Few architectural details signal “church” as readily as stained glass. Whether employed as a small detail in a chapel or installed in the majority of the walls of a large worship space, stained glass has been used for centuries to depict the most treasured tales and images of our faith.
In recent years, many new churches and church remodels have gone without stained glass. In a push to modernize the worship environment, particularly in mega churches, designers have set aside stained glass as an anachronistic feature that’s unsuitable for contemporary worship practices.
It might appear that houses of worship that feature stained glass are largely of older vintage, but the tide may be changing again. Younger worshipers say they want to bring stained glass back. But is stained glass right for your new church construction or renovation?
A Brief History of Stained Glass
Although it turns up in rudimentary form as early as the 4th century A.D., stained glass in church construction developed as an art form around the 12th century. What had previously been fragments of glass embedded in the walls of churches evolved into elaborate pictorial representations.
In fact, at this juncture stained glass was used to play an integral role in the religious education of the community because the images depicted pivotal Bible scenes. They related the stories in pictures to benefit the primarily illiterate religious communities of the time.
These pictorial representations had further value because few church services were conducted in the local vernacular, and Latin services were attended but rarely understood. In the pre-Reformation era, religious services were not offered in the language of the people; so stained glass spoke their language in a unique and beautiful way.
Stained glass also contributes to the general aesthetic experience of the church space. As church architecture evolved and the Romanesque style gave way to Gothic structures, stained glass was used to produce the impression of a large yet unified interior worship space.
Gothic buildings were the result of new architectural developments that focused weight onto narrow columns and opened up wide spaces for windows. This phase revolutionized church design and mostly set the stage for how we think of church construction today.
Contemporary churches come in many styles, and most of the people who attend them are entirely literate, yet stained glass may still have a place in the overall construction and atmosphere of contemporary churches. By choosing especially meaningful scenes for display, even depicting extra-Biblical scenes that feature patron saints and site-specific events, churches can fully customize how their stained glass contributes to the local worship experience.
The original function of stained glass may have largely passed away, but the aesthetic value clearly remains.
Stained Glass and the Modern Church
There are at least two sides to current practices of church construction and the choice of whether to include stained glass. One prevailing opinion holds mega churches at least partly responsible for the demise of stained glass.
Mega church structures don’t lend themselves well to the inclusion of stained glass, because worship services often feature the use of projectors and therefore require a large darkened space to be effective. Typically, you can’t dim the stained glass when it’s time to start the show.
The architectural layouts of mega churches also pose a hurdle to the use of stained glass. Rather than following the relatively limited framework of older and smaller churches, the typical mega church features both massive worship spaces and non-traditional spaces, such as a café and small conference rooms.
Where and how do you place stained glass in this kind of building?
On the other hand, church architects report that stained glass seems to be making a comeback among younger churchgoers. Some prefer the modern mega church, with its resemblance to a business complex and shopping mall, traditional churches poll more highly when it comes to what draws people in.
With attendance declining and churches scrambling to keep their numbers up, curb appeal is absolutely essential for churches in the U.S. today. A church that draws the eye of a passing driver is the church that might see a new family in the pews on Sunday. This matters more than some church administrators and pastors would like to admit.
A Spiritual Case for Stained Glass
Stained glass creates a unique atmosphere in a church, and no two churches with stained glass are alike. The sun hits them at different angles, the color arrays can vary, and the images will differ depending on the character and geographical locale of the parish.
These beautiful colored images set the hearts of worshippers alight and inspire them. As one theologian put it, Jesus was the light of the world and the light streaming through the glass suggests the visible presence of God. This can be transformative, both for the worship space and the people inside.
Theologically, stained glass has an admittedly troubled history: Many mainline Protestant churches regarded the images as excessive or idolatrous. The period of repudiation on those grounds may be coming to an end, however, if church leaders and architects are ready to follow the lead of parishioners.
Is Stained Glass Right for Your Church?
One of the wonders of modern architecture and construction is that stained glass can be installed in virtually any church. All it requires is some creativity and engineering skill on the part of your architect.
The right metal, for example, can support the walls of a church while leaving open space for sizable windows. Stone can also provide the necessary support, though it’s used less frequently as the central support for structures today. Consult with your construction team to determine what will work best for you.
If you are planning a church renovation or new construction, contact Churches By Daniels today. Our team of experienced church architects can help you assess your needs as a community and devise a plan that best suits your life together in worship and formation.
Our firm offers a range of services that can support you from the earliest stages of building design through the completed church construction project. From start to finish, we can offer our knowledge and expertise in the service of the greatest end result.