New Horizons

Reforming Church Architecture

David Gobel

Picture a typical suburban landscape in America: a six-lane arterial strip punctuated by traffic lights, big-box retailers, multiplex cinemas, patches of "landscaping," a barrage of signs, and plenty of parking. Now picture a typical church in such a landscape: a large, prefabricated, windowless "worship center," dominated by a performance stage and surrounded by a sea of parking. It is a combination of the big-box retailer and the cinema.

A culture that builds such landscapes and such churches, we might reasonably assume, is a culture that is privatized, consumer driven, and amusement oriented. Clearly, our buildings are an expression of our culture. As Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." But, of course, as those who have been transformed by God's grace, we strive not to be conformed to our culture; rather, we seek its reformation. As with all of culture, church architecture is in serious need of reform.

The history of church architecture is filled with magnificent edifices built in a variety of shapes and sizes representing a variety of artistic and theological tastes and perspectives. The subject is complex and controversial. So, where should we begin in thinking about how to build churches that serve the needs of the local church and truly glorify God?

I suggest that we begin with the church. Let's begin by recognizing that, properly speaking, the church is not a building. The Puritans understood how confusing it is to use the word "church" to refer both to man-made buildings and to the mystical Body of Christ. Richard Mather, for example, wrote: "There's no just ground from Scripture to apply such a trope as church to a house for public assembly." The New England Puritans preferred to call such buildings meetinghouses.

In saying this, they recognized further that such buildings are never to be thought of as "sacred spaces." The Reformed view of church architecture is at odds with much of architectural history and with much of contemporary church architecture. Indeed, a "sacramentalist" approach dominates church architecture; most of the world's great church buildings were built to create a sense of "the sacred." While we can admire the beauty of such churches and the ingenuity of those who built them, we must join the seventeenth-century Puritans in rejecting the faulty theology laid in their foundations.

It is because of this nonsacramentalist view that the Reformed tradition has been castigated by many, both inside and outside the church. Puritans and Calvinists have been roundly condemned as haters of all things beautiful. After all, is it not because of our impoverished sense of the sacred that "low-church" Protestants have produced the big-box churches I described earlier? Indeed, there might be some truth in this critique. But it need not be so.

I suggest that we approach church architecture in terms of worship and witness, the twin goals of the church. Worship is the purpose of the church. It is what the church does when it gathers. Worship, as we understand it from the teaching of Scripture, consists of the reading and preaching of the Word, public prayer, congregational singing, and the celebration of the sacraments. It is to be done "in spirit and in truth," with "reverence and awe," and "according to Scripture." The building in which we worship is the physical setting for this supremely important activity, but it is not to be worshiped itself, nor should it distract us or lead us to worship any created thing. A Reformed church architecture should be, at the outset, supportive of and subordinate to Christian worship. But does this mean that it should be unattractive or drearily utilitarian? Is beauty excluded? Absolutely not!

John Calvin wrote, "Decorum ought to be observed in the sacred assemblies" (Commentary on I Corinthians). According to Calvin, the chief principle governing public worship is decorum, a concept that describes how we are to behave, dress, and, I would add, build. For Calvin, decorum is a general principle that includes qualities such as propriety, gracefulness, dignity and, yes, beauty. Indeed, these are the qualities that should be sought in church architecture.

Much could be said about how these qualities are achieved, but an example will have to suffice. My own church—if I may be so bold—the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, exemplifies these qualities. It is a traditional, but monumental structure, with a spacious but classically ornamented auditorium. It serves the services of public worship with dignity and delight, in a manner appropriate to the occasion (decorum). Its architecture facilitates reverent worship, but does not demand its own reverence. It is not a sacred space.

The dignity, decorum, and beauty that we seek in designing places for public worship should extend also to the external witness of the church. We must not forget that, besides being a gathered body of believers, the local church is also an earthly institution. Like all civic and commercial institutions, when churches construct buildings, they are building public statements about their identity. In other words, all buildings—whether art museums, gas stations, big-box retailers, or churches—bear witness to the institutions they serve.

Churches cannot ignore their civic role. The location, site planning, quality of materials, craftsmanship, and design of a church building either contribute to or detract from the overall quality of the built environment of a community. Churches must consider, not only the architectural design of their building, but also its urban design—that is, its relationship to the streets, blocks, and neighboring buildings of its community. Much could be said about this as well, but, in the interest of brevity, I will again use my church as exemplary of good urban design. The four buildings of our "campus," are, in my opinion, dignified, decorous, and graceful in their architectural design. They are also integral components in the built fabric of the city, well fitted into its system of streets, blocks, and squares. The buildings of the church are an asset and an adornment to the city.

Like all of society, our culture's built environment is in dire need of reformation. Sprawling landscapes of multilane highways, disconnected pod developments, and cheaply built, warehouse-style buildings are indicative of a self-absorbed society that is far from pursuing the true chief end of man. The automobile-oriented, big-box, entertainment-style worship centers built by many churches today seem only to perpetuate such culture. How we build our churches is a matter too long ignored. Reformed churches should seek to build buildings fit for the supreme task of corporate worship, while contributing to the beauty and welfare of the city of man.

The author teaches architectural history at Savannah College of Art and Design and is an elder at Independent Presbyterian Church. New Horizons, February 2011.

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