Lesson Title: The Church Building / Body


churchCourse: Church History (cathedrals) or in the context of an initiation to ecclesiology.

Grade Level or Age Group:
 I have used this approach only with grade 12 students. With proper adaptation and questions suited for the age level, it could certaily be done in younger grades.

Lesson Objectives:
The students will reflect on "the language" of faith expressed through church architecture and liturgical environment.

Materials Needed:

  • floor plan of a "traditional" cruciform church;
  • a glossary of terms related to church architecture;
  • pictures of various churches with a variety of architectural features
  • pictures of the inside of a few cathedrals/basilicas

Activities/Lecture Topics:  This activity could be done in four stages:
1. Drawing the Parish Church: Ask the students to draw a floor plan of their parish church. If students are from a different Christian denomination or are non-Christians, have them do it on their own church/shrine/temple. Ask the "atheists" in your class to do some research ;-).

2. Comparing Floor Plans: Post the plans so that all can see them. Ask the students who drew them to say a few words about the structure of their church. Start asking some questions to get them thinking about why churches are built the way they are (even "obvious" questions can be helpful - see suggestions below). Use the pictures of churches, cathedrals, basilicas you have found to broaden the scope of the process.

Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God...

Catechism of the Catholic Church #2502

Resources Web sites for this stage:

3. Glossary of Church Architectural Terms: Provide the students with a glossary of terms relating to church architecture. Knowledge of proper terminology is part of the process of growing in appreciation (and respect!) for the object of our knowledge.

Resources Web site for this stage: http://www.kencollins.com/glossary/plan-1.htm and http://www.kencollins.com/glossary/plan-2.htm

 4. Have the students re-draw the floor plan they drew originally, making changes that they feel would "improve" it. What would they take away? What would they add? How would they arrange things differently? Ask them to justify in writing why they would make these changes. How would these changes help the assembly? How would it better express the faith of the people? When this assignment is finished, you could have the students present their finished product to the class, or simply post them up for the others to see.

5. Possible questions to guide the students' reflection

Backgrounder to Questions:  When I taught grade 12 religious education classes I asked my students to reflect on what the church building expresses about our understanding of the Church with a capital "C". As Catholics, words are not the only media we have used over the centuries to express our faith. Our music, our rituals, our religious art speak volumes about what we believe. That also applies to religious architecture. Since Vatican II there have been a number of changes in the way we celebrate the eucharist and the way we set up the environment in which we do so. You may remember the uproar that erupted when statues or pews were removed from churches. Even if people did not express it in these terms, this was one of the symptoms of a collision between two different conception of what the Church (the people/institution) was meant to be and how that should be reflected in a church building. The way we build and set up churches "speaks" about our understanding of what we are/should be as Church. I believe that it is important for us as religious educators to challenge our students to thinks about such matters. Newman wrote about a "faith that seeks understanding." We need to invite our students to have such a faith.

  • Why are so many Catholic Churches in the form of a cross?
  • Why the similarities between Catholic churches? Why the differences?
  • What differences do you notice between Catholic churches and other Christian churches? Why those differences?
  • Some churches have all the pews one behind the other from the front to the back of the church. Other churches have a horse shoe or semi-circular seating arrangement. How does that affect the community?
  • Some churches have a tiny vestibule that does not allow people to linger there on their way in or out of the church? Churches built in recent years have much larger vestibules? Why this change? Is the change "saying" something about what should be important for us as Church?
  • Does it make any difference whether the choir is completely seperated from the assembly or whether it has a place close to or even among the assembly? Is there a "message" being sent to the community in both arrangements?
  • Some churches have little boxes with a separation between the priest and the person confessing. Others have confessional rooms. How is the sacrament of confession seen differently in these two settings?
  • Some churches have small baptismal fonts. Others have baptismal pools? How is baptism seen differently in these two settings.
  • Other questions can be used adapting them to the group you have.

Additional Comments:

          This project could be expanded into a wonderful collaborative effort integrating Religious Education, Art, and Social Studies (a unit on medieval history for example)!?

          If you would like to expand the scope of the project to include religious symbolism in churches, you might want to take a look at Walter E. Gast's excellent site: Symbols in Christian Art and Architecture. Walter is presently a high school teacher and an elder in the Presbyterian Church(USA).

Related: Lesson Plans - Ecclesiology - Church History - Church Documents - Vatican - Bishops - Papacy - Eastern Catholic Rites - The Creed - Ecumenism - Church Buildings Clipart - Objects in a Church Clipart

©Gilles Côté, 1999 If you use this lesson plan, please acknowledge your source.