Everyday Theology (3) » Reading Church Architecture

What might it look like to read and interpret church architecture theologically? notre-dame.jpg 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 worshiped 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 storefront-church.jpgauditorium alone (not often called a “sanctuary” any more), 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).

Most church members have little say in the building process of new structures, and others worship in faith communities unable to build new spaces or significantly remodel their existing one. Is applying a theological hermeneutic to church structures only an academic exercise? I don’t think so. Though many cannot influence their church’s architecture, they can be more intentional regarding the ways their faith community uses their existing structures – as limited as those buildings might be. They can also become more aware of how their participation in the existing space has formative potential. That is, how does this space form their perception of the church, of their relationship to God, and to their community, nation, and world?

Related to church leaders, when given the opportunity to remodel or build will you consider the theological and liturgical significance of church architecture? And what will be the streams of influence that shape architectural decisions? Will those streams of influence be modern or ancient? Corporate or communal? Theological or pragmatic?

Any thoughts on this? What cultural messages does your church building communicate? How does its architecture contribute to the worship of your community – or does it conflict?


6 thoughts on “Everyday Theology (3) » Reading Church Architecture

  1. Kent. Hello. Good thoughts and questions. One way that people can begin to think theologically about architecture is to recover the church’s vocabulary when speaking on these matters. I need to be careful here so I don’t seem to be saying “gotcha!”, but terminology such as ‘auditorium’ and ‘stage’ has to be ejected from the church’s thinking about where we gather.

    It’s hard to do this without sounding snobby, but perhaps when people start hearing the word ‘chancel’ (or other words that may fit one’s local architecture) it will dawn on them that it’s probably not an area to let the kids run around in after the service!

    End the end, I suspect, it’s liturgical and sacramental considerations that govern a church building and it’s architecture.

  2. Brian – I suspect you are right regarding the liturgical and sacramental considerations. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Considering many Protestant churches of the Reformed and Free Church bent haven’t typically thought sacramentally about church life (or architecture) the discussion in general is a foreign one, or at least one not regularly had. Still, even without a more sacramental view of ecclesiology it seems to me that there needs to be a greater intentionality among church leaders regarding the theological implications of church structures, the “spaces” they form, and the messages they communicate both to the faith community and the wider culture.

    Also, I visited your site and would have to say that my list for Eerdmans and Baker would have be very similar to yours. I lived in GR for years and miss it!


  3. As a christian and an architect, I have come to realize that the buildings we worship in are as much a sermon as the words spoken to us from the pulpit. The pulpit itself even communicates something. It can be thin and transparent emphasizing the person behind. It can be thick and weighty, ready for the pounding fist of a fiery preacher. It can be just a relocated music stand like we have at the moment in our facility because it is a temporal location that we rent.

    There is the view that the church building should be highly esteemed and appropriately revered as God’s house. Our earthly representation of heaven as we take part in our various forms of liturgy. There is the view that the church building is nothing more than a “sheep shack”. That because WE are the Church, the box that we meet in is insignificant beyond the function of providing a place to meet.

    I hope that somewhere in the middle a view can be held that church architecture is important, worth thinking thoughtfully about and seen as an opportunity to have Christ be glorified, while at the same time not being too building focused that we lose sight of the fact that the Church worships within the building but the building is not the Church.

    Your comment on “artificially giving a sense of nature” has me hearing Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” in my head (great song). I’ve seen one too many of those on sanctuary stages. I’ve always wanted to build on that idea of creation in architecture and expand it to depict the entire biblical narrative (see “The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story” by Goheen). How cool would it be to have your worship experience on a Sunday take you through Creation (an entry that has an organic, indoor/outdoor feel), Sin (a transitional space involving dimmed light, descent), Christ (a meeting space designed around the presentation of the Gospel and Communion) Church (an exit sequence that fosters a unity of the believers in Christ) and New Creation (maybe an indoor or outdoor gathering area that has a “newness” or New Jeruselam/Return to Eden feel to it).

    I think there is so much opportunity for a church structure to present the Gospel message of Christ. I hope that whenever a congregation has the opportunity to construct or rennovate a facility the question is raised of what the building communicates about us, and more importantly about Christ.

  4. Scott – Many thanks for your comments. You make a compelling case for ways in which churches can engage the gospel architecturally.

    I especially loved your vision for a church structure that would move congregants through the creation-fall-redemption narrative. Brilliant!

  5. I remember a brief discussion we had one day in one class at the seminary on this topic. But it has stuck with me. Every time I enter a church I am aware of the message I am receiving from the structure and furnishings. Buddhist temples feature a large statue of the Buddha. Most Catholic churches bring your focus to the altar and its sacraments. Protestant churches have been evolving (and not necessarily in the best direction) from a focus on the pulpit/desk where the Word of God is preached. Replaced by the artificial-looking plastic lecterns. Or eliminating the pulpit altogether thus the focus is on the preacher (the man) rather than the message (the Word). Interesting discussion. I appreciate the forum.

  6. Thank you for pointing up this chapter – new to me.

    I am another architect, working in UK (Cambridge), predominantly on churches. Our churches of course are speaking all the time, but congregations tend to be deaf to this – and the message is often at odds with the theological aspiration. Which the wider culture reads as dissonance, which is unsettling and hugely off-putting. Time and again the interventions we make in existing churches are about giving the building a new face, and thus a new voice, and lowering the threshold – both physical and figurative.

    Great material – thank you.

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