If you drive through the core of any large city in Europe, you will see church buildings. They are big, beautiful, and downtown. But most of them either house aging, dwindling congregants, or have been sold to people who appreciate architecture and location, and see the potential for a great restaurant, museum, mosque, or temple.
What happened? A hundred or so years ago, these buildings were packed every Sunday, morning and evening, and open for full prayer meetings Wednesday nights. Congregations had the people to fill the pews, the money to maintain the buildings, and the theology that spawned such life. So when did people start constructing ugly churches?
Over the past century, the theological underpinnings in many churches have eroded. Anglicans sidle closer to Roman Catholicism; Methodists lean more towards personal experience and interests, Baptists flee anything that looks remotely like dogmatism, and Presbyterians try hard to blend in with the world. This theological devolution is manifested partly, and very overtly, in the churches’ architecture.
Churches built in the past visually demonstrated beliefs which Christians held. Visible marks of creed and confession can identify a particular denominational affiliation; since the Protestant Reformation, Protestant churches have developed architectural styles that declare that they are not only Christian, but also Anglican, Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian. According to Donald Bruggink and Carl Droppers, “A church is a place where God’s people gather together to worship him, and how they worship as well as what they believe, is either reinforced or undermined by the architecture. Church architecture is therefore first and foremost a matter of theology rather than a matter of style.” [Christ and Architecture, 1965]
One of the (many) depressing side effects of the church growth movement has been the construction of ugly church buildings all across America. In an attempt to make going to church less intimidating for unbelievers, building committees have tried to create something that, with a few refittings, could be a fast-food restaurant, box store, or movie theater. But in creating something supposedly more approachable for the unchurched, North American churches are not only robbing church goers of doctrinal clarity in worship, but they are also exposing their unbiblically rearranged priorities.
This trend has done more than give future architects something to laugh at. It has told everyone who sees the buildings that we don’t take our church any more seriously than we take our shopping. The worshippers have tried to sever the connection between ecclesiastical architecture and theology. They can’t, of course, which is why ugly churches are so often a byproduct of ugly theology.
Believers can’t throw in the aesthetic towel and claim frugality, ignorance, or indifference when examining their buildings. We need to think theologically about every possible aspect of the building, and especially of the sanctuary. Because just like it’s not natural to have a good date with your husband in a concrete room with exposed wires, choosing to worship the God of beauty in a windowless shoebox is a theological disconnect, unless you’re in a developing country, jail, or a Chinese house church. Even if you are a church plant with no money in a store-front, your theology will effect the way you arrange what you have. Flying buttresses and wood paneling are not required. Careful, deliberate thought and use of what you have is.
In the Victorian period, when an interest in revived styles of architecture thrived and denominational distinctions were theologically clear, congregations built churches that were beautiful and that suited the form of worship prescribed by denominational history, creeds and confessions. By examining the ecclesiastical buildings constructed during this era, we can learn not only about Victorian architecture, but also Victorian Christianity in a Protestant setting. Because sanctuaries are reflections of metaphysical ideas, a renovated sanctuary indicates that the congregation’s theology changed before it began reordering its place of worship. An altered sanctuary is an outworking of altered theology. Looking at originally buildings of faithful, evangelical congregations and the principles behind the construction can help congregations today maintain theological conviction and continuity with historic, Reformed Christianity through their sanctuaries in a postmodern world.
The hollow churches standing in the centers of so many cities remain as a warning to the faithful people of God: doctrine matters. Guard it. Your theology will direct your church; Who you worship will dictate how you worship, and in what sort of setting. There is a reason churches were built the way they were – the builders had biblical theology, centered on the Person and Work of Christ. The sanctuaries were designed to facilitate congregational worship of a holy God. When individuals, pastors, and congregations depart from biblical teaching about the Triune God and biblical worship of the Triune God, their buildings must accommodate those departures. Theology matters. And your sanctuary will show it, just as all the empty church buildings in Europe, Canada, and other post-Christian countries do.
Church history has given us an array of building styles flowing from biblically defensible theologies. The next few Friday posts will look at ecclesiastical architecture as related to theological convictions in the Calvinist tradition, especially the preaching of the Word, congregational singing, and administration of the sacraments. The church is not the building – it is the people. And the people will express their theology partly by putting their stamp on the place in which they worship – visible to everyone.