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.