”Your Church Is Too Sexy”: the Sedlec Ossuary, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, and the Theology of Church Architecture

Every day over 40,000 people populate a relatively small church located a few miles from the capitol of the Czech Republic. At least, parts and pieces of them do. It’s a megachurch of a whole different breed. Suspended aloft is a chandelier fashioned from fingers, toes, skulls, you name it—no bone in the human body is left out. There are chalices, monstrances, candelabras, and pillars, forged not from gold or silver or bronze but the bones of departed saints. Inside this Sedlec Ossuary or Bone Church, as it is more popularly called, an artist has literalized the verse, “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,” (Hebrews 12:1). These tens of thousands of “witnesses” were gathered from the nearby church cemetery, where, over the course of centuries, the bones of believers were collected when the citizens ran out of burying room. In the 19th century, an artist tackled the task of arranging them to form this most unique ecclesial architecture. Though labeled by many as macabre or grotesque, this creation nonetheless confesses a truth to which today’s church is often mute: that within the walls of God’s house, we are never alone.

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But before we reflect a little more on churches and what their architecture tells us, let’s visit another church, this one half a world away from Sedlec, and worlds away from its rather raw architecture: Lakewood Church, in Houston, Texas, where Joel Osteen serves as pastor. From its tiny beginnings in a converted feed store half a century ago, Lakewood Church has mushroomed over the decades to out-mega all other megachurches in America. To accommodate such growth, in 2005, the congregation transformed the sports arena where the Houston Rockets formerly played into a 16,000 seat worship facility. While most of the arena seating remained intact, one end of the stadium was thoroughly renovated to become what traditionally would be known as the chancel. Two 30 feet waterfalls flank this platform, the volume and flow of which can be manipulated electronically. Three massive screens behind the stage project images of the preacher or other worship leaders for easy viewing throughout the vast arena. Two hundred LED lights, with their array of color options, allow for multiple mood settings. The original wood floors were covered with 50,000 square feet of carpet. In this immense church, however, what is most obvious is what is lacking, such as crosses and crucifixes, altars and icons, baptismal fonts and stained glass, along with just about everything a traditional Christian church might have. And, needless to say, in Lakewood Church, there hangs no chandelier of saints’ bones.

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There was nothing haphazard in the planning and construction of either of these churches. From the color of the carpet in Lakewood to the choice of particular bones in Sedlec, the architects of each did not work willy-nilly. They had a “vision” for what a church should be, even on a sensual level—how it should look, feel, sound like, smell like, what kind of taste it should leave in your mouth, so to speak. And in accordance with their views of what a church is, or what a church ought to be, they planned and executed each of these sanctuaries. In other words, theology designed architecture, and architecture signaled theology. For sometimes, when you walk into a church, what you see is indeed what you get.

Though I can’t say as I’d want to sip the blood of Christ from a chalice wrought from human bones, neither would I want to sip Starbucks coffee from my comfy stadium seat gazing at a thirty-feet screen with Olsteen’s made-for-television smile beaming from it. Somewhere between the uber-corporeal of Sedlec and the swank-and-sexy of Lakewood, there’s a church that captures and communicates the reality of what church is: a gathering of wounded, hurting sinners around the throne of God and the Lamb, surrounded by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, to be and become united with the crucified and resurrected Christ. That’s where I want to be.

The church on earth and the church in heaven are not two churches, but one, ever united, but never more so than in the divine liturgy, when terrestrial weds celestial, where earthly soil becomes heavenly ground. And why should not this theological reality become visible in the art and architecture of the church? Label the Sedlec Ossuary macabre, if you wish, but at least in that church there’s no missing the fact that the saints surround you in worship. What a blessing to the eyes it would be if sanctuaries had pictures and icons of the saints who have gone before us, and still join with us, in the liturgy. Also, since Christ is not only the core, central message, but the sole message of the church, why should not we give voice to the architecture so that it might preach the same? Crucifixes preach in a universal language the only knowable God; altars, the table from which we feast upon the body and blood of the Victim sacrificed for us; fonts, the bath in which the filthy garments of sinners are made white in the blood of the Lamb; incense, the smoke of supplications wafting upward to the throne as fragrant offerings of praise and petition received as Christ’s very own prayers. All of these, in their own way, are in the service of the Gospel, the truth of a God who became a man with all his senses, that man, with all his senses, might receive his life and worship him.

The art and architecture of a church are theology embodied. To as full an extent as possible, they should be didactic, teaching the faith; beautiful, imitative of the God who makes all things well; catholic, in the sense that they express the totality of the church on earth and in heaven; and permeating all of this, Christ-centered, focusing upon the enfleshed God who is the be-all and end-all of the Church. For when people step into the space in which the Lord is present, the goal is not for them to say, “This is none other than a stadium!” or “This is none other than a practical place for worship and, afterward, basketball!” but, with Jacob, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” (Genesis 28:17).

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4 thoughts on “”Your Church Is Too Sexy”: the Sedlec Ossuary, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, and the Theology of Church Architecture

  1. whatsabuilding on said:

    I hear you on architecture and theology being related, but I’m immediately catching myself in a double standard- If there were a cross and altar at the front of Joel Olsteen’s church, would is suddenly become acceptable? Or would it still need stained glass windows? No, obviously, the theology of the church would need to change.

    But let’s flip it. What if our LCMS church was bursting at the seams so, instead of adding a service or building a new building, it was deemed more economic to install “comfy” chairs instead of a pew because it statistically maximized seating? And what if, because of a terrible hail storm, all the stained glass windows broke and the church opted to put in normal windows instead because, again, money was tight? To round it off, a lighting engineer died and left 300 lithonia lights to the church to be solely used in the sanctuary? Suddenly, your seating, your windows and your lighting mimics Lakewood and yet, your theology hasn’t changed.

    We must remain careful in our judgement. Perhaps a church won’t look like our church and yet hold to the same theology as our church. I’ve worshiped in thatch huts in Africa and in cellars in China and Christ was present there just as He is in my steeple designed church. Even more, I’ve worshiped in concert halls *gasp* with colored lights and video screens on either side of a giant cross and behold, the Lamb of God was worshiped there, too.

    So I’d propose a rewrite to your sentence- Our church architecture is a reflection of the theology AND the values of that community of believers. Perhaps a community values heritage. Or the Lord’s Supper. Or the Word. Or inclusive environments for people outside the church. Or entertainment. Or spending money on things other than a building.

    I guess I’m just saying architecture is not the theology. Just ask my friends in a basement in China.

    • Thank you for your comment! Of course, Christ can be worshiped in a vast variety of settings, some with more, some with less, of what we think of as traditional architecture. But that’s not the point. When it comes to a sanctuary, the decisions on how it should look ought to be based upon what it is: the house of God. That reality, and the theology expressing it, should determine architecture. Yes, every community of believers has values, but I would hope that those are not divorced from, but rather married to, the theology which they confess.

      • Anonymous on said:

        Well, let me just say the following two things: Acts 7:48 However, the Most High does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands, as the prophet says:
        Acts 17:24 The God who made the world and everything in it–He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands.
        So that rules out your argument that God lives in a church, sanctuary, or temple of any kind rather He lives inside us;1 Corinthians 3:16 Don’t you yourselves know that you are God’s sanctuary and that the Spirit of God lives in you? So that answers where God lives, in Christians, not in churches. Also I do not care how popular a church is, how big or small, how “good” a preacher is. Sound teaching based solely on the true Word of God is what matters. Not touchy feely name it claim it type services. Berating and belittling the Apostles, staying Jesus is “a way” not “the only way” and other heresies that happens in some churches… Hint hint Joel Osteen are not only false teaching but destructive to anyone searching for the true and only living God.

  2. Pingback: The Church of Regal Entertainment: Does Where We Worship Matter? |

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