The listserv member asked these questions:
Why build identifiably ecclesiastic buildings? Worship spaces are often occupied for less time per week than most other buildings, and their construction and maintenance are a great expense. Do they in any way improve the living of a Christian life? Could they be, instead, cultural expressions, even boasting in stone, that one's group is more important or impressive than another's?
Now, those are questions to warm the heart of a progressive socialist, such as I am. (OK, there it is: I am out of the closet!) The use of the Church’s resources for elaborate buildings, for expensive art and grand vestments and paraments, precious vessels and the like – this has often stung my heart: To spend $2,000 on a chasuble, when there are people sitting on our front steps who can’t afford to eat – that seems wrong.
It seems terrible stewardship, doesn’t it?, to design and build “plants” (as some pastors call their buildings) that stand mostly unused during the week. And even though many of us worship where much of the building is in use during the week, nevertheless our church buildings feature naves (or “sanctuaries,” as the uninformed refer to them: the sanctuary is the immediate area, usually marked by a step or platform, right around the altar) that are used only for “worship events.” They are deliberated designed to have a certain amount of space that is not for use by a wider community.
I have long struggled with that issue. In fact, I was once so taken by Ed Soevik’s book, Architecture for Worship, that I consulted with a few congregations to design their new or remodeled spaces around the “centrum” model – i.e., to design a worship space that could be “broken down” for general community use when the congregation was not worshiping: flexible seating, so that the layout of the room could be reconfigured; removable fixtures, such as altars (just because an altar is consecrated, I reasoned, it doesn’t have to me immovable), so that space could be cleared; no built-in symbolism or iconography that marked the space as specifically Christian. I considered Soevik's to be a practical and faithful approach to what I perceived even then to be the need for a congregation to have a “home” – a regular space where they gathered and were constituted as the people of God in a particular location. It made the building a tool of service, I theologized.
In my own defense, I was not on that bandwagon because it was “contemporary” or “modern” or (the excuse of so many Roman Catholics who earned Cardinal Ratzinger’s, now Pope Benedict XVI’s, ire) “post-Vatican-II.” I have always thought that traditional forms in music, art, literature, and, yes, liturgy are hugely contemporary and modern.
Every age produces a riff on the tradition, yes; and sometimes those riffs turn out to be critical to preserving the tradition – classic jazz, for example. But often (heavy metal: sorry, Daniel; Jackson Pollock: I know some consider him a genius; Marty Haugen), the “contemporary” has little staying power. So I’m in no hurry to “modernize” – except when it comes to the latest Jhane Barnes sweater, when I lust for the money to upgrade.
No, my concerns with respect to church architecture were theological: I felt that the Church needed to live the Gospel she proclaimed. She needed to embody the life of service and sharing that her Lord embodied – especially given that she was now his Body in the world. Consequently, in her treasuries and in her buildings, service and living in the world on the basis of God’s promise seemed to be key.
But I have modified my tune, without abandoning the major key on which I had built the tune – and it’s not just because so many of the “flexible use” spaces called “churches” are so ugly and cheap. (That ought not to have mattered to this limousine liberal, after all.) What I learned, finally (and here I apologize to my teachers who tried to instill this in me faster than I was able to integrate it), was that the old ways are still valuable. Worship spaces should be reserved for worship, even if the rest of the church building (and maybe there doesn’t need to be any more to the church building) is run into the ground by overuse. (Such overuse is seldom the case with our naves.) In order to serve, the Church needs the liturgy -- just as and because her individual members need food. And the liturgy needs a space appropriate to it.
It is firmly established that space shapes behavior, perceptions, and reality. Exterior and interior "styling" matters to what is being done or said or whatever around and within the space. That’s why anthropologists make such a big deal of studying “sacred space.” And that's why architecture as a profession is such a big deal. The best architects are artists and sociologists. Were that not the case, we'd have Soviet-style boxes all over the landscape. Form does, indeed, follow function: And rightly understood that is theological doctrine. But, conversely, function is shaped by form.
So I have come to what many would consider a very conservative view of church buildings. It may or may not be at odds with my progressive socialist proclivities (I can make the case both ways. But regardless, there are times when one’s theology simply must trump one’s politics, even if one believes that his politics are formed out of his theological convictions.)
(Note: In what follows, I mean to be deliberately inconclusive use of "church." In line with Lutheran theology, when I reference “church” or “Church,” I mean both the particular band of believers who gather in a given location and the One, Holy, Apostolic, Catholic.)
For the Church to be Church, she needs, to be sure, to be contemporary, to recognize that "the holy" includes the People of God (those in this place together with all others who claim the name of Christ), to conserve and use wisely the resources of the community and the wider church (denomination). Those concerns fueled many of the scaled down, sort-of-secular spaces that many modern church buildings display (gymnasia-looking fields, folding chairs in a circle, moveable altars, and the like). (I refuse to deal with "drive through" services, offered by some churches in Minnesota. That seems to me to have abandoned any notion of "church" at all, and substituted a kind of religion-dispensing machine in her place.)
But critical to the Church, too, is a sense of mystery, awe, and reverence. Also, the Church needs the awareness that she exists not just synchronically (that is, all over the globe in this time and space), but also diachronically (that is, through at least the past 2000 years). The diachronic dimension of the life of faith requires a sense (I want to say of timelessness, but since that sounds sort of Gnostic, I’ll use) of historic continuity, rather than of time-boundedness; it requires a sense of stability and groundedness, not just mobility; it requires valuation of distinctiveness, not of “fitting in."
And, even though I am a progressive socialist, I also believe that the Church, to fulfill her mandate to worship the true God, needs also a certain sense of extravagance, elegance, and beauty. She needs to display icons of the faith (whether you mean that in the Eastern sense or not). She needs, I think, to offer those who come an atmosphere of reverence and profundity, a foretaste of the heavenly feast.
On a personal note, I acknowledge that much of my own understanding of this issue was shaped by my growing up in an extended family that prized its "homes." Both sets of grandparents lived on farms in homes that had pretty much been built around them: My maternal grandfather helped in the construction of my mother's home; my paternal grandparental home had been built for them by Sinclair Lewis. Both were centers of family life. (My mother to this day refers to where she grew up as "up home.") And both places were marked with family existence: pictures, mementos, chochskies -- items that carried the family's history and meanings. Both had furniture that enabled family interactions of particular sorts: One home had a formal parlor and dining room, where children did not go unless specifically permitted; the other had the music room (usually, too, there were two pianos). The sense of place and of drawing meaning from those places was something I absorbed from the very beginning. We identified with a location, even though we are a far-flung, bicoastal and all points in between family. And its on that model, that I imagine the life of the Church, working through individual congregations.
It is nigh impossible, I think (and I suppose I could name exceptions if I were trying to be fair), to accomplish what I think an ecclesiastical space (to use the listserv-er's phrase) ought in a space that is not "reserved," set aside, consecrated to the one action by which the Church is constituted -- specifically, the celebration of the liturgy in which the Word is faithfully reported and proclaimed and the Word made visible in physical, bodily forms.
Of course, the success of this endeavor does not depend on whether there are pews or not (although even the Orthodox, I understand, are having difficulty keeping seating out). If without pews, the space will at least feature good quality, stable seating (not cafeteria-style stackable plastic monstrosities). The space will be decorated with symbols of the faith -- preferable stained-glass or leaded windows (I love those at Gettysburg Seminary) that highlight the history of the faith. It will be a space – well, you get the point. It doesn't have to be Chartres, but it should be easy on the eye.
I think it important, too, for a church building to look like a “church.” People walking or driving by, living in the neighborhood, or looking over the internet should be able immediately to say, “Oh, that’s a Christian church.” The building should convey a public dimension to the life of the community that meets there. It should speak to the “groupness” and to the differentness of a Christian community – different from the other “social groups” that build buildings and hold meetings. By so proclaiming to the world that this congregation is “in but not of the world,” the building helps to establish that identity in the members on whose behalf the building speaks that message. And as I have countless times indicated, there is a fabulous need, if the Church is to be faithful, for the people of God to recognize and affirm their differentness from the world.
In all of this, I do not mean to suggest that any particular style should be de rigueur. There’s splendid Gothic and there’s gothic; some Romanesque is gorgeous, some hideous; there are fabulous new structures that manage to convey the message I want them to do, while at the same time say, “we’re fresh; we’re here.” Of course, I still think that altars should be set against the east wall of a defined chancel; but reasonable minds can disagree about that. But if there is a free-standing altar/table, then those in positions of responsibility must be extra careful to nurture in other ways (art, vesture, posture) the awe and majesty that are a necessary balance to immanence and contemporaneity. (Oh, I feel a book coming on.)
I am hard-pressed to know whether much of the problem with the decline of disciple in the Church is a reflection of or reflects the modern, flexible-use-space design of much modern church construction. But I am willing to put money down that the two are related.
Church buildings are properly understood as tools for mission. The issue is to determine how the tool operates and to use it appropriately. At least, given the nature of human life in USAmerica, the church building functions at a number of levels, not the least of which is the iconic. If it costs money to establish a building that works property, then that is a cost I am willing to help bear – and to justify to my fellow economic radicals. (It is a different issue to discuss whether a building in Minnesota needs air conditioning: In my congregation, there are those who say that the stifling heat in at least July and August justifies the expense of retrofitting the nave for a/c. There are those who say the money should be spent on those without food and housing, not on making our lives a little more comfortable. That’s a legitimate debate. No one questions abandoning the nave for the air conditioned lounge, however.) If my principle means that a relatively poor congregation cannot afford more than a modest nave, with no “education wing” or the like, so be it.
The Church has had an edifice complex throughout its existence, and I don’t mean to feed that impulse. But I think the Church needs buildings -– appropriate buildings. And while many might consider it a profligate expense to set aside significant space solely for worship, I demur. I am reminded of when the woman anointed Jesus' feet with expensive oil (Matthew 26: 6-13. Matthew is not exactle soft on Christian discipleship!). Dwight, er -- Judas rebuked the woman for not selling the oil and giving the money to the poor. But Jesus took her part: When he said, "The poor you have always with you," he did not mean to suggest that Christians have no duty to attend to the needs of all the world's people. But he highlighted that a certain extravagance in celebration of the presence of the Lord is justified.
The holiness of a Church's nave does not arise because God is somehow more real or present there than anywhere else. (I'll skip discussion of golf courses.) Its holiness resides in its being drawn up into the miracle of God's forming of his people into a peculiar people who worship and serve. It is holy by virtue of its use. This use, however, requires certain arrangments. And that's what I've been trying to get across.