What might it look like to read and interpret church architecture theologically? 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 auditorium 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?