Due to a lifetime of travel, I’ve been privileged to visit numerous churches. I’ve attended large churches and small churches (numerically speaking) along with being in church buildings that were both large and small. From my vantage point, most church buildings are not built with worship in mind as to the way they’re constructed. There are the internal concerns of seating, sound and comfort, but not much attention is paid to the actual structure facilitating worship. On my recent trip to Israel I was reminded of just how intentional the Jews have been in building synagogues and the Temple with worshipers in mind before they come inside. Allow me to share four ways that synagogues in particular are designed to facilitate worship in the way they are structured. For those that want to do more in-depth study of ancient synagogues I recommend the massive volume “The Ancient Synagogue” by Lee Levine.
As one approaches most ancient synagogues in Israel, you notice ritual immersion pools known in Hebrew as “mikveh.” The idea of ritual immersion is the Hebrew Scripture precursor to modern day Christian baptism. The mikveh is found in synagogues up north in the Galilee region, at the southern steps of the Temple mount, and at the top of Masada in the desert. The mikveh allowed for a person who was ritually impure to immerse before entering a synagogue to worship. In traversing this world, we come across things that bring defilement and washing in water metaphorically expresses our need for cleansing both internally and externally. Throughout the book of Leviticus instructions are given as to who and when a ritual immersion are needed. No one would have thought about entering a synagogue or the Temple without immersing first. What if churches had some way of focusing worshipers on the need for cleansing as a means of preparing to meet with G-d?
The second structural feature on many synagogues are the steps that lead one up into the synagogue. At the synagogue in Chorazin and the southern steps of the Temple in Jerusalem there is a unique feature to the steps leading a worshiper inside. Normally, steps are made to be the same size so that one can ascend at at brisk pace without stumbling or falling. The steps at Chorazin and the Temple are designed with one step short and then the next longer, followed by another short step. This step structure is purposely designed to keep someone from running or hurrying up the steps. Every step must be taken slowly and with intent lest you trip and fall. I asked some of the guys on our recent trip to attempt running up the stairs at both Chorazin and the Temple and each time they nearly tripped and fell. The point of making the stairs with this short and then long pattern is to force the one entering to worship to coming in slowly. How many times do I hurry in without taking the time to realize that I’m coming to sit at the feet of the Master of the Universe?
A third feature of the synagogue’s in Israel is the doorframe, or more accurately the “mezuzah”. The Hebrew word “mezuzah” means door but in modern times and ancient a tiny box with selected Hebrew scriptures were attached to the door. The Hebrew Scriptures command that the word of G-d should be written on the door so that every time we enter and exit a home (or room in a home) we are reminded to let our every action be for the sake of Heaven. All of life is about going in and out of doors, so the doorframe was the place we are commanded to write G-d’s word. Today in Israel as one enters the famed “Jaffa Gate,” there is a large mezuzah attached to the gate where natives and tourists touch the mezuzah as they enter the gate. The mezuzah is a gentle reminder that forces us to think of G-d’s word every time we go in or out. What if our churches were designed to physically remind us of our need to obey G-d’s word even before we sat down? One church I know of in the area has placed a large stone carving of the Ten Commandments on the area near the main entrance. I think this is a positive move in the right direction.
A final feature of synagogue structure is the direction that the seats are placed. Many synagogues are designed so that the congregants are facing east. You might wonder why it matters which way you are facing as long as you can see the people up front doing the leading of worship. Since the Temple was situated in the east, many synagogues would either turn east when doing a prayer standing or the design automatically had the congregant facing east. Since the Temple was the place on earth where the presence and glory of G-d resided, facing the Temple was a way of acknowledging His presence. For those who would like to do more on this topic I recommend a reading of I Kings 8:41-43 and Daniel 6:10 for a look at the Biblical precedent.
I believe we could do more to make the buildings we meet in more conducive to worship if we gave more thought to how we enter the facility. If there were physical reminders of G-d’s presence, maybe it would change the way we worship. I think the effort to remind ourselves of G-d before we enter the church is a matter worthy of consideration based on what we’ve seen from the archeology of the ancient synagogue and Temple.
Brent Emery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.