Architecture isn’t just about designing functional buildings and living spaces; as Christian architect Daniel Lee argues, architecture also serves “an artistic and civic role, expressing through metaphor and symbol the nature of the institutions contained within its walls.” Architecture, then, not only shapes and defines the physical landscape of communities, it also expresses and shapes what the designers and builders value most. Looking at contemporary church buildings, what do Christians value? What statements are we making to the watching world about the truth, beauty, and goodness of our glorious God and his beloved people?
In the Old Covenant, the architectural design of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:9) and Temple (1 Kings 6:1-14) were rich in metaphor and symbolic significance because these physical spaces were central to worshipping God. What about architecture in the New Covenant? The word “church” rightly refers to the people not the building. Peter describes Christians as “living stones” that are being “built up as a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5). The Temple is no longer a place but a people. Nevertheless, across 2000 years of church history, congregations have invested considerable time and resources into building aesthetically pleasing and symbolically significant meeting places for worship, ministry, and fellowship. Various buildings and structures have served the saints: during the early church and the middle ages Christians met secretly in homes, businesses, caves, catacombs, and later they met publically in basilicas, and cathedrals; more recently in our own time, the faithful meet in steepled-structures, civic halls, open-air tents, barns, pubs, theatres, gymnasia, schools, cinemas, arenas, and multi-use facilities. Even though it matters more to be “living stones,” it’s clear that brick and mortar still matter. This is because human beings are creatures of space as well as mind and spirit. Our surrounding environments impact us spiritually and mentally as well as physically because they say something to us and about us. For example, when the Reformers moved the pulpit to the “front and centre” of the meeting halls, it sent a message that preaching the Word must be at the “front and centre” of worship. Acoustic designs and layout of sanctuaries also facilitated not only the sound of sermons but also congregational singing. Today, as many congregations focus on professional worship bands and high quality music, preachers often speak from a portable music stand surrounded by amps, drum kits, and propped guitars. This is not a criticism but a reminder that our physical spaces both express and shape what we value. Likewise, it should not be a surprise that our consumerist culture has produced church buildings that resemble shopping malls and community rec centres. It is also no surprise that a culture that disdains the past would leave older church buildings to deteriorate or be converted into condominiums, wedding venues, restaurants, or mere relics of the past. Sadly, to permit older church buildings to deteriorate or be repurposed may send the message that the “old gospel story” is as out-of-date as the half-empty and moldering buildings themselves.
“...as we speak truth, beauty, and goodness with our words and with our lives, we also need to speak with our surroundings...”
This essay originally appeared in Barnabas, Vol. 11, No.4 (Fall 2019): 22
This is Part 1 of a three part series on Christianity and architecture. Click here for Part 2 "Architectural Gnostocism."
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Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.