There is a trend among many churches today and it is nullifying the creative gifts that many of our church members have. This downward trend has been slipping ever further down the architecture chasm of blandness and utility. I am of course talking about the regression of church architecture. In this post, I will list why church architecture is important, the causes of its decline, and potential solutions.
First though a caveat. Before any of my brothers and sisters get on to me about how thousands of churches around the world have to meet in secret or have very little to no resources to have their own building or a “professionally designed” building this post is not for them. This post is also not for the church planter in New York, London, or Tokyo, where you have to meet in someone’s living room because rent is so high in cities and your church has twelve people, 6 of them being the members’ children. This post is not for them. This post is for those churches that do not have to live in the shadows have enough members or a large enough budget that when it comes time to build a new building or add-on to the existing building there is no attempt to make something that points to God. But this type of church doesn’t have to be the megachurch down the road it could be the 100 member church you are a part of where maybe your current building is in disrepair and you want to build a new building.
Why Church Architecture is Important
When the church first started in the cities and villages of the ancient world there was no other option but to meet in the homes of believers or perhaps under a tree but as time progressed and Christianity became more abundant and accepted in society the church building came into existence.
Holy architecture though did not spring up in a vacuum it popped up in places where temples to the pagan gods stood and those that had access to a Bible or knew the history of God’s people knew that God ordered the Israelites to build a temple and a tabernacle. God is passionate about beauty so much so that when he decreed the tabernacle to be built he told Moses in Exodus 31 that he had appointed skilled artisans to add an aesthetic that would cause people to recognize this place to be holy and that our God recognizes beauty.
When churches and cathedrals started looking impressive it was because the Catholic church had the resource to build them, all though whether or not the reasons behind them having these resources was ethical is another post altogether. Nevertheless, great stone edifices were constructed with an emphasis on the communion between man and God.
Throughout the years’ churches were designed to point people to God even if they were Puritans arriving in the New World and had limited resources. Stained glass showed the stories of the Bible for those who were illiterate and the interior directed the congregants to face a pulpit where the authority was located, the Word of God.
Somewhere along the way though we lost our sense of beauty and desire for the elegant and magnificent.
The Decline of Church Architecture
I am not a church historian so I can only go off of my observations from a few history classes in seminary and a trip to Europe when I was 16. It seems that the division began after the Reformation was underway. Before that churches and cathedrals were financed by the Catholic Church, they still are as we see here in Raleigh with the new Cathedral that was just built. Some Reformers also took issue with the extravagant artwork and images and sculptures of Jesus and the Father. Much of there concerns were warranted but I think some like Karlstadt went overboard. The design of churches for Protestants went from a high arched stone building with an emphasis on the mass to a building where the preaching of the Word is emphasized.
Life tends to swing on the axis of a pendulum and church architecture is not immune from this. My concern though is that the pendulum has gotten stuck in the architectural cavity of utility and efficiency and has is struggling to become unwedged from its current predicament.
Here in America, most churches meet in building built in the mid-1800’s forward. Between 1850-1900 a number of these building were designed in a neogothic or a European cathedral design on a much smaller scale. After that much of church architecture was built upon the prevailing architectural design practices of the day. Unfortunately, much of the twentieth century gave way to functionalism and utility, Frank Lloyd Wright is a great example of this as well as the Bauhaus movement. Though these designs were great for houses and other buildings for the Church their influence I believe to be too exaggerated. Church architecture should be built in a cultural pleasing manner but should not give up its purpose for static tradition.
Then something happened to the American church in the 1970’s and 80’s that changed church architecture in this country and not for the better. It was the invention of the megachurch building. A behemoth of a building sometimes taking up entire city blocks. The megachurch could have been saved if not for one thing, its desire to imitate the theaters and auditoriums of its day. The steeple replaced by what can only be described as what you would see as the roof in most shopping malls. The outside edifice gave way from quality craftsmanship and masonry to uniform building blocks formed in a way that many of these buildings look like they could substitute for an NBA stadium.
On the other side of this great divide of church architecture was the builders of church buildings in often more rural settings that housed much smaller congregations but sometimes replicated in more urban places as well and that design is what I call the Shed’s of God’s people. You’ve seen these buildings, a parking lot and in the middle of the parking lot a building that looks like it doubles as a tractor garage. Often A-framed and beige these church buildings scream that “we are people that don’t care about design and are practical.” Being practical and having a smaller budget should not disavow God’s people from building quality work. God’s people have a duty to create and create beauty.
No one buys a house or designs a house the way we design and build our churces. Why are we negating a place where God’s people gather to the doldrums of what is beautiful in architecture.
I am neither an architect nor engineer but I think I may be able to speak into this area.
First, when designing a building consider the acoustics. No one likes music that doesn’t sound as good as it could because the building’s design is garbage.
Second, consider the environment. Is where you are building hot and humid or hot and dry is it always raining and will it snow? These questions can help you design a building and choose what material will best suit your needs.
Third, does your building create a sense of awe? When I visited Europe when I was 16 I went to some of the cathedrals and was overwhelmed with a sense of awe.
Fourth, if someone gave you a painting to hang on your wall of your house of the church building would you want it. People want to look at beautiful things.
Fifth, is there a place for artists to show off their work, whether interior or exterior?
Sixth, does the building give a sense of warmth or coldness? Architecture can be hospitable, bad architecture is not inviting to the eyes or the person.
Seventh, would people know that the building is a church building. What I mean by this is that many churches buy old office buildings and refurbish them for their needs but the average person driving by wouldn’t know that it was where a church meets. There is nothing wrong with having a building the explicitly says in its design that God’s people gather here.
Eighth, will the building last. The problem with Shed churches is that they have a short shelf life whereas stone cathedrals of Europe are still occupied.
Well, those are my thoughts on church architecture? What are your thoughts on the issue?