This is the front of the sanctuary at the church where I serve as pastor. We just recently rearranged it to look like this. Before, the pulpit was in the center, the table was on the floor directly in front, and the font was over in the corner out of sight. Theologically I like this arrangement much better! Here’s why: the important symbols are all there, front and center, in visual focus. The pulpit, the font, and the table; the book, the bath, and the meal.
Most “traditional” church architecture and furniture has gotten a really bad rap of late, and I get that. There’s nothing theologically necessary about choir robes, or brass candles, crosses, and plates, or large imposing pulpits, or even stained glass windows. In the history of the church, much of this furniture was simply the technology or style of its time imbued with theological meaning. The pulpit was the original sound system; stained glass windows were the renaissance-age projection technology; pews were the most efficient and cost effective way to seat folks; and the organ was the only instrument which, by itself, could produce enough sound to carry singing and fill a large space.
You can find theological meaning in them, but then you can find theological meaning in lots of things.
In many churches, especially newer churches, the stool and music stand has replaced the pulpit as the furniture of the preacher. The projection screen, showing photography and video, has taken the place of sculpture, painting, and glass as the artistic media; chairs in the worship space are more flexible in use and more affordable than ever before; and with the aid of sound systems, a band — or even just a couple instruments — is perfectly capable of carrying the singing of God’s people.
All that is to say, much of traditional furniture in Christian spaces is theologically neither here nor there. In Calvin’s phrase, it is adiophora — it doesn’t really matter whether you have it or not.
But, that is not true of the the Bible, the Font, and the Table; or, in Gordon Lathrop’s memorable phrasing, the book, the bath, and the meal. These are the essential symbols of God’s mission, and of God’s missionary people. These are the symbols of what is at the core of the mission of God, and the gifts God gives to nourish and sustains God’s people in their life in Christ.
The Bible is God’s Word written, an infallible guide to faith in God and life with God. The preaching of the Word, as God’s Spirit speaks through the ancient Scriptures, awakens and builds faith in the living Word. The Font, or the baptistry, symbolizes the waters of new birth, where we are born from above into the household of God and gifted for life in Christ. The Table is the meal that nourishes God’s people in this age, centers us in the gift of the Cross, and points us toward the heavenly banquet in the age to come. Taken together, these three symbols are the touchstones of the mission of God and God’s missional people.
Whatever furniture is in a worship space, traditional or contemporary, fancy or plain, it doesn’t really matter — it’s preference and context. But these three symbols count for everything, they are essential. They draw us visually into the core story of God’s mission in the world.