Jun 24, 2012

Posted by in Culture | 123 Comments

Miscellany 35: Why Church Architecture Matters

Architecture is important. In fact, one can make the case that architecture is of the highest importance, because we live in it. I can choose to pick up or put down any particular book, to go to a particular movie or not, but I cannot avoid the effects that the architectural design of buildings has upon my daily experience at home, at work, as I do errands or sit in a coffee shop.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Oxford this year – long enough to soak in the beauty of the old buildings, to get used to the eye being able to find lovely things to look at in all sorts of places. There are gargoyles on rain gutters!

An Oxonian gargoyle. Photo by the author.

The contrast between Oxford and Cambridge and generic Southern California architecture is striking. I was particularly depressed last fall when I came back from a stay in Keble College, Oxford, for a conference… to the mass-market blandness of the college at which I taught. Temporary buildings that had defaulted into quasi-permanent ones… faculty rooms that could have been exchanged for any generic office space… classroom buildings designated only with numbers, not names. Granted, in SoCal there’s no depth of history, but what really bothered me was that the college wasn’t even trying. Functional, yes; new and well equipped, yes; beautiful — what? Well, there was some nice landscaping, sure, but the classroom and office areas were simply sterile.

The reality is that most people live and work in aesthetically displeasing, or at best neutral, spaces. Few people today in America work and live in buildings that lift up the heart, that provide beauty for the eye and harmony for the soul.

That’s one reason why we desperately need churches to be beautiful.

Beautiful churches and cathedrals are egalitarian. They make beauty available to all — even the poorest and most culturally deprived.

If a church meets in a gymnasium or a generic meeting hall, or a church that is just a large hall with a stage… yes, the Gospel can be preached, and the Spirit will be present, but we’re missing out on a great deal more. Christ is Truth and Beauty.

The centuries-old churches of England and Europe have a bit of an edge: they were built when people understood that the place in which one worships God is part of the worship that we give Him. The old churches, cathedrals, and chapels that I’ve been in take beauty seriously: it is part of giving glory to God, of recognizing sacred space as a place of transformation and formation in Christ’s likeness, and of creating an environment that can be a locus for the work of the Holy Spirit. But it’s not just old churches that can be beautiful – we can build new ones that bring beauty into our spiritual lives, that honor God with art, that take the opportunity to help us be more receptive to the Word.

And now a few pieces to read to think more about this:

Here is  an interesting article and slide show of new churches that are done right: made to be beautiful.

Here is a thoughtful NYT piece asking: Why don’t we read about architecture? From the article: “Buildings are discussed — indeed aspects of them obsessed upon — but almost exclusively in the context of economics. This building went over budget, that surplus of houses led to the foreclosure crisis, that condo broke the record for residential real estate, etc. To the layman, then, architecture is conveyed as little more than something that costs a lot and causes a lot of grief, rather than something with the potential to enhance our daily lives.”

And lastly, here are two sonnets that I have written that came out of the experience of worship in a beautiful church: On the Edge, and A Sonnet for the Church of St. Edward King and Martyr.

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  1. The Apostles Church in Atlanta is pretty amazing. If the things of nature, like the Grand Canyon can provoke people to thing about God then why not good architecture?

    Here is a thought that I have never got around to confirming.

    The medieval churches were often at the center of a town and their architectural acoustics were set up such that when the church gathered together for worship and sang it was as if they were the vibrations inside of some stringed instrument like a guitar.

    And when they sang the music would come out from the front, go through the door and go out into the village. The whole building was an instrument. If this is so then that is a deeply funky thought.

    ~ Raj

  2. Thank you for this post. I thought I was the only one in the world who is deeply affected – for good for ill – by my surroundings. I cannot describe to you the depression I’d feel when I was stuck working in ugly beige offices with dry, circulated, fake air! My old apartment and neighborhood were also quite beautiful. Not a day went by when I wasn’t uplifted by archway in the entrance, the flowers, the wood floors in the apartment and the bright light. Due to job loss, I am now in a dark, dreary place in a plain, dull neighborhood. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel down as I look at it all. I dread coming home. It’s the exact opposite of before.


    After we outgrew our small original building, our church did not own a building for over 10 years, so we were forced to meet in school auditoriums and other places. Some were better than others, but none felt like a church building should. I always felt a bit conflicted about that. It’s the people that truly make up the church. After all, throughout history and even to this day, Christians have been forced to meet in secret, in the most awful places imaginable. I suppose the attitude should be to give thanks for what you have, but if you do have the opportunity to change it, then you should strive for the ideal of beauty.

    Thanks again.

  3. Holly Ordway says:

    Thanks for your words, Mo and Raj!

    Indeed I think that our surroundings have a profound effect (for good or ill) on us.

    I do agree that it’s the people who make the Body of Christ, but then one has to ask the next question, what are the people going to do in their worship to glorify God? From the beginning, Christians have done what they can to make their places of worship and gathering beautiful… there are paintings even in the Catacombs. One is of course limited to what’s possible in a given situation, but there’s always something that can be done to add beauty. I’m very interested in the idea of sacred spaces: yes, God can and does work anywhere, but to set aside a place (and that is what ‘holy’ means, set aside for God) and to make it as beautiful as one can seems to be a natural expression of worship. The same thing goes for how one dresses at church: making church ‘casual dress’ isn’t necessarily good for discipleship, I think.

  4. This has been something I’ve noticed with myself as well. I agree that environment has a profound effect – personally I am very heavily affected by weather conditions, mentally. Sometimes a cloudy day is enough to cause slight depression. You might be interested in “The End of Suburbia” – it has more of an environmental focus with urban planning and smart growth.

    However, as much as I agree with the importance of place and its beauty, such an endeavor should come secondary ( or even tertiary) to the endeavor or preaching the gospel and saving souls ( as you mentioned). In fact, part of the issue with focusing on beauty is the fact that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What one person may consider beautiful , may turn another person away. The Body of Christ’s chief concern should be to reach as many people as possible – from drug dealers to murderers ,and anyone in between. One of the biggest criticisms against the Church ( historically) is the fact that it can build these big, beautiful churches and yet use it as a tool of hypocrisy, haughty eyes, and doing anything but the carrying out the Great Commission – so we can’t get so carried away with just building pretty buildings.

    Also, I completely disagree that making church “casual dress” has any effect on discipleship. I agree that there are many who like to express their love for Christ and the things of God through their outward appearance, but remember that “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

    The pretty clothes, the buildings, and even the pretty worship songs mean nothing if our hearts and will isn’t even aligned with His.

    • Holly Ordway says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Harry! I agree that beauty in church architecture should be secondary to preaching the Gospel, but there are lots of good things that come seondary to the Gospel. We can put first things first, and still strive to include beauty in worship.

      My point about casual dress is simply that there is value in the setting apart of things as holy; marking things as special through what we wear, etc. helps remind us of the significane. If Sunday worship feels no different than any other gathering, it is easy to forget that it is something different, that we are worshiping the living God, not just getting together with like-minded friends.

      Regarding your last point -that beautiful buildings, songs, etc mean nothing if our hearts aren’t lined up with God – I half agree. In terms of our own relationship with God, individually, that’s absolutely true. But I think that beauty in worship can serve as a way to speak truth about God as a community: to say that He is worthy of the best that we can give, that He is the source of beauty – even when we fail to live up to it. I’m thinking for instance of the elaborate instructions for the ark of the covenant, to make it beautiful with gold and gems and carving, when the Israelites certainly failed in relationship with God time and again.

      • Holly, I’m glad you replied! I was hoping you wouldn’t feel disrespected or anything.

        I see what you’re saying and I certainly agree, but with your last statement about “even when we fail to live up to it” I believe outlines a really important idea. The fact that we don’t live up to God’s beauty – His Glory & goodness – is essentially what lies at the heart of the Gospel. Even though we’re saved by grace, we still sin. Even though we fail to live up to God’s holiness and beauty( because we always do),this does not mean our hearts do not have the will to do differently (Paul, as you probably know better than me, records this conflict)

        Essentially, I agree that beauty in worship is a way to speak truth about God as a community and that worship for the God shouldn’t be anything less than beautiful for the God that redeemed us, but I also believe that it is when our will and hearts are aligned with God’s that we can even begin to be capable of worship that is pleasing in God’s eyes.

        I’d say that this verse sums up my thoughts on this combination of verses:
        (Isaiah 64:6)
        “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags”
        (John 4:24)
        “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

        I really do not mean to come off as argumentative, I really enjoy this discussion, and I think we’re hitting something that many churches should certainly be thinking about. I really do enjoy your entire website and how you’re exploring and revealing the intersections with faith , the gospel, and literature – it’s something I’ve always noticed myself ( with my personal fav. literary work being Les Miserables!)

        • Holly Ordway says:

          Thanks, Harry! I didn’t take you as argumentative in a bad way – rather, that you were engaging with the ideas robustly, which is what I’m hoping for. It’s helpful to get comments that push on the weak spots (or not-as-developed spots) in an idea.

          I think the Scripture that you’ve brought up highlights an important aspect of the discussion of beauty in worship: that our worship exists, to a certain degree, in a state of tension. We are, as NT Wright puts it, people of the now and the not-yet, and we’ll keep erring first on one side, and then on the other, until the Second Coming…so in terms of the beauty argument, I think we need to have different perspectives pushing back at each other.

  5. I hesitate to reduce beautiful architecture to the bottom line, but it’s worth remembering that some of the old buildings were built over a long period of time, with money coming in piecemeal. Nowadays, the budget seems to come first. Everyone knows that it’s going to overrun, but we politely ignore that, while pushing the workers for faster completion times.
    That leaves no space for gargoyles, and other decorations, which are a joy, even if they can’t always be seen clearly with the naked eye. In the early days, looking up at a high statue must have been a small act of faith. People had to trust that the sculptor had put in all the details, because they wouldn’t have had binoculars and camera lenses to look through.

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