We are standing on holy ground. The presence of the Lord is here!” A worship leader at Aletheia Church says one Sunday morning. I look down at the linoleum gym floor that supports my black folding chair and up at the basketball nets tucked up in their corners, feeling her words to be completely true. A couple of weeks before, I felt a similar conviction of God’s presence while gazing at the walls of St. Paul Parish adorned with paintings of angels and saints so lifelike that I could imagine them getting up at any moment to take Communion with us. An unapologetic “church-hopper,” I have seen countless examples of how beautiful the diversity of the Church can be, a phenomenon deeply apparent in the disparity between Cambridge’s very own Romanesque-styled St. Paul Parish and YMCA-housed Aletheia Church.
What is it that turns both of these extremely different spaces into “holy ground?” Is the presence of the Lord greater in one church than in the other? If not, why is there such diversity in architecture, opulence, and tradition among the Church and what transforms a space from a gathering of believers into a physical church? Having felt the Lord’s presence at both St. Paul’s and Aletheia’s services, I can say that for me the answer to the second question is no. Even though the styles of worship, physical buildings, and members are different. God’s presence has flooded both spaces for me in a familiar and constant way.
The barrel-vaulted ceiling, rounded arches, and spiraling bell tower of St. Paul Parish surrounded by college dorms and small shops incites a similar sense of “God being in the midst of the city” as the sight of Aletheia Church’s banners waving in the wind among construction sites, gym-goers in workout clothes, and bustling Central Square traffic. The beautiful stained-glass windows, paintings, and sculptures that adorn all sides of St. Paul’s in a remarkable visual narration of Church history are just as true to the gospel as the three TV screens above Aletheia’s main stage which broadcast Bible verses for the whole congregation to read. And many find just as much heavenly joy in listening to the voices of St. Paul’s choirs singing centuries-old hymns as many others find in singing contemporary songs in Aletheia written even just the year before.
So if the spirit of the Lord can be felt just as deeply at my local YMCA as in a more traditional church building that costs a lot and takes several years to build, then what is the point of the gothic architecture of the First Baptist Churches, the “meeting house” style of Congregational Churches, or the grandiose Catholic Churches such as the Notre Dame Cathedral or St. Peter’s Basilica?
In his paper, “A Short History of Church Building” architect Bruce Wardell explores the history of church architecture and planning, revealing that much of church architecture is based on a specific generation or congregation’s view of its personal relationship with God, a concept even more defined by the development of denominations and spread of Christianity through the ages. For example, the early Church did not meet in a church at all. Rather, they met in what historians often deem “house churches” — normal houses whose locations were often kept secret and changed from week to week. In true “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” spirit, the Church was not a physical meeting place at all, but something which was continually there in the spiritual dimension—a structure formed by Christian communion with each other and with God (Matthew 18:20).
As Christianity grew and Roman persecution lessened, these “house churches” became more stationary. Eventually the structure of the house churches were adapted to accommodate larger congregations and more events. After Rome adopted Christianity as its official religion, the church building itself became more official and the basilica was created — its long and open structure manifesting on the ideas of “pathways” which lead “spiritual light.” Those of a more monastic religious view valued their relationship with God as escape from the physical realm and therefore were very closed structures, vast and spread out so as not to be distracted by their own weight — purely spiritual havens. The Romanesque church architecture mirrored an ideology of God as a constant, omnipresent, and central aspect of life —featuring towering windows and ceilings that reach toward the heavens and a massive building that could be seen all throughout the city. Puritan-based churches favor modesty in reflection of their ascetic religious views, Renaissance-based churches favor geometric design in reflection of their view of religion as the marriage of logic and faith— the list goes on and on. So, if church design is not a measurement of God’s presence, how do we answer the question of what makes a church holy ground — the House of God?
Ephesians 2:20-22 describes the Church as being “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” To be the House of God, a church need not have foundations of wood from the olive trees of Bethlehem or even a cornerstone of rock from Jesus’ tomb itself. Its foundations are found in its people’s shared faith with the apostles and prophets who formed the early Church — a faith strong enough to withstand persecution and martyrdom. Its cornerstone is the strongest most powerful material on Earth — the Son of God, Creator of the Earth Himself. Like in the early church, the presence of God is not housed within the limits of physical buildings but within our engagement with the spiritual realm of “God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9).
The physical church that we know today is not so much the substance of this realm as a physical manifestation of how we, as individuals and communities, find it best to access that realm through the lens of how we each view our faith. There is no wrong way as long as our hearts and spirits are in the right place, earnestly seeking God.
Maybe that’s why I have found myself so drawn to St. Paul and Aletheia. Though they have their share of differences, both embody that Romanesque ideal of God’s direct communication with mankind through their shared open floor plans, tall ceilings, and voices raised high toward the heavens. Or maybe I might like to try the spiritual oasis promised by the monastic build of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist down the street. The land available “for building up the body of Christ” is endless (Ephesians 4:12).
Elizabeth Hubbard ’18 is currently pursuing an M. Phil in Public Health from Cambridge University.