Why do churches have stained glass? I joke that the reason is to let in the light but keep you from seeing outside. Of course, this isn’t true. The beautiful images were historically a way to teach illiterate people Bible stories through illumination. They celebrated the glory of saints and warned people of the horrors of hell. One particular church I served had windows that filtered the sunlight at a certain time of day, casting rainbows of color on the whitewashed walls. But there certainly is an aspect to which stained glass windows permit the light into the sanctuary but prevent the congregation from getting distracted by what’s outside.
The Day I Wished for Stained Glass
One autumn Sunday I was preaching in my rural church without stained glass. I noticed one of the deacons distractedly gazing out the transparent window. He leaned over and whispered to the fellow beside him, who stood up to look outside. Pretty soon, their behavior had gotten the attention of most of the congregation. Men, women, and children all rose from the pews and craned their necks to see what was so interesting outside.
Not ten feet outside the sanctuary window, a trophy buck grazed in the church lawn. It displayed its rack of antlers proudly, as only a deer could do when it knew it was illegal to hunt on Sundays. It was too late for me to regain my audience. This creature was far too majestic to be ignored. Plus, this time of year, country gentlemen and some ladies become as obsessed with deer as if they too are in the rut. Many of them looked as if they wanted to break the window to get to the deer outside. I had to stop preaching and relinquish my attention to the animal.
That bothered me because I thought the sermon should be the focus. In Baptist worship, the sermon is the climax of the service, leading up to an altar call. People came to church to hear the word of God spoken by the man of God, from the book of God. At that moment, I was wishing our sanctuary had been blessed with some stained glass.
A Different Kind of Sermon
But maybe the worshippers had seen God that morning, and it was only the pastor who missed the divine lesson. I was so wrapped up in the look-at-me moment that I became envious of a deer during hunting season. At that moment, I was frustrated that people were no longer paying attention to me, without realizing that I had stopped listening to God. That deer was preaching a different kind of sermon—one about the beauty of nature. One about living without fear. We don’t need to keep people from seeing through the windows to the outside. We would be better off to fling open those windows and doors and go outside ourselves. It made me wonder how the church might have evolved differently if we had never decided to meet in buildings without windows, doors, or even walls.
Losing Connection to the Earth
We would probably be more connected with the Earth if we had never decided to meet in buildings. When our religion first developed, we had a choice. Either we could identify with religions and cults that worshiped in temples and synagogues, or we could identify with nature-based traditions that connected to the divine in natural cathedrals.
Some early Christian groups met in caves and grottos, favoring the natural connection. The problem was that these outdoor locations allowed prying eyes, which resulted in Romans lying that Christians conducted child sacrifice and drank the blood of children. Besides the security problems of outdoor worship, the church also had to deal with the unpredictability of the weather. Indoor settings were simply more comfortable. Also, as persecution ended and Christianity gained acceptance, building large edifices connected the religion with imperial power and distanced itself from rural paganism.
In our exchange, we lost connection with creation and all the lessons it has to bring. We saw ourselves separate from the earth and even in competition against the elements. Wild places became forests of fear, and creation became something to subdue rather than tend.
Losing Connection to Neighbors
Besides losing our connection to the good earth, when we decided to meet indoors we lost connection with our neighbors. The early church began with meetings at wells, riverbanks, and under open porticos. Passersby felt welcome to explore this new religion without needing to go out of their way. There was something accessible about these open meetings. By meeting in public spaces, Christians fostered a connection to the forum. But when Christians began to build their own church buildings, they erected barriers between themselves and society. Pastors find it easier to preach “us versus them” sermons, when “us” is on the inside and “them” is outside the walls. Cloisters keep the world at bay. Maybe we would have been better off had Christianity never gone inside. Or if, at least, we kept our doors and windows open.
A Church Without Walls
In the 1966 movie Hawaii, the missionary Reverend Hale (Max Von Syndow) insisted upon building his church according to European and American custom, with four walls, a door, and a roof. Locals warned him about the whistling wind, but he would not listen. Finally, the storm came, tearing down the building he erected. As an old man, defeated by his failures but wiser because of his mistakes, he rebuilt the church as a pavilion, without walls, “so the wind can blow through.”
Maybe we would be better off if the church had no walls. If the wind of the Holy Spirit were freer to operate, less restricted by human custom, we might be more innovative and inclusive of the world. If the church had no walls, we would be more attuned to nature and to society around us.
Obviously, I’m not going to convince you to knock the walls out of your buildings. And your church isn’t likely to adopt the custom of Druids and meet in oak groves. But if our churches could break the stained glass (formality) and adopt a little more transparency and openness, we might regain some of the connection to creation and our neighbors that we have lost.