The language of churches

Keith Miller brings an interesting take on church architecture. Who needs, since the congregation that builds it defects?

Permanent edifices like church buildings belong to particular institutions which are not guaranteed (or even very likely) to maintain their fidelity to the pure Gospel. Therefore, since tomorrow’s true Christians may be forced to abandon the First Church of Centerburg for less Spirit-quenching climes, buildings whose usefulness is measured in decades rather than centuries are a better bet.

Let’s just say that this raises a point, but one that perhaps misses a few truths.

First, there is the problem of history. Evangelical churches too often have a  dissonance between their claim of historic orthodoxy and the use of space that seems altogether modern. The present tense of the reuseable and repurposed can be expressive of the moment and its convictions, but we are also people who travel through time. The spaces we inhabit pick up the imprint of memory. The humblest gym becomes sacred because of our worship and lives. Our buildings make a claim about our relation to the past and the stories we care.

Second, this evangelical worship space of Miller’s forgets the link between functionality and theology. Our spaces where we gather express a sort of theology as to what we consider proper to worship. The shape of the room, where and how we enter, the rhythm of spaces as we enter, the arrangement of the chairs ( In a circle or front to back?), the way we honor preaching in this space (pulpit, screens?), all these and more express our operating theology. We do not need to speak of aesthetics, simply the place and shape of things tells the story.

Here the primary critique of evangelical building comes to mind: it too often is simply indifferent to this space, any will do. But it doesn’t need to be that way.

When we build worship spaces that are theologically flat, we do speak of a radical incarnation. God is present. Here. Faith is alive, and its available to all. The very radicalism of this vision also carries a temptation. The gathering space looks like other spaces we are familiar with in the broader society. In particular, there’s a danger in the shaping  of the space as performance area where comfortable members sit around a stage (like this). If the older architecture hearkened to a lecture hall, the worship stage speaks of participant as consumer. This becomes a space reinforces a notion of the Christian as passive, perhaps solitary or even subjective — in short, spaces primed for moral therapeutic deism where no objective claim is made by the space.

The counter to that implicit deism is not to put up traditional structures, but to recognize that the building itself plays a larger role: for the Evangelical the spaces for social gatherings (lobby, halls) are also important. It’s not the worship space that matters but the life that is nurtured throughout the building. This vision necessarily goes against the edifice approach encouraged by more structured worship services (see any number of pre-War mainline churches to get the feel).

Finally, the question of power remains with the Evangelical church. Architecture and landscape — the suburban vocabulary of Edge City power are both available and used by Evangelical churches.

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