Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. ~1 Cor 6:18-20
What image comes to mind when you read the word church?
I have always loved church architecture. Actually one of the best courses I took in seminary was Theology and Art. In it we toured old historic churches, cathedrals, 1970s Frank-Llyod-Wright-esque churches. We were trained to walk into a space and notice, visually, the theological clues on display.
Is the pulpit in the middle? Does the preacher lecture from a different space than the one from which the scripture lesson is read? Are there three steps up to the apse? How many windows are along the nave? Is the communion table at the center, or is it an altar? Is the baptism station a font, a pool, a hot tub? Is the crucified Jesus on the cross, or has He risen and the cross is empty? (Theology-Nerd-Alert: All of those things say something theologically.)
Subtle visual cues can reinforce or distract from the mission of a community.
This is why Jesus is so important to Christianity. Because Christianity is unique in that God is not a distant conceptual deity, but a living God with human flesh on. The God who humbled himself by placing His Son into a fleshy body. The incarnation matters in church architecture because it means that God repurposes space for his purposes. A great definition of secular is “that which can be done without God.” Therefore, if we believe that God has infused his creation with His Son and then His Holy Spirit such that everything we do matters, suddenly even the most secular of spaces can be sacred.
This is why I love church architecture because suddenly the space matters. And if it is used intentionally it can be used sacredly.
The earliest church gathered in homes. In fact, the oldest church structure archeologist have found is a place called Dura Europos. Rather than using the Jewish temple space nearby, these families likely gathered in a wealthy person’s home. Furthermore, they had to knock down a wall in their home to open it up because so many people were coming to worship there.
Probably after a while the “enthusiasm” of home renovation began to wear off (much like the enthusiasm of start up churches setting up chairs every week), and so churches began to be modeled after Roman basilicas which were public gathering places. Also, the persecution of the church began to diminish, so meeting in public became more acceptable.
This grew into our cathedrals which sought to tower towards heaven. As urban cities began to emerge, the worship of God became central and most visible in these towns. These were built not for human benefit, but to honor God. They are designed to make you realize how large God is and how little you are, simply by walking into the vast space.
As the frontier opened up, cathedrals were too difficult to build out on the edges. So itinerant preachers would role into town, setup a tent revival and drop down some saw dust trails towards the altar. After a few successful revivals, the people would began to gather regularly and small sanctuaries began to pop up in these rural communities.
Take, for example, my old church Providence Presbyterian. Originally the church property would have been two spaces–a sanctuary and a manse. No fellowship hall or pastoral offices. No Christian Life centers. It would have been a place for worship, and a place for the pastor to prepare to worship.
Then the Boomers began to collide with the church. What emerged were larger one-stop-shop churches. With theologically-approved bookstores, free-trade coffee stations, nursing mother rooms, teen centers, college annexes, women’s knitting looms, men’s lounges and Chic-fil-a quality playgrounds. (More mainline churches were more “classy” with their preschools, gyms, fellowship halls, bride’s rooms, etc.).
As the American church has experienced a decreased engagement in participation and giving, the size of these edifices and their needs have also decreased. Suddenly, it has become apparent to many churches that the $700,000 needed to heat and air-condition a building that will be used once on Sunday, and then maybe twice during the week by a 20 person committee and women’s group does not make economical sense.
So in adapting to the culture–just like the home churches, basilicas, cathedrals, sanctuaries, mega-churches all did–there has been another move. In Charlotte, 68 churches worship in school buildings. Every Regal movie theater (who saw the church market as a great source of income) seems to be hosting a church. While they appear different, they contain the same mission.
This week three years ago, 78 people gathered at Myers Park High School to start yet another church facility lifecycle. Strangely, at this season of Waypoint’s life, we are actually very similar to how Providence Presbyterian was built 250 years ago. We have a sanctuary (a rental facility at Queen’s which we got at a deep discount because of the Senior Scholars that use the space on Friday) and a Pastor’s study (Caribou on Fairview).
There is a lot of concern (and clickbait articles about dying churches) right now because many of these buildings are being shut-down and abandoned. One of my favorite sermon illustrations by Bill Wood was this one delivered in the centralized pulpit of a neo-gothic cathedral center-city mainline church.:
Several years ago, when Dr. Fred Craddock delivered the Willard Lectures at our church,he spoke of the church in which he was raised. It was a downtown church, not dissimilar from this one. As a boy, however, he remembered the struggle the church was going through as new people moved into the neighborhood. There were individuals in the church who did not want to accommodate these new people. One of the sticky points of contention was the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. There were older members of the church who did not want to see new people come to the communion table.Several years ago Dr. Craddock said he had the chance to return to the city where he hadgrown up. It had been decades since he had visited there. One of the things he wanted to do was to visit the church he remembered as a boy. When his host drove him to see the church, Craddock saw that the church had been closed. It had been converted into a restaurant. As he walked into the building, he looked down the aisle to where the communion table had once been placed. It was now a salad bar. Craddock shook his head and said to himself, “Well, I guess now everyone can come to the table.”