What Does Church Look Like?

A tentative sketch, by Mark Laurent

What is the picture, the visual imagery, that comes to your mind when you think of church? What do other people think of, or imagine, do you suppose?

Living as I do in a small town of about 4000 residents, I see the local Baptist church, about half-way along the main street. It’s a fairly nondescript building in a landscape of nondescript buildings, a small hall and adjoining office wing, not dissimilar to the premises of a service or sports club. At the far end of town is the Catholic church, once again a simple hall with a tiny house (the presbytery) close beside it, set on a large lawn with a row of trees along the front.

When I lived in the city (as I did until a couple of years ago) I mostly saw either church buildings with spires, arched doorways and gabled rooflines, or the ‘60s brick and tile hybrids of these. And – particularly in the outer suburbs – those square, squat and windowless converted warehouses with big Christian signs and expansive car-parks.

When ‘church’ gets exposure on TV or in the papers, I mostly seem to see either a priest in vestments or dog-collar, with a stained glass window for backdrop, or else a televangelist strutting his spot-lit stage with suit and microphone. Recently there was the rather uncomfortable sight (which no-one I talk to seems ready to forget) of an army of black-clad males, demanding righteousness, wearing shades and saluting with closed fists.

Is that what church looks like?

Our images and architecture preach sermons of their own. Early church buildings, for instance, were built in the shape of a cross, and the cross and altar were the centre. With the Reformation came a renewed emphasis on the scripture and so the pulpit became the focus of both buildings and peoples’ attention. Today – in our performance-driven culture – most church buildings feature a stage, and the focus is the band/preacher. Are we saying ‘church’ is a performance culture? I doubt any Christian would want to say that, but sometimes the messages we send are not always the ones we intend.

If you know a bit about architecture or local custom, you can probably pick the denomination of a building by its style. Otherwise there’ll be a big sign outside to tell you what it is, and when you’re able to visit. It’s obvious to the observer that there are lots of versions of ‘church’, and they all seem to do their own thing.

Of course they say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – but everybody does.

As a child I went to mass every Sunday in the Catholic church my family attended. At that stage I had no real personal faith of my own, and the service often seemed boring – I just wanted to be outside playing with my friends. We children were given picture missals, little books that followed the pattern of the mass and included all the stories from the Gospels that are part of the church’s calendar year. These pictures – of Jesus helping Joseph in the carpenter’s shop, walking on the water, healing people etc, were often beautiful, and I’d gaze at them for ages, as a distraction from the irrelevance of the adult rituals going on around me. I often found myself caught up in these stories, imagining what it must’ve been like living in those days and meeting Jesus, fantasising myself into the plot like any healthy-minded kid.

Years later, when I became a believer, I discovered that I ‘knew’ heaps about Jesus and the gospel that I “never knew I knew”. Pictures had taught me.

In Jesus’ time, I suppose – if you asked a non-Jewish onlooker – they might’ve identified the ‘church’ as the local synagogue building, or the grand architecture of the Jerusalem temple, with its priests in their ceremonial robes. And perhaps they’d comment on the air of mystery or exclusivity about those parts of the temple you weren’t allowed to go into. They might notice that the men and women had to sit separately in the ‘church’ building, and that their religion meant all the shops were closed on Saturday.

But if you asked the same person about Jesus and his activities, what might they have seen? I think they’d comment on the spontaneous street meetings, where crowds would stop to listen or watch, as debates were held and stories told, while sick bystanders got prayed for and healed. They’d see his public teach-ins by the lake (where he’d use a dinghy for a pulpit) or in the local park, which sometimes developed into picnics with food mysteriously provided (some claimed miraculously). Then of course there were the house parties at the residences of prominent town dignitaries, which seemed to attract the most bizarre mix of people from all walks of life and social status. They’d remember watching with awe the fierce arguments with civic and religious leaders in the temple square, the way people would keep coming up and touching him as he wandered through the shopping centre.

Painters depicting the lives of Jesus, the apostles, St Paul and the saints have always had a rich resource of visual and imaginative stimulus – God makes good press, and love is photogenic. I wonder how an artist would depict us, this church of the first decade of the 21st century? Are we the stuff of icons or masterpieces?

Years ago I read Malcolm Muggeridge’s book Something Beautiful For God, the story of the film he made for BBCTV about Mother Teresa. The centrepiece of the film was the interview he did with her, but when the crew got back to London they discovered that the film stock was old and of poor quality, the lighting wasn’t good, and the whole sequence was barely up to broadcast standard. But because they’d come so far they decided to go with it anyway and just hope for the best. When the documentary screened, to everyone’s surprise the BBC experienced its biggest phone and letter response ever from the public. Muggeridge said he learnt that day that slick presentation isn’t what the world is looking for – what’s important is that, if people can just see the face of someone whose life is full of the love of Jesus, they will be drawn in their multitudes.

The Baptist church in our town is planning an extension to their building. They are hoping that more people will come as they attempt to reach out to the community and show them the love of Jesus. I have a feeling that, at the moment, most people in town see the ‘church’ as being much the same as the sports clubs – a place to go if you’re a member, or possibly a space to rent for functions. 90% of them never see what goes on inside our buildings, or our house groups either. What might they think if they saw people like Jesus in the park, or in the shopping centre, or at those neighbourhood parties?

What would you like church to look like?

Mark Laurent is a professional musician, writer, and itinerant Christian Communicator, living on the Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand. He has recorded numerous CDs, published two books of poetry, and written articles for NZ and international magazines. For eight years he and his wife Brenda hosted a house church in Auckland.