Beyond the Stage: A Holistic Approach to Church Design

church interior design

“I visited an Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, and the design and silence of the room made me feel like I had to take my hat off to be there,” says Eleazar Ruiz, a senior designer at Faithlife. As the former art director at Mars Hill Church, Eleazar is sensitive to how physical elements of a room or a service affect our posture towards God, our attitude towards worship, and our experience of a sermon.

“The silence of it made me feel reverent—it was a place of prayer. A holy place. The actions I was taking were not normal to me, but the setting pushed me to behave in a particular way,” he says. The intent of good church design isn’t to manipulate how people feel, but to challenge us to think about God, and to inspire us to worship him.

“Interior design is always communicating something,” Eleazar says. “One of the reasons cathedrals are so tall with such high ceilings is to make you feel small. You’re coming to these places to worship a huge God.”

For Eleazar, understanding the importance of interior design all begins with Scripture—and the God who creates and inspires beautiful things.

The biblical precedent for interior design

“If you go back to Exodus 31,” Eleazar says, “God gave two men the gift of craftsmanship.”

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you: the tent of meeting, and the ark of the testimony, and the mercy seat that is on it, and all the furnishings of the tent, the table and its utensils, and the pure lampstand with all its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin and its stand, and the finely worked garments, the holy garments for Aaron the priest and the garments of his sons, for their service as priests, and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense for the Holy Place. According to all that I have commanded you, they shall do.” —Exodus 31:1–11

This passage played an important part in Eleazar’s journey to identify a calling the church had ignored.

“I went to Bible college to be a youth pastor,” he says. “Part of the reason I did that was because my passion for design wasn’t seen as a calling in the church culture I saw. I wasn’t valued as much as say, a worship leader.”

But in the Bible, God clearly cares about how things look and feel, and what we say about him through the things we create.

“God gifted people with the skills to design things as they were intended to be designed, with the meaning and purpose that he intended,” Eleazar says. “As an artist and a designer, it gives me purpose and meaning to see in Scripture that God cares about aesthetics. He didn’t say, ‘Aaron, you do it. Anyone can do this.’ He called specific people.”

God had a vision for how the places, people, and rituals we associate with him appear.

“The veil at the entrance to the Holy of Holies had a purpose aesthetically,” Eleazar says, “but it also symbolized the separation between us and God. Something aesthetic communicated something theological.”

What the Israelites saw when they entered the Tabernacle said something about God.

“Beauty was part of it, but that wasn’t all of it,” Eleazar says. “I’m not diminishing the value of beauty, but design can do more than that.”

Scripture presents challenging questions for the modern church when it comes to design.

“Do we care about how we make people feel in church as much as God cared about how priests experienced praying for Israel?” Eleazar asks.

God’s specifications for the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant were far from arbitrary.

“Nobody else was allowed to go into that sanctuary, but God wanted priests to experience something when they entered there. They took off their sandals because it was holy ground. The fact that they had to bathe, change their clothes, it’s all deeply symbolic.”

Rituals without meaning are not really rituals—they’re habits.

“This ritualistic behavior was communicating something profound about his nature. And God used men to build it all, and objects to say things for him. He used everything that was available to him to communicate something about himself. He didn’t leave out the aesthetics.”

Eleazar wants churches to understand that the choices we make about aesthetics really come down to this:

“Do we care about communicating to the senses? The senses we can’t engage with other mediums. Do you care to communicate to my eyes, ears, and nose, and tell me something further about God?”

How aesthetics affect your congregation

“The same way we try to create a romantic setting for our spouses—not super light, not super dark, use the candles—lighting communicates temperature and how inviting your room is,” Eleazar says.

Lighting affects your perception of what you hear, see, and smell—do the things our senses experience fit together?

“Fluorescent lighting can create a corporate feel. It doesn’t feel reverent, so it seems out of place in church.”

The physical shape and structure of a room can also affect how you feel within it. After visiting the Frank Lloyd Wright Museum, Eleazar observed:

“He made spaces very low, and the doors were low so you had to bend over when you open them,” he says. “That whole experience of bowing down to enter a room, standing up as you step through the doorway, and sitting in a low chair, made me feel like the space was bigger than it was.”

Even the place he sat changed how he felt about the room.

“The chair was dipped, angled up so I slipped into it. The low chair made me look up at the ceiling and feel like it was higher up,” Eleazar says. “He shaped the way I sit.”

We all know that physical posture affects how well we pay attention—it doesn’t just tell the speaker if we’re listening. Every time a teacher says, “Sit up straight in your chair, please,” or a parent says, “Look at me when I’m talking to you,” they’re appealing to the power of physical postures. It’s not just about respecting the speaker. It puts the listener in a better position to listen, comprehend, and process what they’re hearing. It shifts their focus.

“The actions the design makes you do communicates something to you. It encourages you to be reverent or disrespectful.”

At the church he visited in Seattle, Eleazar noticed how other design elements affected his spiritual experience throughout the service.

“We listened to monks sing, and they were in the back, behind you, so that you aren’t focusing on them.”

Details of the architecture also carried subtle and not-so-subtle nods to theological truths, presumably to reinforce important teachings of the church.

“I saw twelve chandeliers,” Eleazar says. “Four on each of the two ends and four in the middle. Those chandeliers had twelve lights on the outer rim and three lights in the center.” Without a minister saying a word, Eleazar was reflecting on concepts he might hear unpacked in a message, or revealed in his personal study.

“I look at it and I know where the twelve came from. I know where the three came from. It’s all intentional.”

Just as in the tabernacle, fabrics, proportions, and structures triggered the Israelites to reflect on particular qualities of God’s nature, and their relationship to him.

And since design is so connected to our perception, even simple changes to the look and feel of a room can affect your congregation.

“Change itself causes people to pay attention,” Eleazar says. “When you switch from one series to another, if you have an illustration or something different on the stage, that causes people to pay attention, to be interested, to be curious.”

The church in Seattle wasn’t just different because of the worship or the sermon. “The setting made me feel something different than what I feel in my own church,” he says. “The design of the two spaces allows me to think differently about God. The changes allow you to see more layers of the nature of God.”

No change is too small for you to consider how it affects people.

“The bulletin: how it’s designed, what’s in there, what it’s printed on, that communicates something about the experience.”

For most churches, good design is about deciding what you want to communicate, or what you want people to do or feel, and then working from there.

“Sometimes worship leaders stop singing in the middle of a song so that people sing,” Eleazar says. “The lack of vocals pushes people to sing.” If you want to encourage people to behave a certain way, or feel comfortable in a particular setting or posture, design can help you encourage that.

And the best part is, you don’t need a million-dollar budget to take an intentional approach to design.

Interior design for the small church

“There’s always somebody in your church who cares about design. At least one person.” Eleazar says. “Whether they’re talented or not is a completely different question, but there is always someone who cares, no matter how small your church is.”

Small churches are still capable of building a design team.

“For small churches I say use that one person. There’s someone who has been wanting to serve in that way but hasn’t found their place, or maybe hasn’t felt valuable—like me.”

The creatives in your church need to know that their passion (or even just concern) for good design is important to your church and to God—because it really does affect people. If you don’t validate and affirm that calling, your church—and the body of Christ—could be missing out on something powerful and beautiful that God is trying to stir up in your midst.

“I talk to a lot of designers who are discouraged about not being used within the church. They just need to see that you care, that what they care about is valuable, and that you’re looking for someone.”

Sometimes that affirmation is all it takes to get things moving in your church.

“Usually from there, you can go, because that person feels empowered,” Eleazar says. “They have ownership over that particular area of the church. What they’re going to do is find more people like them. And a year later you have a team.”

As your design team expands, the design of your church can more closely reflect the diversity of your church.

“I think there’s something beautiful about having more than one person involved in the process because then design becomes an expression of the church and the body, and not just an expression of one person.”

And it’s okay if they aren’t professionals.

“I think whether they’re talented or not, it’s an expression of your church,” Eleazar says. “It’s your people, creating things and expressing things about the family they’re a part of—which is your church.”

Does your church’s design reflect the people who call your church home?

What you see when you first set foot in someone’s home tells you a lot about them, and it can change or confirm your perceptions about who they are depending on how it aligns with what you’ve already experienced.

“It’s rare that you go into someone’s home and don’t see pictures of their family,” Eleazar says. “Are people going to see your family in the wall, in the stage, in the colors? A home without pictures is a sad place.”

How your family expresses itself visually certainly changes as your budget grows. Megachurches can afford to dedicate someone to design and pay them for it. But whether your church is big or small, Eleazar says, “The challenge for both is the same: how do I communicate this message through interior design?”

The answer your church provides depends on what you have available.

“Smaller churches, because of budget limitations, tend to only have one look. Always,” Eleazar says. With different church sizes, “The frequency of changes to design changes. But occasionally you find a smaller church, like mine, where designers volunteer and help you do more with less.”

Eleazar’s experience has equipped him to do a lot with a little. “You don’t need much money,” he says. “I’ve put together full sets—complete stage designs—with $500. Meaningful, beautiful sets. The challenge is always hands. Are there people who will do this?”

It’s up to your church to decide how to use the creative people you’ve been given.

“Design in general is a resource, like money is,” Eleazar says. “It should be stewarded well. The same way you can use money to buy Bibles to distribute to new believers, design can be used to communicate things about God to your congregation.”

If your church doesn’t have a single volunteer or dollar to apply to design, it’s not going to unravel your ministry. But it may be harder for people to identify your church identity, and to see God as you intend to reveal him.

“Having no interior design is like not having a sermon podcast,” Eleazar says. “I don’t know if it’s a missed opportunity as much as it is that your church can be doing more.”

Some people are visual learners. But even those of us who aren’t can tell when what we’re hearing doesn’t fit with what we see.

Which is probably why God cares about design—and your church should, too.

* * *

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  1. says

    Hi Ryan, You touch on many issues that inspired my new book, released this month entitled,” “Making Property Serve Mission – Rethinking the Church’s buildings for the 21st Century”. Our buildings give us great opportunities for carrying out the Gt Commission & Gt Commandments but they are often barriers to it for society today.
    As possibly the world’s largest property owner, the Christian Church’s property could be more effective in supporting the Church’s purposes in the world.
    Thanks for focussing on interiors.

    • Ryan Nelson says

      I think people’s perceptions of church design are largely shaped by how exposed they are to people who care about how design affects us. If you don’t know how design affects people beyond “this looks good” and “this does not look good,” it’s hard for people to see the value in that. In communities where there’s a large density of people with a passion for design (like perhaps near a university or a design school), churches are more likely to have lots of people who care deeply about design—and by extension, the rest of the church is more exposed to the nuances of design.

      I can only hope that the church continues to affirm the passions and giftings God places on peoples’ hearts, and that we don’t stifle generations of people who might otherwise produce something beautiful for the body of Christ.

  2. says

    Hi Ryan:

    Great article, but you forgot one aspect of design: sound design and how it frustrates (1) worshipers and worship leaders’ perception of community and (2) worship leaders, singers, and musicians’ communal needs to be relationally responsive aurally and visually. Most church designers place the piano and organ on opposite visual fields to “balance” the visual aesthetics and then place the choir in between. Where and what types of alternative instruments and instrumentalists aren’t usually given any forethought. From a communicative perspective, musicians and singers should have eye contact with one another and be in relatively close acoustical proximity to one another in order to have their timing–onset and release, tonal timbre, pitch, rhythmic (style of and contrapuntal) cadences, and harmonies synchronized. (The physical location of strings quartets to octets players and jazz versions of the same are good examples of this principle. They illustrate the importance of the physical placement of musicians who are playing in an ensemble without a conductor to which they can make eye contact.)

    |—–MY FIRST MAIN POINT: I have been in beautiful sanctuaries (traditional Gothic and modern) whose acoustical properties did not match the instruments and style of music used for worship. What is a good design from an acoustical perspective for a single spoken human voice is less than optimal for a group or chorus of human singers and vice versa. (Which is why the genre of Gregorian chant was instituted for Gothic churches. A chorus singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, because of the type of harmony and rhythmic melody and counter-melody sung, would present major acoustical concerns.) It is a hundred times much worse when electronic musical instruments and a chorus are used in a sanctuary design for a single spoken human voice.

    |—–MY SECOND MAIN POINT: the acoustical properties and needs must first be assessed and then the visual aesthetics and design should flow from and be adjusted to such reality, especially if electronic instruments, worship leaders/singers, and/or choirs will be involved. If the design for the visual aesthetics draws us heavenward, but the lack of design for the acoustic properties of the worship space draws the worshipers to discordant feelings and dissonant thoughts, then the design has failed—no matter how visually stunning and inspirational the edifice is. By focusing on the acoustical and visual (as well as the ergonomic and social-environment/communal) aspects as a whole, you create a synergistic worship experience. Like a soundtrack for a movie or a score for a musical, the music can then become an invisible, acoustic canvas designed to support and enhance the active worshipping of the One in the center of the spotlight at the center of the stage: God.

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