Your church building preaches a gospel whether you know it or not. It portrays a message to all those who see it—those who drive past it on their commute, the first-time visitors, even the couple who have been sitting in the same seat for forty-seven years.
Some churches are like homes, exhorting their guests to find comfort. Some churches look like office towers, promising upward mobility. And still other churches are like a retreat, reminding us of our need to build rest into our busy lives.
Yet, sadly, if you take a look at most modern American church architecture you’ll see more of a statement about consumerism than the gospel.
Before anything else can be said about the consumeristic emphasis in modern church architecture, we should first learn a bit more about the history of church architecture and how each age of the church tried to accomplish something a little different from the previous.
The History of Church Architecture
Christians did not always have set apart spaces for meetings. They began meeting in large spaces out of necessity. They were too many to fit in homes and, before the advent of denominations, they all met together.
Now, some of these Christians started to meet in abandoned pagan temples, repurposed and redeemed. But temple architecture ultimately proved unhelpful. The attention in a Roman pagan temple focused on the front porch of the building where sacrifices were made for the gods to see. The interior was secondary, merely a place for the edifices and statues to be held.
The church needed a place to sing, to pray, to break bread. So, they adopted a well-known structure, the basilica, which not only fit their function, but taught a greater truth. Basilicas were used as courts, royal halls, and government chambers. To use this building for worship pointed to a higher courtroom, a greater throne room, and a better kingdom.
Centuries later, the church form evolved from a single hall into two intersecting halls in the shape of a cross. Ceilings vaulted into the heavens, drawing the worshiper’s eyes upward and dwarfing visitors in scale.
The canyon-sized walls were adorned with biblical narrative and theology in fluorescent colored glass to teach both the illiterate and the educated congregants the biblical narrative. The awe and feeling of smallness these cathedrals evoked would bring a person to the place of Psalm 8:4–5.
Of what importance is the human race, that you should notice them?
Of what importance is mankind, that you should pay attention to them, and make them a little less than the heavenly beings?
All the while, this person would be standing on the cross as the songs, sermon, and prayers spoke of the God who has seen man in his sinfulness, come to him as Emmanuel, and redeemed him. Those cathedrals pointed to Jesus without saying a word.
However, many were built out of the selfish ambition of cardinals and popes and the wealthy. They were looming monuments of exalted ego much like our churches can be monuments to material consumerism.
The Modern Church
We always want more and better than we currently have.
We “need” TVs in the concourse, a staff that makes me feel comfortable, an awesome band that plays the music I like, and a palatial playground for my kids. Maybe Carnival Cruise Line should build our churches.
We seem more concerned with the amenities of our buildings than the God we have gathered to worship. Instead of thinking about the message of our buildings we focus on HD jumbotrons, a bigger parking lot, an organic coffee shop.
As a result, the design suffers. Most large churches look like a haphazard marriage between an airport concourse and a warehouse with stadium seating, hunchbacked event centers that happen to have a cross on their roof.
Consumerism also breeds competitiveness and jealousy, dividing the greater church of our cities. Our worship centers have become the big guns in American Sunday Wars and we all want the Death Star. “If we are going to compete and really see God bless this ministry we have to get a better, unbeatable building,” we think, as if the Holy Spirit is a fickle celebrity who only attends the best parties. We forget God is where only two or three gather to worship.
The Future Church
As Paul preached on Mars Hills, our God cannot be held in houses made by human hands. God is bigger than your building and can use (and has used) spaces of any size or shape to accomplish his purposes.
But your building can be more than a functional space. Its form can teach about beauty, focus your heart in reverence, and fill you with awe. Your building can point to Jesus without saying a word.
We don’t need more flash or showmanship—we need more thoughtfulness. We need spaces that confront our consumerism and fly our attention heavenward on the wings of the gospel.
We need both small and mega churches with spaces built for their communities. We need small and mega churches concerned with more than Sunday growth. We need places of rest, reflection, and repentance, places that focus our attention toward the beauty of Christ’s death and resurrection. Your church’s heart can be seen in what it builds, both in believers and in buildings.
Cover image by Tim Wright.