Does Architecture Matter?

Strange question for this Friday – which has absolutely nothing to do with any cataclysmic issues of the day. But, this funny question popped into my mind. To be honest, I am utterly conflicted. My answer is no, but, really, yes.

I am the product of a non-liturgical church. The churches of Christ in which I was raised went out of their way to be non-liturgical. In fact, we developed an entire liturgy to declare our non-liturgicalness. Our ministers wore no special garments, studiously avoided any special recognition (woe be to the funeral director who attached the epithet, “Rev.” onto the preacher’s name!) Our choirs wore no special robes because we never had a choir – the congregation was the choir!! There were no “special days” – and most likely the preacher preached on the resurrection of Jesus the week before December 25, and preached on the birth of Jesus the day everyone else was celebrating the resurrection. Our services had no uniform “liturgy” as such, except that the routine of opening prayer, three songs, Lord’s Supper, song, sermon, song and closing prayer could be predicted within a verse or two of having a universal application. That’s what I mean by having a liturgy of non-liturgicalness. Heaven help the poor soul who dared to rearrange any aspect of our worship.

This “low church” approach was especially evident in the architecture of our buildings.There were no stained glass windows, no crosses, and certainly no crucifixes. The only piece of furniture that could even remotely be considered “high church” was a simple table with the words “Do This in Remembrance of Me” or perhaps even just “In Remembrance of Me” carved or emblazoned on the front. Our buildings were constructed to be utilitarian, not expressive. The main room was not a “sanctuary,” it was an “auditorium,” designed for the specific purpose of having something “heard.” Classrooms were added alongside the auditorium, or in an adjacent “education” wing. If there was a “fellowship” hall, it was  quite often detached from the “auditorium” so that there would be no confusion as to what purpose each room was constructed.

Most, but not all, of that changed when the Churches of Christ “crossed the tracks” and became respected, and respectable, members of the community. Our buildings became more ornate – some even had stained glass windows installed! – but the basic utilitarian nature of the building never changed. It is still the very rare congregation that displays a cross behind the pulpit, “praise teams” abound but there are very, very few “choirs,” and only the most pompous preachers would dare to wear a clerical robe or accept the title, “Reverend.”

I contrast that with the most common “high church” architecture. I think of the massive cathedrals in Europe, and even many of the fabulous church buildings in the United States. I grew up just a few miles from one of the most beautiful Spanish churches in the United States in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I still love to visit that and other Roman Catholic churches in my home state. They are beautiful, ornately constructed, and the architecture conveys a message that our utilitarian church just simply cannot convey.

For one, the interior of the buildings lifts the worshipper’s view upward. There is a feeling that, when you enter the main worship center, you are called to experience something greater than yourself. In a pre-literate society, pictures, statuary, and architecture was the primary way of communicating the holiness and transcendence of God. The manner in which the church was constructed was a silent, yet powerful, way of communicating a basic truth: God is greater than the worshipper and a measure of respect and awe was due when one entered the place where God was to be worshipped.

Even the exterior of the building conveys this truth: the spires and the other forms of elevating the worshippers eyes let the person know this is a building like no other. When you enter here, you are entering sacred space – leave the world outside. Enter his courts with joy and thanksgiving, to be sure, but remember whose courts you are entering, and respond appropriately.

Compare that with the modern combination of a “worship” space and a basketball court. Who is being worshipped? God or LeBron James?

I said in my opening paragraph that I am utterly conflicted. On the one hand, it matters not in what kind of building we worship. We can worship in a house, in a rented store-front, in a cave or in a tent. Or, we can worship in an ornate, classically constructed cathedral decorated with beautiful stained glass windows and majestic arches. The apostle Paul was equally content to worship in a synagogue (which, as archeology has proven, were often incredibly ornate and beautiful) or gathered with fellow worshippers by a stream.

But, to be honest and straightforward, when God told Moses how to construct the tabernacle, and when David instructed Solomon how to construct the temple, there was to be no limit on how beautiful the physical structures were to be built. The purpose determined the result. If it is to be God’s house, if the purpose is to praise and to worship a holy and transcendent God, wouldn’t it make sense to have that house, that worship center, the most beautiful and glorious that we could make it? This is where I struggle the most with our utilitarian focus. If all we do is gather together to listen to a lecture and sing a few songs, then who cares what the building looks like.

But . . . if we are gathered into His Presence, if we are present with His Holy Spirit, if the creator of the universe descends to “tabernacle” with us, doesn’t it just make sense to signify that presence with architecture that reflects that presence?

As always, thanks for considering my meandering thoughts.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

4 thoughts on “Does Architecture Matter?”

  1. I was a teenager when a scheduled lectureship had a last minute change of venue so the church of Christ preacher was speaking in a Roman Catholic chapel graciously offered for our use. I have no idea what he said–I spent the entire time coming staring at the statues of the Blessed Virgin and Crucifix while coming to terms with the eternal truth that we can indeed worship God anywhere.

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  2. I understand what you are saying Paul. Two issues in my mind is that 1) our buildings are not helpful in fellowship and as we gather around the Table. So we eat impersonally with everyone else in somewhat quitness rather than gathered to share and enjoy and worship. The second point seems the opposite. 2) Our buildings are not built with the concerns of singing. Poor speaker systems and not really considering the importance of such hinders our singing. Here is an example. When I preached we built a new building and out pulpit was lower than what it had been in the old building. Singing was good. Then the building burned down because of a lightning strike. The new building had a raised pulpit one step higher than the old one. The first Sunday our song leader was leading away but I could tell he was having a hard time. After the assembly I asked him, “You thought few were singing, didn’t you?” He said “Yes.” Where I was sitting it was great but by adding that one step became problematic. So there are other problems with our buildings that we sometimes do not think about. I understand some of your frustration.

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    1. Hello George. Thanks for the observations. Your first point illustrates something that I did not really focus on, but the very architecture of an “auditorium” defeats one of the major purposes of the “assembly.” If all we do is to gather to hear a lecture, then any lecture hall would suffice. But the church is an assembly where we gather to do a number of things – encourage, edify, fellowship, worship – and yes, hear a message from God’s word. The change from long, immovable pews to flexible seating arrangements with chairs is helping some, but your point about not gathering around a table is still problematic. We have lost the “ambiance” (for want of a better term) of a family gathering around a common meal. I’m not really sure how to address that, but I think each congregation needs to consider that in terms of its own architecture.

      Your second point is so on target. My father was an architect, and one of the issues that constantly vexed him was the opposing goals of what most church architects struggled with (he did not design church buildings, but was aware of the problems). One is that, from a lecture point of view, you want the building to absorb any sound not specifically related to the speaker – so you have directional devices to amplify the voice from the lecturn, but sound absorbing materials that deaden any extraneous noise. However, that just kills acapella, congregational singing. Most religious groups rely on a choir or a praise band, so the result is not as noticeable, nor is it as critical. However, if your goal is to “sing with one another” and to one another, the process of deadening any sound not specifically related to the amplified voice of the speaker is just ridiculous. Church building architects just do not know what to do with Churches of Christ. I have to admit the struggle is real – as a speaker I do not want my words drowned out by a crying baby, but likewise I do not want the sound of the singing congregation to be deadened to the point it defeats the purpose of mutual edification.

      Thanks for adding to the conversation. I guess as long as we have buildings the issues will remain.

      Paul

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