Whether your church meets under an Acacia tree in the Great Rift Valley, in a coffee shop in a South African coastal village, or the York Minster Cathedral, your church architecture is imbued with theology. Understandably, many churches meet temporarily in school halls, movie theatres, and so on, until they acquire their own building. While this is very acceptable, I want to discuss the kind of church architecture we design and the theologies they promote.
Believe it or not, a tree if a church meets under it creates form and space and thus in this instance is considered architecture. In this case, it promotes ‘grassroots’ theology and discipleship. You might imagine Jesus leaning against a tree in ancient Israel teaching his disciples. A coffee shop is informal and thus demonstrates a theology of common fellowship and hospitality, and the focus is usually on the immanence of Christ. It’s primarily a horizontal theology rather than a vertical one where one might feel a sense of the supreme transcendent majesty of God in the architecture and liturgy, you would however get that at the York Minster. There are countless other types of church architecture, each with its theological emphases. Of course, I am speaking in generalization here, but you get the point. I remember studying Architecture History and Appreciation in first-year Architecture. When it came to modernist architecture, one of the South African examples was the old Dutch Reformed style which, we were told, was designed with apartheid ideologies in mind employing certain modernist architectural motifs. Church buildings tell you something about the theology and ideology of our churches.
As with most other buildings, form follows function. A house looks like a house, not a bank. A school looks like a school, not an airport, and so on. And so, a church building ought to look like a church. Yes, of course, a church is made up of its people, it’s not the building itself, but still, the building tells you something about its congregation and their theology. I have no problem with the re-use of other building typologies for churches when there are economic or other considerations for doing so. However, I propose that designing church buildings in the typology of convention centres, shopping malls, or business parks is a deviation from authentic church and Christianity. Its either architecturally dishonest, or such architectural typologies are used to mimic an ideology. These church buildings, I argue, are moulded by consumerism and capitalism. These are generally not considered Christian virtue and theology. I have no doubt that many of these buildings are brilliantly designed fitted with state-of-the-art equipment. But was this what Jesus had in mind when he founded the Church?
Even if it is argued that these ‘shopping mall churches’ or whatever else are relevant, providing an evangelistic tool to reach outsiders, one need only listen to the sermons and walk into their bookshops to see that their architecture is in fact a tactile expression of their theology. Anyway, Scripture calls us to be attractive, not relevant. I can’t imagine Jesus, the Apostles, the Church fathers, or even the great Reformers seeking to create a relevant church. This in my view is a post-modern ideal.
I am not suggesting that churches begin designing Gothic cathedrals again, it’s simply impractical and uneconomical. However, we do need to be intentional about church design as a proclamation of who God is. It reminds me of something Paul Washer once said, “Don’t tell people that God has a wonderful plan for their life; tell them who God is”. Let that be true of our architecture too. Further, think about beauty and aesthetics—sadly this has been missing in evangelical Christianity.
Church architecture matters. Take a moment and reflect on what the exterior and interior of your church architecture communicate about the theology of your church. Do they align? If not, why not? If you were to give your church building theological expression, what might it look like? If you are considering designing a new church building, hire an architect who has experience in designing churches and exploring ideas that may reflect your theological convictions. Liturgical and contemporary churches will have their own styles, but even contemporary church buildings can be Biblical and God-honouring. Let’s aim for exquisite world-class church architecture that is deeply theological, rather than commercial.
Short Bio: Dr. Robert Falconer ([email protected]) is the Masters and Doctoral Research Coordinator overseeing all aspects of student research at the M.Th. and Ph.D. level.