… and our buildings shape us…

I was pondering church architecture today, partly as I observed the fairly bland ‘multi-purpose’ nature of all newer buildings and partly as I read Petersen’s ‘memoir, The Pastor’ and reflected on the way he and his congregation planned together the shape and form of their new church building.

Petersen and his crew saw their building as an extension of their identity and as a definite theological statement. Hence their building was less of a ‘community centre’ and more of a reflection of their identity in Christ. The building needed to be shaped by them rather than shaping them. After a less than inspiring meeting with an architect who offered them ‘colonial,, ‘neo-gothic’ or ‘contemporary’, they decided to work at developing their own design and what emerged was a building that was uniquely them and where they fitted perfectly. (The chapter is called Bezalel if you want to read it.)

I have given buildings very little thought in recent years and seen them as purely utilitarian. I have abhorred the thought of churches spending millions on a new worship centre because its ‘nicer to have our own stuff’. But Petersen has challenged me to consider the role of the building in spiritual formation.

The trend in recent years in church buildings has been away from dedicated religious buildings with steeples and stain glass windows etc, back towards ‘shared use facilities’ that the local community can use also. This isn’t a bad idea per se and it emanates from both a missional impulse (to ‘bless’ the community) and a desire to ‘demystify’ our spaces and make them more accessible to the average punter. That said I’m not sure if our ‘demystifying’ has been such a good idea as I can’t help but feel that when people turn up to a church they want it to feel like a ‘church’ and if there is nothing ‘spiritual’ then maybe we have shot ourselves in the foot.

Today I was pondering how our buildings and gathering spaces influence our communal identity and then our behaviour. ie how do we express our identity as a church as a result of being in these spaces?

By and large most newer church buildings (while ‘multi-purpose’ in intent) are still auditoriums that facilitate a concert type experience. There may be out-buildings (halls/meeting rooms etc) that the community can use, but the actual ‘worship auditorium’ is still a stage / audience scenario. If Petersen is correct – that our buildings make a theological statement – then this has to sit uneasily with us – no matter how we explain it away… When church becomes a concert / motivational talk to attend and consume we are always going to struggle to move into discipleship mode.

Its not that the older architecture got it right either. Enter any of those cathedrals and there was a clear clergy/laity divide at work, and a very Old Testament flavour to the undergirding theology. They were ‘holy’ places with sections where only the qualified could access. Hence the idea of ‘reverence’ was an issue we used to hear talked about in thee buildings. (‘Cathedral God’ doesn’t like noise on a Sunday morning)

Then there are those of us who meet in schools, community centres or hired spaces – and use dual purpose auditoriums. One day its a music classroom and the next its a space for worship.  One day its got the Reiki crew meeting in it, the next the Baptist church. Its a shell, where the contents change day to day. What impact does that have on the people meeting there?

We are one of those churches. The room we use also seems to be the place where stuff gets put when you run out of room elsewhere, so it is often cluttered and uninviting. I’m still wondering what kind of a theological statement it makes, but I can’t help but feeling it is less than conducive to encountering God. Our building seems to say ‘it doesn’t matter where we meet – but that we meet’. That’s somewhat true… but I think ‘where‘ does matter. I feel like the tone of the space influences our experiences and needs consideration. If I had my choice I would meet in a different space to the one we currently have because the ambience is too utilitarian and non-descript. We are neither a cathedral or a concert. We are beige and bland and I sense that affects our worship.

A common practice in church buildings recently has been to do a factory refurb. Buy a warehouse in an industrial area and deck it out as a space to gather. I’m not a big fan of this either. The economics may work, but it still feels odd to have a worship space wedged between the  carpet store and boat mechanic. These buildings are also somewhat removed from the communities of people who inhabit them. That may not be a big deal, but I kinda like the ‘corner deli’ church a bit more than the factory one. I’m sure it can work, but I imagine if given a choice those who have bought factories would far rather be in the middle of a suburb.

If we want to get a bit more back to basics then we could meet in homes around a meal a bit like those first Christians before Constantine came along with his government grants and ‘lotteries money’ to help us build our ‘sanctuaries’ (there’s an interesting word…) The theology of the house type space sits well with me, even if the practicalities can bring it unstuck. Houses limit the numbers of those who could attend – which can be a good thing… Personally I think optimal church size is under 50 – a ‘household’. However houses are very private spaces and may not feel accessible to all – or we may prefer some folks didn’t have access to our homes. Therein is a great wrestle for what it means to be ‘the church’. ‘Hospitality’ is nice idea, but a more difficult reality.

Theologically I sit most comfortably in the house space – because my primary imagination of church is as family. Over the years our Christian culture has so morphed this original biblical idea that now we call ourselves a family but don’t operate as much like one as we might like to think. Larger buildings and gatherings make ‘hiding’ possible, both for those who don’t wish to be seen and for those who don’t wish to ‘get involved’, which seems very ‘unfamily’like

I don’t have a simple solution as everything is a compromise to some degree, but I do love Petersen’s idea of forming our buildings to reflect our theological identity and if I ever was forced to lead a church on a building project then I’d be doing this kind of thinking first and the economics and practicalities second.

What are your reflections on how the building in which you meet has either assisted or detracted from your own spiritual formation?

3 thoughts on “… and our buildings shape us…

  1. So much I agree with here. So much I don’t. So much I see as personal preference rather than Biblical compulsion.

    First a disclaimer. My church sold its neighbourhood building which was falling down around it and eventually bought a old warehouse and transformed it. Its located between a mechanic and an empty block. No carpet store. Fortunately it is within walking distance of houses, so perhaps we get a pass for that.
    One of the reasons we cant be ‘in the suburb’ is because the people don’t want a rock concert and hundreds of cars arriving from Friday through Sunday night. So perhaps to be a little removed is actually to be missionally sensitive.

    I want to, perhaps on theologically wavering ground, suggest the Temple shows a lot of Gods heart. While we are not of Israel, and the buildings we have are not Temples, the instructions for the temple do say something about Gods heart.
    He is creative. He asks us to glorify Him. He is a God of beauty, awe, and community. He is also a God of mission, passion and justice.
    Maybe these values are something we should consider when building something in which the people of God gather to worship, fellowship, be inspired in and learn.

    I think the building you occupy every time you gather should be a reflection of God, of His nature and of the characteristics of your own faith community. I don’t think for one moment there is a uniform approach. But instead there should be one reflective of Gods nature, of the community you are called to, and who and how God has fashioned you and yours.

  2. I agree Mark – some of this is personal preference and I have no issue with any of having different preferences.

    I hear your comments re reflecting God’s heart and I think that is what Petersen is getting at when he suggests that our buildings ought to reflect our theology.

    That would suggest we will have as many building expressions as we do theological perspectives which isn’t so bad anyway.

    The point he made well is that pragmatism and economics often drive our buildings rather than theology – which is understandable but unfortunate for a church

  3. “That said I’m not sure if our ‘demystifying’ has been such a good idea as I can’t help but feel that when people turn up to a church they want it to feel like a ‘church’ and if there is nothing ‘spiritual’ then maybe we have shot ourselves in the foot.”

    I struggle more than a little with the idea that the building (or any other place) has a spiritual relevance, and see it as going back to the mysticism of the ancient traditions that was used for control of the laity by the clergy. The breaking down of the need for a ‘holy place’ seems to be taking the church back to its roots, when God did visible stuff out there, rather than in a carefully controlled space.

    One difficulty of seeing this clearly is the effect of faith: if we have an expectation that the church building is the place God will work then there’s a fair likelihood that He will do so, far more than the places where we don’t expect (or even want) Him to do stuff. If we then base our theology of church buildings on what we have thought works, our viewpoint will be distorted by our faith in the building.

    It seems to me that pragmatism and economics often operated in early church situations. They met in houses, on the beach, in the temple courts, in lecture halls or down by the river. It’s no surprise that as the church gained money, power, structure and facilities it gradually lost touch with the supernatural*, even though it was still persecuted. The space itself is just a space, and the church is the people. If the most remarkable thing a visitor experiences when they come to church is the effect of the building then they’ve probably not been aware God was there.

    *Eusebius is interesting on this in his history of the early church.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *