Last month, I began to build the case that Evangelicals possess an aesthetic that is reasoned, deliberative, and theologically informed. Contra the critics who charge that beauty is neglected in Evangelical circles, I find the comeliness in multipurpose worship centers equipped with retractable basketball stanchions. No, really.
To support this contention, I offered the parallel of Mormon architecture. Their institutional commitment to beauty—evidenced by their extravagant cathedral-like temples—has not dissuaded them from building cookie-cutter stake centers for the ordinary use of local congregations. They choose that fresh-from-Costco look deliberately because it serves the proper ends of week-in, week-out congregational life. Evangelicals, I maintain, have been equally reasoned in their design of church buildings and, therefore, should not be dismissed as aesthetic philistines.
But, the interlocutor protests, if Mormons have temples and Roman Catholics have cathedrals, what appropriately lavish oblation to beauty is found amidst the Evangelicals? When does extravagant, non-utilitarian artistic expression come to the fore and result in the construction of a truly marvelous facility?
Well, not precisely never, but basically never. And this, too, is theologically informed.
The Institutional Church is Corruptible
Look around in your town. If it is anything like mine, most of the “beautiful” church buildings are inhabited by congregations who deny the resurrection, the virgin birth, or the deity of Christ. Yet the name-brands on those institutions—men like Martin Luther or John Wesley—were certainly orthodox, Spirit-filled men of God. Indeed, if you go back to when those local congregations were founded, I would bet many of them were constructed by God-fearing folk and the heresy and heart-hardening seeped in subsequent generations.
Evangelicals generalize from this experience a key tenet of Evangelical ecclesiology: the corruptibility of the institutional church. Martyn Lloyd-Jones summarizes this insight in his handy little volume What is an Evangelical?:
[T]here is nothing static in the life of the church. There is always a process of change and of development, and unfortunately, as is true of nature, the process is generally one of degeneration. This, of course, is one of the main results of sin and of the fall. (p. 9)
Lloyd-Jones proceeds to recount how the history of Protestantism shows that seemingly every denomination departs from its initial Spirit-filled vitality. “It is no use,” he continues, “assuming that because a thing has started correctly it is going to continue to be correct.”
Accordingly, when an Evangelical builds a church he does not assume that the inheritors of that structure will be faithful servants of our Lord and Savior. Lloyd-Jones again:
[The Evangelical] knows that he can only understand the true history of the living church in terms of discontinuity, the breaks that have taken place before the Reformation, and particularly at the Reformation, and since the Reformation. (p.53)
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.
Beautiful Buildings as Expressions of Power
Roman Catholics and Mormons have no such trans-generational modesty. They believe themselves to be the very institution Christ founded (or refounded), after all. Beautiful, expensive, permanent buildings confer prestige upon the institution, and in that way they are a manifestation of cultural prominence and power.
I am not really breaking new ground here. One need not be a crack historian to know that medieval cathedrals were not constructed purely out of a desire to reflect God’s beauty. Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth gets at the way in which cathedrals were thirteenth-century political and economic power plays.
Any fair comparison of Notre Dame de Paris to an Evangelical church plant meeting in a storefront must recognize that magnificent architectural beauty is never separable from massive institutional power. And this locus of power is inflexibly rooted in a specific earthly institution overseen by fallible men. So while flying buttresses are indisputably more attractive than steel beams, Evangelicals avoid building enduring shrines which may be subverted by those having a form of godliness but denying its power.