I’ve been thinking about possible objections to the case for historic Christian liturgy that James K. Smith lays out in his book You Are What You Love (which I reviewed a few months ago). One of Smith’s key points is that “form is formative”: the architecture of the building that you gather in as a church, whether a house or movie theater or cathedral or parish, carries a telos that sends implicit messages to our hearts and minds about the meaning of life and what it means to be human. A mall, for instance, is designed after the philosophy of consumerism, which means it aims to impress upon us the idea that the good life involves acquiring material possessions. It would be naive to believe that the marketing scheme which flows from this telos has no impact on our understanding of human fulfillment. There is no such thing as a “neutral” building or space; all are designed with some end in mind.
If one of the goals of church, then, is to turn our hearts to God and form us into genuine disciples, then the more that the structure and design of a space can reinforce and facilitate this process, the better. I have heard that this is one reason that medieval cathedrals built such high-ceiling naves and transepts. The point was to train your eyes and your heart to look upward rather than inward.
But here I found myself asking: What about house churches? The early Christians often met in homes because they were in a minority at the time (Romans 16:5; Philemon 1:2), and Christian church buildings as such did not yet exist. (Jewish synagogues did exist, of course: the book of Acts includes references of the early Christians attending them. See Acts 5:42 for one example.) And despite that, the first century church got along just fine, right? The New Testament emphasis of church, in fact, seems to be about a people, not a place. Surely there is nothing wrong with meeting in a house where the architecture does not reflect an explicit intention to train the heart—so long as, when you gather, you are faithfully worshiping Christ in accordance with the scriptures? Indeed it would seem narrow-minded and legalistic to suggest otherwise. Think of Christians in poor countries who can’t afford to build a nice-looking church building, or Christians who need to keep a low profile (modern-day China, for example) due to religious persecution and discrimination. You can’t expect Christians in those places actively promote gathering in a church building rich with religious symbolism.
But here was my next thought: Wouldn’t Christians in poor and/or discriminating countries want to meet in a church building if they could—or at least have the option to? And even if they preferred to meet in houses, wouldn’t there be an urge to do something to the space with the aim of directing one’s attention to the things of God—whether that’s as simple as hanging a crucifix on the wall, lighting candles, or having a little clearing dedicated to whoever is giving a reading or a message?
What I’ve concluded at this point is that there is plenty of freedom (and sometimes a necessity) for Christians to gather together as a people in a house, and to enact a liturgy in which the biblical narrative of grace is faithfully represented in basic activities like gathering, worshiping, preaching, communing, and sending out (i.e., the broad components of the liturgy that Smith speaks of in his book). But I don’t think that that cancels out Smith’s point. Whether in a house or a church building, it seems to me that the “form is formative” principle still holds true: we are deeply affected by our environment and the rituals in which we engage, and we’re cheating ourselves if we don’t seek to be intentional about them.