One of the differences among believers nowadays is between traditional and contemporary worship. My suspicion is that musical style is what most people think about when they hear those terms. There are, however, other features, like building architecture and setting.
Contemporary worshippers, for instance, often choose rooms that can be used for multiple purposes; fellowship hall, theatre, gymnasium, and sanctuary all in one. By contrast, the buildings of more traditional churches will likely be older and have different spaces for different activities. At least there will be a sanctuary used primarily, if not exclusively for worship. They are more likely to be high ceilings, steeples or towers, and stained glass.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit New Harmony, down on the lower Wabash River in southwestern Indiana. Once the site of a Utopian society, the town has a rich 19th century heritage of prominent citizens who played a role in American history (such as Robert Dale Owen, a congressman who sponsored legislation to create the Smithsonian Institution).
Presently, there is a retreat and conference center that serves as a place to get away for a little peace and quiet. On the grounds is a “roofless church.” It has a wall around it and garden space within, and is presented as a place of worship and prayer. Outside church. There can be no better place.
Realistically, church is more practical inside. Stained glass has been a part of church art and architecture for more than 1,000 years. It not only offers the opportunity to represent Biblical scenes artistically, but also uses color and light to bring the beauty of the outdoors inside.
The building at First Baptist Church in Delaware was built in 1898. Part of its meaning for us is the art and architecture of the building. It has both a tower and high ceilings, a pipe organ, and we have stained glass. Among the images in the sanctuary, there is a large window in the rear that depicts a scene from the Gospel of John with Jesus and the Samaritan woman. In the fourth chapter of John the scene is described. At one point she asks him about the right location of worship.
In his reply, he says, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… . Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth.”
The scene looks over our worship each Sunday. If we are aware, it can serve as a reminder of that to which we aspire. We do not believe that the building is the church or represents the right way to house worship. But we find meaning in the time spent in its space.
In the hope of a better understanding of this gift left to us by 19th century worshippers, we are spending some time this summer looking into the stained-glass aspect of our building and heritage. The first meeting will be at 5 p.m. on Sunday, July 9. We will also meet at the same time on July 30.
Our goal is to learn about our stained glass and also about its history in the life and worship of the church. There will be attention given to the symbolism of the images, the Biblical foundation, and how it enhances the life of faith. We will also learn about the history of stained glass itself and participate in an activity designing and putting together stained-glass crosses.
There is no attempt to make judgments regarding different building traditions or worship styles, but only to be better acquainted with our own and how that reflects who we are are as a church. It occurs to me that others might be interested. If that is the case I encourage them to join us.
Dr. Mark Allison is pastor of the First Baptist Church in Delaware.