a rhythm that centers The Lord’s Table, the expression of spiritual gifts and the essential-ness of community. Paul was not only concerned about what they did, he was also concerned about how they did it. As an architect, Paul was paying attention to an Ecology of Gathering.
Clash With Consumerism
The gathered church does not cultivate an Ecology of Gathering in a vacuum; it will always be formed in the midst of the wider culture. Consumerism is the current we swim in, and is potentially the most exalted god in the Western context. We must become aware of how our approach to gathering has been shaped by the dominant cultural forces.The doctrine of Consumerism states that whatever dazzles us with words, with personality, with brilliant production, is worth our time. We measure our experiences by the immediate emotional return these things offer us. Consumerism is not so much an action as it is an underlying belief system, a narrative that tells us that meaning comes from the things we consume; what we take into ourselves. Consumerism sends us hunting for products that impress, productions that inspire and personalities that captivate in an effort to deliver us from our unsatisfying and bored existence.
Churches end up playing into this powerful narrative when they seek to find the relevant hot-spots for what people want, and then use them to design their “services” and “market” it to church “shoppers.” The stage, the sermon series, children’s ministry that acts more like a glorified Disney Land-type babysitting service, all become covert tools to keep us coming back for more. This places all the emphasis on the veneer of the gathering not the ethic of the gathering. When we primarily design our gatherings around these marketplace sensibilities, the controlling questions end up being, “Will people like what we produce?” “Is it quick and easy to access?” “How do we compete with other ‘service’ providers?” We have to be cautious about how our gatherings can unknowingly malform toward consuming spiritual inspiration. Our worship gatherings must embrace an ecology that introduces frustrations to this stealth, rabid impulse to consume and judge the “presentation” purely based on how the experience makes us feel.