Monday, July 11, 2005

Should there be church buildings?

I participate in a listserv that deals with liturgical issues. Recently, a participant raised some questions about church buildings that excited me. But I have decided to rehearse my response here, rather than to offer a reply that will be too long for anyone to want to read.

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.


Anonymous said...

As a sacristan who, this past Sunday, sat in our chancel, so hot and beastly humid that I sweat so much in my polyester alb I had salt stinging my eyes and couldn't wipe it away fast enough--and as someone with a heartier constitution who has three times had to carry away a fainting acolyte because she could not stay conscious in the heat--I vote for the extravagance of air conditioning. Lavish it upon me, baby! Gimme that perfumed oil!

Camassia said...

Yes, well, the deeper problem with that is that Lutherans are wearing ceremonial outfits developed in northern Europe in a decidedly non-northern-European climate. My former Lutheran pastor would sympathize -- he had a surplice but never wore it, because it was too danged hot.

My congregation rents its building from the local Church of the Brethren. In fact, the Brethren congregation is much smaller than we are -- so small I suspect that if it weren't for their income off the church (from us and the Montessori school), they would no longer exist. I don't know about Middle America where the property values are lower, but that's a common arrangement around here. Do you think it's important for a congregation to have its *own* building?

Also, what do you think of house churches? Are they just places to put a congregation until it can get a building, or is there some value in doing it the way the first Christians did?

Eric Lee said...

The congregation to which I belong, like Camassia, uses a building that has multiple uses during the week. The building formally belongs to "Church of the Nazarene in Mid-City", but we have many different congregations that use it throughout the week, sometimes simultaneously, and sometimes alternatingly(?). We have 4 or 5 different language congregations (English, Spanish, French, Cambodian, and we used to have a Samoan congregation too, I think) that use the facilities, and there's also a "Health and Wellness Center" there, staffed by real nurses to do things like provide free blood pressure tests and stuff, as well as hosts a center for the San Diego Homeless Coalition.

Part of this is our attempt to be a witness to the many different languages in appreciating the gift of difference, but also because we pretty much need to do so in our witness to be sustainable in a city that has one of the highest housing costs in the country.

I would agree that there should be church buildings, because I think we need particular places for ourselves. Of course we shouldn't get extravagant with them. I think one positive about a denominational structure is that it might allow a starting congregation to actually secure an existing building for a church if they needed it. I'm pretty ignorant of how most denominational structures work, though, so I could be talking out of my-- er, blowing hot air.

The above pertaining to my local congregation is not to boast, but to share ideas in how we've needed to be creative in order to sustain ourselves and stuff.

Chip Frontz said...

I don't think there is any particular value in doing it just like the early Christians did - in a house. But I do think that a house can bear the holy as well as a cathedral. And furthermore, if it is not necessary, there is no reason for a congregation to move out of a house, unless of course the congregation gets too big, which is why most congregations build.

What cannot bear the holy is a place that is solely functional. The old saying is "form follows function," but that's not necessarily true. Function does follow form - look at the way people behave in certain places. When we started to build institutional buildings with no "personality" to them, abstractified our stained glass, and weirded the shapes of steeples, we lost a lot of identification not only with people, but with God, who stooped to our concrete cognition.

A house can be a great worship space. So can a cathedral. So can a little country church. An office building or a factory floor? Not so much. (Although never underestimate the Spirit.)

Dwight P. said...

Keep this going!This is a good conversation. It dawns on me -- I am not a quick thinker -- that what I said in the post and say in this comment comes out of a very specific liturgical-ecclesiological context. I am a catholic evangelical Lutheran: I operate from a perspective that understands the life of Faith to require liturgical gatherings of a rather specific kind. While much of what I say translates across "traditions," I hope and trust, I am unable to speak with any authority about what some would call "non-liturgical" traditions (of which, in my eyes, there are none).

My wife spent some of her growing-up time in a house church with a few other families. She has mixed emotions about it. And I think I do not unfairly extrapolate from what she says (though this is not what she says) to offer a couple of general comments.

There is, indeed, potential for a house-church community to be what I think the Church needs to be -- mutually supportive (which means lifting up as well as criticizing and disciplining), active in the world through so-called "secular" vocations, frugal with resources (at least as regards their own comfort).

BUT there is the danger of the group's becoming insular. First, as with our homes, there is a tendency to think of them as private, rather than public. Congregations may indeed put up all kinds of physical and emotional barriers to "outsiders," but a church building is undeniably public -- as, I think, it needs to be. I think we are past the days (though they could come again) when Christians need to be rather secretive about what we do. (That was, I think, at least part of the rationale for meeting in homes in the beginning.)

Housing a congregation in a church building also tends to get a group to call a pastor. With all the moaning I do about Lutheran (and other) pastors, I believe that the ordained ministry is a mark of the true Church, and that one can't have the Church without some semblence of an ordered clergy. The downside of that perspective is all too apparent. The advantage, to speak functionally, is that it allows The Word to come from outside ourselves. It reduces the risk that we are a common-interest group who get together with like-minded people to do things that we all like to do.

In other words, I think a church building, by virtue of is objectivity and group ownership allows for less inbreeding. It's like a lectionary in that it provides a pressure to look at the whole picture, not just the particular aspects of the picture we like or enjoy -- to hear more of the Word of God than just a few select passages that we memorized when we were young. (I am, of course, speaking here of authority and hierarchy.)

It's funny you mention vestments, Camassia, because right after we began talking about church buildings, someone raised the issue of why we vest clergy and servers at all. I think it is a related issue.

On multi-use buildings, I have lots to say, but I won't say much. I have often joked that I don't know why more Lutherans don't share worship space with Seventh Day Adventists. Except for Vigil, we Lutherans don't use the worship space much on Saturdays. Lutherans and Jews could share a space.

Of course, the issue is the point I raise about "icons" (which term I use generically, not with specific reference to Eastern Orthodox liturgical resources). I think a space should be decorated to inculcate the faith through the eyes. (That's also a reason for vestments.) If traditions can share the iconography, there is absolutely no reason that a worship space can't be used by a multitude of groups. It's even better if it's multi-cultural, because the symbology becomes catholic.

All that applies to the worship space (which is all I argue that Christians need). Multi-use wings and annexes are the way to go if the congregation has the resources to expand beyond a nave.

One note on multi-use, though. At Mount Olive, we had an unfortunate experience when we opened our "education wing" to use by various secular organizations (WIC, health service, etc.). Because many of the groups using our property were government-related, some of our people (and I think, too, a former pastor) argued that we had to take all the crosses out of the Sunday School rooms, lest we offend those who showed up to use the space. I think that sets up a very bad precedent. (And that line of thinking could lead us to discuss the Ten Commandments in courthouses!)

Finally, I fully agree that any space can be holy when it is applied to holy use. Most Christians would benefit from an extended word study of "holy." (Do I have a volunteer?)

Camassia said...

I was not questioning the use of vestments altogether (though the Mennonites, of course, don't use them), but I do wonder if there couldn't be a bit of adaptation for different climates. When I visited the local Orthodox mission I was told that the reason the priest looked like he was wearing a lampshade was that the OCA comes from Russia, and the Russians developed the style to keep them warm in the subarctic winters. I figure if a church as ultra-traditional as the OCA can make adjustments to prevent hypothermia, other churches might make adjustments to prevent people from fainting from the heat. But of course, that's a matter for Lutherans to work out...

Getting back to church buildings, in my experience the denominations that are really incompatible for the same buildings are the high churches and the contemporary low churches, roughly speaking. The pentecostal church I used to attend, for instance, looked like a miniature amphiteater rather than a church, and had no altar or iconography that I remember. On the other side, I've seen people hold contemporary services with rock music in old church buildings, and the acoustics of old churches are terrible for that kind of music because they were designed for voices (and organs). In our case it works out quite well, because the Brethren and the Mennonites have a joint hymnal, so the music is almost identical.

Eric Lee said...

Oh, I forgot to mention that our building's Health and Wellness Center are staffed by nurses from Point Loma Nazarene University, the same University that is directly connected to our church in a bunch of ways (many of the English-speaking congregation attended there, the senior pastor is also a fulltime professor there, we get funding from the Nazarenes, etc.).

So, in a sense, our health center is the same "people" if that makes any sense.

You're absolutely right, though -- you have to be really careful with whom you share the space.

I agree that the space should be "public" as well. I think the C/church is to be visible, if possible. Can't hide it under a bushel, no! :)

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