Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In defense of church buildings

Earnest Goodman doesn't like church buildings. Or rather, he doesn't like what church buildings do to churches. In the seventh part of his Counterintuitive Church blog post series, Goodman describes the vicious cycle that church buildings embody. First a Church outgrows the living room it started in, then it outgrows the storefront, and then it outgrows a single location and goes multi-site. Each decision to "upgrade" seems sensible at the time, but with the effect of tying a church to its capital assets, rather that to the mission of God. Imagine, he blogs, if Mars Hill church sold all its facilities and unleashed itself and its pastor for greater things.

Goodman is articulating a large vein that runs in the Missional Church conversation, where planting churches is valued more than growing churches. I resonate with this line of thought. After all, I have worked at two churches where their buildings were the proverbial albatross around the congregation's neck. In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch profiles this all-to-common scenario in writing about Boston's Church of All Nations:

It was then that the church’s leaders’ retained an architectural firm that designed an ultramodern building, a pure two-story cylinder of dull brick, without a single window…. The Truth is that the church’s fate was sealed with that single architectural decision made in the late 1960’s. The church was doomed not by theology or ideology, but by its captivity to a culture….A few years ago, its doors closed for the last time.

I get it. Buildings take vast amounts of resources, and church buildings lay dormant for so many hours of the week. Why not devote those resources elsewhere? Why not store up for ourselves treasures in heaven instead of treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal?


Walk into a cathedral, or a grand colonial-style church, or even visit a little country chapel. There is something that buildings dedicated to worship offer: a sacred space. I remember the first time I attended the Compline service at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle. Hundreds of kids my age (I was in high school) sat outside before the service, and when the doors opened, we slowly made our way into the Nave, before which a sign requested that we remain silent (the practice of silence at this service has since ended, much to my disappointment). If at no other point in the week, these peers of mine were experiencing something transcendent around them.

Great church buildings are icons, through which we catch a glimpse of Divine mystery and beauty. They are sacraments, where the Christ is proclaimed Risen until the day of his coming. My friend Alissa just wrote about her Easter experience, a beautiful piece that I would ruin by trying to pull out an excerpt. But if you read it, notice the role that the permanence of her congregation's worship space plays. Can you imagine trying to capture the same kind of beauty, mystery, and power of the Resurrection in a bowling alley?

Jesus was not spectacular. He came into the world in the humblest of settings, and died by one of the most gruesome and cruel methods of execution devised. We do not need a cathedral for Christ to be present.

And yet, God creates us to be creative people, to "make something of the world," to quote Crouch again. When we create all manner of cultural artifacts, and some specifically for worship, why would architecture be the arena where God's image cannot be seen in our creativity? Why can we create sermons, music, paintings, potluck dinners, softball teams, but not buildings?

The problem, as I see it, is a lack of creativity. So many church buildings are such poor icons. The first church I worked in was absolutely terrible. It was both ugly and impractical, like the Church of All Nations described above. But we should think beyond functionality; we are re-created not to function, but to have life and have it to the full. If we build a permanent structure, it should express that no less than the songs we write or the families we raise.

These kinds of buildings aren't easy to come by. I think many, if not most, church buildings do sap resources that would otherwise be devoted to bringing the light of Christ incarnationally into their surrounding neighborhoods. Consequently, the bar for starting construction should be high, much higher than it has been for most churches. But I cannot conclude that all church buildings work against the mission of God.

1 comment:

Fr Bill said...

I once heard a comment (a sermon?), taken from the story of the woman who broke the jar of expensive ointment to anoint Jesus. It suggested there's such a thing as "holy wastefulness." Perhaps it's an echo of the apparent OT practice of dedicating something to God by destroying it. But in this instance it's not destroying but deploying. Indeed I think it is persuasive to say (this was the point of that sermon) that art in general, hence architecture as you argue, Nate, is a kind of holy waste. And it's not destroying but creating.

There's another story that comes to mind. The most memorable (alright, virtually the ONLY memorable) chapel msg from my college years was by my geology prof, who catalogued the infinite expanse of the universe, and the infinity of worlds in it, in order to make the point about God's "infinite expendability." Of course, he segued from that to the Incarnation, an act of expendability that dwarfs even the universe.

"Holy wastefulness." "Infinite expendabilty." These are the phrases that come to mind when I think of the "value" of art created for the glory of God. Yes, Nate, there IS a place for a place -- a place of sacred gathering, yes, a sanctuary in the literal meaning of the word. Thanks for your post. WHW