Windowless Worship: The Demise of Stained Glass and the Church’s Dark Age

Belin Chapel at Houston Baptist University
Belin Chapel at Houston Baptist University

 

When I was young we attended a fairly typical Southern Baptist church with fairly typical Baptist-church architecture. That architecture included stained glass windows. We were a small congregation, and our stained glass wasn’t fancy. Even so, the beauty of the windows charged my inchoate theological imagination in a way that I think was beneficial.

When I was in high school we started attending another Baptist church which met in a more modern building. This building had stained glass too, but I can only describe it as brutalist stained glass. My teenaged self mourned the absence of visual beauty in my Sunday worship.

Twenty years later, it’s hard to even find some brutalist stained glass. After more than a thousand years, stained glass has fallen out of fashion.

My reflections on stained glass have been inspired by an article in The Wall Street Journal, “Window Pains: Stained Glass Faces Dark Days.” The article talks about the difficulties facing stained-glass makers as their traditional business disappears. Churches either don’t want stained glass, or they just can’t afford it. The disappearing religious market leaves stained-glass makers looking for secular commissions.

I understand that many congregations cannot afford stained glass, but the when churches claim that they’re looking for “a more modern aesthetic” I lose patience.

Usually a “modern aesthetic” means no aesthetic at all. Can one really claim that there’s any beauty in contemporary church buildings with their cavernous “worship centers” that lack windows? Modern church architecture either imitates the coffee shop or the movie theater, and it usually does a bad job at both.

Truly, I understand why we have to sacrifice windows. We want to be in control of the light. We want to make sure the PowerPoint slides don’t get washed out. We want to make sure we can keep the lights low while people worship with song. Everyone sings better in the dark. You can really feel the worship.

It’s weird though. The Bible says that Jesus is the light of the world. What do we communicate when we feel the need to worship him in the dark? Paul said that God makes his light shine on our hearts to give us knowledge. Christians worship on Sunday morning to commemorate Christ’s resurrection—to commemorate the dawning of a new day in which the light of Christ is manifest. So why do we hide ourselves in windowless rooms with dim lights?

My church is portable, and we fall into that category of “just can’t afford it.” I’m thankful, however, that Houston Baptist University allows us to worship in Belin Chapel. The chapel’s windows allow us to worship in God’s light, and there’s even a little stained glass to charge the theological imagination to wonder.

I would feel sorry for all of the children across America who have to sit in churches with no stained glass windows, but then I remember that churches without windows often don’t let their children in at all. They’ve got them hidden away where they won’t be a nuisance. But that’s a whole different rant.

3 thoughts on “Windowless Worship: The Demise of Stained Glass and the Church’s Dark Age

  1. During my undergrad at Louisiana College, I did a series of paintings on the history of the church as an art major. The stained glass windows were the focus of each piece and I adore the art and skill behind each one that I viewed for inspiration. Having said that, I agree entirely with your thoughts on modern church aesthetic. Since when is it okay for a church to be so cold. What bothers me even more, is the facades we put these metal shells we call churches. What are we saying to the world?! Just a thought

  2. My first church (age 4-7), was my grandmother’s very old UMC, with beautiful stained glass. (They also had an outdoor chapel in the wood, for early morning service). The lighting was low and the way the sunlight cast through those windows was a delight to see. The light was warm, moved with the sun, dusty particles flickered, like a slow moving kaleidoscope and snow globe all in one. I still remember and yearn to see it again. After that it was Independent Baptist (antiseptic) and Southern Baptist (traditional) aesthetics. Of course, with vandalism an issue, all the old churches near hear, need a protective cover on the exterior of their stained glass, which obscures the view from passers-by. I don’t know if it changes the interior view. I know churches bemoan the cost of ‘the beautiful,’ but there always seems to be money enough for the newest sound systems or gigantic TV screens. R. C. Sproul has a study titled, “Recovering the Beauty of the Arts,” that presents 3 dimensions of the Christian life, ‘the good, the true and the beautiful;’ how we tend to cut out the last and its value (although often overlooked). Don’t know your view on Sproul, but It’s worth a listen.

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