In “Between City and Steeple” (Chapter 5 of Everyday Theology) Premkumar Williams invites us to pay attention, or read, the messages communicated by our church’s architecture, to engage architecture as a “cultural text” laden with messages.
Buildings introduce themselves by their sheer physical presence. Their size and scale, materials used, and sense of proportion and unity can draw our attention, bore us, or even repel us. Once past the initial ‘introduction,’ interesting buildings invite us to engage in a meaningful ‘conversation,’ holding out the promise of richer experiences embedded in their symbols and spaces (p. 127).
This is not a conversation I hear many people having.
Questioning Architectural Messages
Though Williams focuses here specifically on megachurch buildings, one could presumably apply these tools for theological interpretation to any church structure, no matter the size. Regarding the “how” of reading church structures, consider the following questions for developing an architectural “literacy”:
Creation – Do our church buildings have anything to say about divine providence and stewardship of creation? Williams questions whether “inward looking spaces, closed to the outside and artificially giving a sense of nature, are detrimental to our spiritual well-being if they are the places where we cannot worship God as Creator.”
Culture - What does our church architecture say about the relationship between church and culture? For example, in many third world nations church services are carried out in open air buildings that “encourage us to sing our songs amid the world’s cacophony.” Most sanctuaries in which I have worshipped use windows for utilitarian purposes only and not strategically to invite reflection on the world outside the church walls.
Community - What do our church structures say about the level of value we place on community? Regarding the auditorium alone, most Protestant ones are designed to direct the congregation members toward the stage so that the sermon is most efficiently communicated (not surprising considering the Reformation focus on the spoken Word).
Considering that most have little say in the building process of new church structures and/or worship in a faith community that does not have the option to build a new worship space, applying a theological hermeneutic to church structures might seem only an academic exercise. However, though we may not have the ability to change our structures we can be more intentional regarding the ways our faith community uses or transforms those structures – as limited as those buildings might be.
Any thoughts on this? What cultural messages does your church building communicate?