Here is Part 2 of a three part series on Christianity and architecture. Click here for Part 1 "The Art of Architecture."
As New Covenant believers, it is easy to consider our present places of worship, ministry, and living as temporary and even fruitless investments. Architecture is often viewed as a distraction from the real business of heaven. Besides the often monumental costs of maintaining facilities, the investment in material spaces may seem too worldly. Throughout the history of the church, there has been a constant struggle between these two extremes: establishing too many earthly roots on the one hand or living only for heaven on the other hand. This conflict is plainly seen in the first century heresy of Gnosticism, where disembodied and esoteric “spiritual knowledge” was celebrated, whereas the importance of the material world was diminished or denied. The incarnation, however, is a powerful reminder that the material world matters to God. Jesus did not condemn creation; instead, the Son of Man was a carpenter who understood life in “flesh and blood” terms. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, feasted with friends, and suffered on a real, rough-hewn cross. There isn’t a dichotomy between the spiritual realm and the physical realm in God’s economy.
So what does this mean for architecture? By ignoring beauty in our surroundings and by not being intentional with our aesthetic vision, we are promoting a kind of “architectural Gnosticism.” This is further exacerbated by a pious desire to avoid “storing up treasures on earth.” We eschew beauty in architectural design, seeing it as unspiritual, dated, and decadent. We exchange aesthetic vision for contemporary and practical relevance. The result is that we turn our worship spaces into human-centric facilities prized for freshness, functionality, and flexibility. Apologist Francis Schaeffer often criticised the proliferation of “ugliness in evangelical church buildings,” arguing that Christianity had adopted the world’s anemic view of beauty. Our God is beautiful, and that beauty should be seen not only in our lives, our worship, and our preaching, but also in our surroundings. Christians ought to reject the pseudo-spirituality of monastic-like Spartan aesthetics; blandness is not biblical. Bland buildings, bland worship, and bland preaching show the watching world that our God is bland. He is no such thing! Blandness and mediocrity are the opposite of who God is and what God is calling us to. God is excellent in every way, in his character, his creation, and his Word. Why would he expect anything less from us?
"Our God is beautiful, and that beauty should be seen not only in our lives, our worship, and our preaching, but also in our surroundings. "
God is also interested in sanctifying us fully—in mind, soul, and body—and he does this through countless means at his disposal. Since we are creatures of time and space, our environment impacts and shapes us. Attractive and meaningful meeting halls can be as inspiring as attractive and meaningful worship music. High ceilings, well-crafted woodwork, effective use of natural light, symbolic artwork, and other architectural features can awaken us to the wonder of God and his ways. If we are going to resist architectural Gnosticism, then God’s truth, beauty, and goodness should be seen in our buildings and interior designs. Beautiful spaces should represent and surround the Living Church. Though there is an even better place being prepared for us in glory, this does not preclude the need to be faithful stewards of our earthly resources here and now. This may not mean that we need to build new church buildings; it could mean that we need to better care for existing buildings, reclaiming older structures and meeting halls from dying denominations and dwindling congregations, both for the gospel and for the glory of God.
This essay originally appeared in Barnabas, Vol. 12, No.1 & 2 (Winter/Spring 2020): 18
Click here for Part 3 "Theology in Stone"
WORDS FROM THE WANDERINGS:
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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