For the first time in over a year, I stepped foot inside of a church for worship. As expected, it felt weird to be around other people, just as it felt comforting to do something normal again. I had looked forward to celebrating Easter in person for many reasons, but the church building itself hadn’t made the list. Perhaps it should have.

Throughout the last year, churches have utilized technology in remarkable ways, to closely approximate most of what they do. Sermons are still preached, choirs still sing, and communities gather virtually, but the buildings have necessarily remained empty. Without them, pandemic life has been that much more difficult.

As much as it’s true that the Church is not a building and that God is not bound to sacred places, let’s not kid ourselves: The buildings help in more ways than one. It’d be silly to suggest otherwise. High ceilings and intentional lighting direct your eyes upward. Forward-facing pews imply a collective experience of a common event. Art perhaps decorates the walls with colors that arrest your attention. Walking into the church feels different from the day-to-day. That difference between life and worship can certainly come across as stuffy or self-important — I’ve walked into my fair share of churches that felt like bad theater. But however elaborate or plain the service and building might be, it is still designed to resemble a church (as opposed to an office cubicle). 

Where we worship affects how we worship, even unconsciously. Our indoor surroundings are not simply functional, but themselves nudge us toward or away from values and beliefs. They are evocative and subtly transform their occupants. Inside a church, even atheists become inclined toward belief. That’s what philosopher Alain de Botton discovered. His train was unexpectedly delayed, and he had a couple of hours to kill in downtown London, so he wandered into the historic Westminster Abbey:

Drawn by rain and curiosity, I entered a cavernous hall, sunk in tarry darkness, against which a thousand votive candles stood out, their golden shadows flickering over mosaics and carved representations of the Stations of the Cross. There were smells of incense and sounds of murmured prayer. Hanging from the ceiling at the centre of the nave was a ten metre-high crucifix, with Jesus on one side and his mother on the other. Around the high altar, a mosaic showed Christ enthroned in the heavens, encircled by angels, his feet resting on a globe, his hands clasping a chalice overflowing with his own blood.

The facile din of the outer world had given way to awe and silence. Children stood close to their parents and looked around with an air of puzzled reverence. Visitors instinctively whispered, as if deep in some collective dream from which they did not wish to emerge. The anonymity of the street had here been subsumed by a peculiar kind of intimacy. Everything serious in human nature seemed to be called to the surface: thoughts about limits and infinity, about powerlessness and sublimity. The stonework threw into relief all that was compromised and dull, and kindled a yearning for one to live up to its perfections.

After ten minutes in the cathedral, a range of ideas that would have been inconceivable outside began to assume an air of reasonableness. Under the influence of the marble, the mosaics, the darkness and the incense, it seemed entirely probable that Jesus was the son of God and had walked across the Sea of Galilee. In the presence of alabaster statues of the Virgin Mary set against rhythms of red, green and blue marble, it was no longer surprising to think that an angel might at any moment choose to descend through the layers of dense London cumulus, enter through a window in the nave, blow a golden trumpet and make an announcement in Latin about a forthcoming celestial event.

Concepts that would have sounded demented forty metres away …  had succeeded — through a work of architecture — in acquiring supreme significance and majesty. […]

In the eyes of medieval man, a cathedral was God’s house on earth. Adam’s fall might have obscured the true order of the cosmos, rendering most of the world sinful and irregular, but within the bounds of a cathedral, the original, geometric beauty of the Garden of Eden had been resurrected. The light shining through the stained-glass windows prefigured that which would radiate in the next life. Inside the holy cavern, the claims of the Book of Revelation ceased to seem remote and bizarre, and became instead both palpable and immediate.

Touring the cathedrals today with cameras and guidebooks in hand, we may experience something at odds with our practical secularism: a peculiar and embarrassing desire to fall to our knees and worship a being as mighty and sublime as we ourselves are small and inadequate. Such a reaction would not, of course, have surprised the cathedral builders, for it was precisely towards such a surrender of our self-sufficiency that their efforts were directed, the purpose of their ethereal walls and lace-like ceilings being to make metaphysical stirrings not only plausible but irresistible within even the soberest of hearts. (The Architecture of Happiness, p. 109-111)

The possibility that what we believe could so easily be influenced by the buildings we occupy isn’t an easy pill to swallow. How odd it is to be moved by bricks and sunlight toward humility and surrender. To have our self-sufficiency felled by mere stones underscores just how pliable our identities are. We are the products of our surroundings. And yet such malleability goes hand-in-hand with our receptivity to love.

Last Sunday, after I sat down and adjusted my mask again, I heard my daughter shout, “Is that Jesus dead?” She was pointing upward toward the crucifix hanging in the front. It was unusually large. But this simple observation reflected the church’s intended design. Entering the church made belief in a crucified savior that much more plausible, that much more compelling — for me and for my daughter.

Arresting our eyes and hearts heavenward, inside a church belief feels comfortably majestic. Our houses of worship are houses for our faith; their pews support more than our weight.