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How Church Architecture Affects Lord's Supper Practices

Does your church visually convey a message that contradicts your theology of communion or mass? Mark A. Torgerson explains how church architecture and sanctuary design can inhibit or enhance a more full and communal Eucharist celebration. A feature story on how Church architecture affects Lord's Supper practices.

Let down and a little lonely. If that’s how you feel after communion, it’s possible that other worshipers in your church might also wonder after the Eucharist, “Is that all there is?”

Before you blame yourself or decide that communion is meaningless, consider how church architecture or sanctuary design affects your congregation’s experience of the Lord’s Supper.

“I wonder if our culture predisposes us to a more individualized sense of celebrating communion. We’re so focused on ‘me and Jesus.’ We need to recapture that sense of the communal.

All of us together constitute the body of Christ. Each one is important—but it’s together, around this common table, that something new is formed. That promise should bring us joy,” says Mark A. Torgerson, author of An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today. He is ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church and teaches worship arts at Judson College in Elgin, Illinois.

Torgerson notes that church architecture can inhibit or enhance the Lord’s Supper as a communal celebration of God’s work. Use his insights to discuss what you might want to change now…and what you might want to do in your next building or renovation project.

Check your Eucharist assumptions

Before Torgerson consults with churches on how their sanctuary design works for or against communion, he runs through a set of theological assumptions about the Lord’s Supper.

First, he explains, the Eucharist is a central celebration in the Christian church, because Christ commanded it.

Second, the Lord’s Supper celebrates the past, present, and future work of the triune God. Christ came to earth as God in human form to sacrificially redeem humanity and the cosmos. During communion, Torgerson says, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are present in our midst as the people who constitute the church. We anticipate the return of Christ, when he will bring the redemptive work of God to fullness, celebrating the Supper of the Lamb in the kingdom to come.”

Finally, in communion we receive and renew our faith, are cleansed from sin and sanctified in life, encounter gospel truth, and are empowered for ministry.
In many churches the architecture reinforces a single focus on individuals remembering and repenting their sins. Torgerson lists features of churches where he’s experienced communion as not all that celebrative:

  • New England meetinghouses with narrow aisles, fixed rows of pews, and minimal legroom
  • Neo-Gothic spaces that bury the table in a deep screened chancel
  • Auditorium churches with raked theatre seating where people are more or less locked in

“Eucharistic practices in these spaces tend to focus on the individual and their unworthiness to approach the table,” he says. “We need to recover the promise and joy of this communal celebration.”

Out of sight, out of mind

Your congregation’s or denomination’s written theology may put a high value on communion as a sacrament, ordinance, or practice. But do you visually affirm this value by making the communion table a focal point? Is it paired with a focus on the Word, whether with a reading lectern, pulpit, or platform Bible?

Torgerson says that throughout Christian history, the communion table has helped people remember truths celebrated during the Lord’s Supper. Seeing the table helps worshipers identify themselves as a family, whether or not they celebrate communion on a given Sunday.

“Many churches remove the communion table from the worship space when not in use or have eliminated it altogether. But taking the table out is like removing a common table for meals from our homes.

“In our homes, the table represents coming together. It helps us build relationships. It helps us remember experiences we’ve had around that common table. Imagine the unintended ramifications of having no central eating place to gather around as a church family,” he says.

Torgerson recommends designing worship space so that everyone has a clear sight line to the table. “The table may need to be elevated slightly, but not so much as to give a sense of limited access,” he says.

Before designing a new sanctuary, Unity Christian Reformed Church in Prinsburg, Minnesota, studied how church architecture “speaks.” Jeff Fisher, pastor of teaching and spiritual formation, explains that their current platform is small. So, on most Sundays, the communion table was pushed behind the organ bench.

“We learned that hiding our communion table non-verbally communicated (though maybe only subconsciously for many) that we did not value the Lord’s Supper. It looked like Jesus’ institution of the sacrament had no place in our worship, except on the Sundays we actually took communion,” Fisher says.

Studying worship space and worship furniture convinced Unity that it was “quite odd” to cover their wooden communion table with a cloth. It was just as odd to use the communion table as a shelf for other visuals…and then set up a folding table to hold trays of cups and bread on Communion Sundays.

“Our new worship space will have enough room for the table. Every week, whether or not we partake, we’ll have that visual reminder of the death, resurrection, and return of Jesus. For now, we often have the table on the floor in front of the platform. This communicates ‘God with us’ and ‘God among us,’ ” Fisher says.

Celebrate in every sense

Accenting the holy meal’s communal nature is easier when churches make space for worshipers to gather around the table. “Celebrating Christ in our midst and anticipating the feast in heaven increases people’s desire to move—to pray, sing, lie prostrate, kneel, stand, hold hands, or dance in community,” Torgerson says.

The Eucharist feels less cerebral when people see festive banners and paraments, hear the words of institution, smell the wine or grape juice, pull off and taste a bite of bread from a large loaf, and sing together.

Torgerson has celebrated communion on four continents but says his most profound experience happened on Christmas Day in an Evangelical Covenant congregation in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“This is a free church tradition with a very low liturgy. We danced communion. We danced the offering. The offering took 45 minutes and communion was way longer. It was like sliding into a timeless realm, kingdom time. There was movement and singing and celebrating. It was so much fun. I think it’s how God intended communion to be,” he says.

Design Worship Spaces to Enhance Communion

When Sojourn Community Church moved from rented space to their own building, they had a chance to design a sanctuary that better fit their practice of weekly communion. This Southern Baptist congregation in Louisville, Kentucky, refurbished a former elementary school.

Before Unity Christian Reformed Church in Prinsburg, Minnesota, designed a new sanctuary, they studied the interplay between theology and church architecture, including what a worship space visually “says” about the sacraments.

Both churches discovered design principles that affect Lord’s Supper celebrations. Mark A. Torgerson, author of An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today, sums up these principles as visibility, proximity, and accessibility.

Let the design speak

Sojourn’s former space was typical of many older churches. A narrow center aisle divided closely spaced pews, all facing front.

“What we liked about our old space was that everyone was forced to come to a single spot for communion. It was powerful symbolically but difficult functionally.

“Our new worship space used to be six classrooms on the first floor. Now we have a big, oddly shaped room. We have moveable chairs, usually arranged in a half round. No matter where you sit, you see other people. Everyone can see the bread and wine on the table at the center of the sanctuary,” says Mike Cosper, Sojourn’s pastor of worship arts.
Torgerson notes that many Protestant and Catholic churches want to accent the communal nature of the Eucharist and celebrate it more fully. One solution is to create a centrally planned worship space “where the place for the Word of God (usually the pulpit) and place for the table are two major focal points.” 
Most often these churches choose a fan-shaped worship space or put seating on three sides of the pulpit and table. Sitting so you see other people’s faces, Torgerson explains, “highlights the sense of being together and building relationships—instead of privatizing the Lord’s Supper.”

Torgerson also recommends making wide center and side aisles and creating ample space between rows and around the communion table. This design choice makes room for “all aspects of the celebration, including preparing people through confession, reconciliation, and joyful participation.”

Churches with traditional pews sometimes achieve this simply by removing front pews and replacing others with moveable chairs.

Prepare the table

Half round, fan shaped, or three sided seating layouts improve proximity. When the table is too far away…or pushed against a far wall (say in a deep chancel)…or behind a solid altar rail…or placed high above where people sit, then “worshipers feel a disconnect.

“It’s like putting the family dining table in the attic or garage. Our communion tables need to be near enough that the people sense this is a common table for a shared meal.

“It does not have to be symmetrically placed in relation to other focal points but does need to facilitate a sense of relationship to a communal meal celebration,” Torgerson says.

He suggests designing the table to a human scale, so people can easily preside. Generally that’s no more than 5 or 6 feet long and about the height of a kitchen counter, 39 to 40 inches.

Another proximity tip is to create space near the sanctuary for people to prepare the elements and wash trays, pitchers, goblets, and so on after communion. Churches also need space to store candles, vessels, paraments, banners, napkins, and other communion fabrics. In Catholic, Orthodox, and some Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist churches, this dedicated space is often called a sacristy.

Share the elements

Besides making the communion table a focal point and arranging seats so everyone can see the table, churches need to make this space accessible.

“Emphasizing the communal aspect of the meal works best when no seat is particularly far from the table and the floor surface is flat, without balconies, tiered seating, or many steps. You want enough room for people, including wheelchair users, to easily and physically come forward in a centralized space,” Torgerson says.

He recommends allowing 5 to 6 feet around the table for the presider and servers and 7 to 10 feet (or more, depending on congregation size) if people will come forward to be served.

“Churches that don’t use a communion table often place portable tables throughout the auditorium. The tables are stacked with trays, or even vacuum packed portions of juice and wafer in disposable containers. There are very few words of preparation. You walk up and get a package or receive one that’s passed down the row. Everyone kind of eats at the same time while watching the worship team do its thing. It’s a lot like eating on an airliner while watching a movie.

“This practice is antithetical to the table’s meaning. Instead of connecting you with each other and the larger church beyond your walls, this practice reduces the command of Christ. You did communion…but not to its fullness,” Torgerson says.

Even in its current sanctuary, Unity CRC varies distribution methods. Sometimes people are served in their seats and all partake at the same time. More often they come forward in successive circles or kneel at the platform or get served at stations placed around the sanctuary.

Simply moving to receive communion increases the people contact that signals an “all one in Christ” identity. At Sojourn, all the elements come from the communion table. About two thirds of people break off bread and dip it in juice held by lay servers who stand by the platform. The other third go to servers at other stations.

“We move in a clockwise rotation around the chairs. Even if you’re in a different line, you’re walking next to people and see lots of people taking communion. The room is quite dark and there’s a weighty intimate feel,” Cosper says.

Learn More

Read and discuss Mark Torgerson’s book, An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today. Listen to his Calvin Symposium on Worship 2007 talk on maximizing worship environments.

Some churches hardly mention communion on their websites. What message does your church website give about the importance of the Eucharist?

Get church architecture and sanctuary design ideas from:

Watch or listen to broadcasts on church architecture and the meaning of communion.

Browse related stories about baptism and church architectureLord’s Supper practices in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, rejoicing at the Lord’s Supper, and renovations that build community.

Start a Discussion

Talk about communion and architecture:

  • Why does or doesn’t your congregation display a communion table? What message does its size, location, and use convey?
  • After reading Mark Torgerson’s insights on visibility, proximity, and access, what changes might you like to make in your Lord’s Supper celebrations? What can you change right now…and what requires an architectural change and capital expense?
  • Describe Eucharists you’ve attended in other churches. Compared to your congregation’s communion practices, did those Eucharists feel more individualistic or more communal?
  • Do you see any disadvantages or losses in making the Lord’s Supper more communal or finding ways to experience it more fully?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to deepen your congregation’s communion experience?

  • Did you create a workshop or class to help worshipers “read” a worship space and learn about liturgical furniture? If so, will you share your materials with us?
  • Asking a congregation to change its communion practice can be uncomfortable. What has worked best as you’ve experimented with different Lord’s Supper distribution methods? Pinpoint why some things worked better than others in your congregational context.