Beauty and Power in Church Architecture

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?

Evangelical Church, Grand Valley, Ontario, Can...

Evangelical Church, Grand Valley, Ontario, Canada (1910) (Photo credit: Toronto Public Library Special Collections)

Never.

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.

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  • http://www.jrforasteros.com jr. forasteros

    I really like these observations.

    Another vein of this discussion would be that especially Catholic Christians are more connected to tradition and to the larger story of the Church than Evangelicals. I’d argue that’s reflected in their architecture.

    I’d also not put Catholics in the same camp as mainline protestants when we talk about institutions that have strayed from the “pure gospel”. The Catholic brothers and sisters I know affirm the resurrection, virgin birth and all that wholeheartedly, and this in the midst of their gorgeous architecture…

  • Christof

    Hey Keith, your argument goes something like this (if I’m not mistaken): Roman Catholics and Mormons alike build buildings that look strong, permanent, and wondrous because they believe their organizations are strong, permanent and wondrous – Evangelicals, on the other hand, believe their organizations to be constantly changing and in a state of perpetual reconstruction (er… reformation), therefore our structures tend to mirror that theological commitment. Am I reading this right?

    If so, it seems like you’re really not attacking the main thrust of the “our churches need to be more like Notre Dame” people’s argument. Here are some of the pillars of this argument that you seem to be missing.

    1. Un-powerful and un-majestic church buildings do things to our spiritual life that are bad for our understanding of God.
    2. Almost as early as Christians started meeting together they started building beautiful church buildings and talking about them – this continued (including in places like China and India) through the early 1900′s and this evidence forms an argument of sorts (see Chesterton “democracy of the dead”) for continuing in this vein.
    3. The shift away from beautiful buildings is a relatively modern movement that shows more about the influence of modernity, pragmatism, and pseudo-gnosticism than deep Christian thinking – which should make us (at least) suspicious.
    4. Beautiful church buildings serve as a polemic device (to outsiders) testifying to a harmony of word and deed inside God’s community (we say we love beauty, we say we love the city, we say we love humans in their bodies, etc.)
    5. Institutional artifacts (like church buildings and relics) are good things that intrude INTO our lives with the story of God even when we’re not looking for them. Steeples, towers, graveyards, etc. all catch US and help us stay mindful of the work God’s people are doing, have done, and will continue to do forever. The flatter (all buildings look alike) the city, the more likely it is that we will only have to think about God when we choose, so we should build things (as many as possible) to help jog our minds out of ruts of thinking and back towards God’s Kingdom work.

    But perhaps you agree with this and are merely stating that Evangelicals are doing what they do for a reason. This seems true. But the thing I believe most “beauty-warrior” Evangelicals are saying is not that other Evangelicals aren’t thinking – it’s that their thinking is flawed and short-sighted… and their theology is bad.

    At least that’s what I think.

    • Keith Miller

      Christof, thanks for the stimulating push back.

      Your “five pillars” are a good summary of the we-need-prettier-churches argument and while I do disagree with its conclusions, many of its assumptions are correct. Buildings are a public witness and modernism should not be unwittingly accepted.

      However, as I implied in my post, there are other concerns as well. After all, what kind of polemic device is it when a beautiful church building houses an apostate congregation while the storefront is filled with folks who love Jesus? “Gnostic” or not, that is the common state of affairs in the American Church. Does a majestic-but-heretical church show forth God’s character more excellently than a orthodox-but-mundane one? If not, your first pillar–congregations’ understanding of God being shaped by their environments–rings hollow.

  • Michael

    Case in point, Jonathan Edwards “beautiful” church — today — “open and inclusive”. It looks pretty beautiful in the pictures, however.

    On the second pillar, is there a scriptural basis for wanting to build beautiful buildings? If so, how does it account for the world of finite resources. When I have been a part of church building projects (protestant churches) cost has always been a concern.

    On the second pillar, how is it pseudo-gnostic to desire your local church to spend its resources on something other than a multi-millon dollar church building? Systematic support of overseas missions is a relatively modern invention too.

    Finally, most modest, modern churches can afford a costco-like steeple. Is the visual reminder of God really worth the extravagant extra cost for a slightly taller steeple?

  • http://commonplacephilosophy.com Tom Ward

    Since marriages often fall apart, I wonder if we should stop the tradition of exchanging rings made of precious metals?

  • http://commonplacephilosophy.com Tom Ward

    And the Israelites could have saved themselves a lot of useless labor in the wilderness if they weren’t tickled with the notion of creating beautiful and costly objects for worship.

  • Michael

    Rigs representing a few days wages, or month perhaps, is one thing. But the “tradition” of having rings that require an Southeby’s insurance policy, your typical eight carat diamond, may not be worth perpetuating. And even then, the 200,000 price of such “beautiful” rings pales in comparison to the cost of a truely beautiful church.

  • William Harris

    Let me suggest that the problem with Evangelical churches too often is dissonance between their claim of historic orthodoxy and the use of space that seems altogether modern. The Mormon architecture seems to be a movement in reverse, an attempt to appropriate the architectural signs of continuity for what is a very significant reinterpretation of Protestantism.

    What Protestants forget is 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 speak of a radical incarnation — this is best view of most evangelical worship spaces. God is present. There’s a danger here, with the extension of the space as performance area, where comfortable members sit around a stage (like this). The stage auditorium speaks of another sort of theology, more of the 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. Even the big boxes.

    • http://humandramathing.wordpress.com Erin Zoutendam

      Well said. We are souls in bodies, and the physical world matters.

    • Keith Miller

      So much good stuff here, William. Thank you.

      Now allow me to quibble. You said:

      Let me suggest that the problem with Evangelical churches too often is dissonance between their claim of historic orthodoxy and the use of space that seems altogether modern. The Mormon architecture seems to be a movement in reverse, an attempt to appropriate the architectural signs of continuity for what is a very significant reinterpretation of Protestantism.

      Those things aren’t synonyms; Evangelicals may lack the signs of continuity while defending historic orthodoxy, right? Both first-century churches and persecuted Chinese Christians have upheld orthodoxy in inauspicious home churches

      I love your reminder that suburban megachurches often convey power and prestige with their architecture. They are seldom credited with being beautiful, but that may be a result of my generation’s pro-urban/anti-suburban preference.

  • http://writtenandnoted.wordpress.com William Harris

    One other comment, that I added on my blog post elsewhere: this notion of the space as being replaceable or contingent, the better to recognize the work of the Spirit, runs into the human reality of memory. Even the most ordinary spaces, the most seemingly transient, nonetheless begin to establish Presence in our lives. Our repeated actions of gathering, listening, sharing, singing and praying (and sacraments if we are into that) all begin to give weight to the elements of that worship. The space slowly becomes sacred because of the faithfulness of those gathering. Even if rented, it is no longer just a room or a gym. It’s where we meet God.

    The next step can then be seen: memory wants to be fixed. The patterns and physical aspects of the space become the modes of communication, the framework where we meet God and we are not about to change those. Aesthetically the space may always be humble and plain, but for those inside it is something more.

    At the end of the day, after 10-, 15-, 20-years, we want a space that marks our history, a place that is our own. That’s how edifice happens.

    • Keith Miller

      I agree with this completely. Space isn’t disposable–worship does root us in our cathedral, chapel, or public school auditorium. But our maintenance of orthodoxy and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit may lead us to need to put asunder these bonds of memory.

      This brings to mind a story a friend told me. He knew this guy who was one of these classic traditional Church architecture aficionados/evangelists. His themes were very similar to Christof’s five pillars. He loved his local Anglican church and their building, but his congregation was one of those which left the American Episcopal church over doctrinal disagreements over ordination. They fought tooth and nail for the building, but they eventually lost the court battle and the diocese reclaimed the august structure.

      Long story short: buildings matter, just not that much.

  • http://humandramathings.wordpress.com Erin

    This is probably the clearest articulation of evangelical architectural theory that I’ve read, so I’m grateful to Mr. Miller for that.

    However, I don’t understand why this argument about whether or not churches should be beautiful is so full of false dichotomies. It is so often implied that churches can have either beautiful structures or sound doctrine, when there is real evidence to the contrary. (To be fair, most of the people advancing this dichotomy avoid pronouncing absolutes, but they certainly tend to make broad generalizations that imply as much.) Likewise, I’ve heard many a Southern Baptist say that they don’t build extravagant churches because they prefer to do real and active good with that money, as if making an offering to the Lord isn’t real and active good, as if making a space conducive to true worship isn’t real and active good. Jesus didn’t scold Mary for pouring the perfume on his feet, even though that was one of the most ephemeral, least tangible acts of worship that we can imagine.

    Furthermore, I’m confused by this philosophy that uses the following as one of its buttresses (no pun intended): “Evangelicals avoid building enduring shrines which may be subverted by those having a form of godliness but denying its power.” In other words, out fear of corruption in the future, we will not build structures that may be misused by later generations. This is only one of many reasons, as I understand it, and I am sure it is not the guiding, reigning justification. But still, why is no other act of spiritual creation subject to that doctrine? We don’t avoid writing beautiful hymns/worship songs out of fear that heretical congregations may be heard singing their powerful melodies years down the road. Serious Christian authors don’t avoid writing lasting works, tending instead towards pop theology, in case their works are ignored, misused, or misinterpreted by later generations.

    • Keith Miller

      Erin, thanks for the kind words.

      Your question–what distinguishes structures from other creative works?–is directly on point. I maintain that buildings will ever belong to specific human institution in a way that How Great Thou Art, Mere Christianity, or Pilgrim’s Progress can not. Surely, those latter good things will be misused by subsequent generations, but the faithful will still be able to possess and utilize their artistry. But with a building, its entire public meaning changes once it falls into the wrong hands. Instead of standing as a testament to the faithfulness of the men of old, it represents the faithlessness of some later generation.

      As for the false dichotomizing, I was trying to show that if forced to choose between the extremes of ugly-but-orthodox and pretty-but-heretical, we all agree that we ought to pick the former. While that fact does not mean that beauty has no value, it should encourage us to moderate our claims about beauty’s import.

      The SBC’s purported trade off between beautiful extravagance and “real and active good” sounds like a great topic for another post in this series.

  • BHunter

    Keith, I enjoy your posts, but I’ve found your series on church architecture baffling. Perhaps it’s a matter of coming at it from very different backgrounds. I’m Evangelical and Anglican. I also live in Charleston, South Carolina, the torchbearer for Evangelical Anglicanism in America. My own parish, which is ardently orthodox, evangelical, and vital, is blessed (although sometimes when the roof leaks and plaster starts peeling I almost feel I should use the sarcasm font when I write the word “blessed”) with being stewards of a church building and grounds that date to the mid-1700s.

    Worshiping in this space adds a whole different dimension to our belief in the Communion of Saints. The physical space–it’s relative immutability (and knowing the building has survived two wars, several hurricanes, and a major earthquake, we do realize how relative the word “immutability” is when applied to “a house made with hands”)–adds to our understanding of what it means to be evangelical, particularly the prominence of the massive pulpit, which reminds us constantly that Anglicanism’s pure roots are really much more evangelical than Catholic (in the denominational sense of the word).

    I am privileged to serve as a Lay Eucharistic Minister. Administering the wine to parishioners from a cup that I know divines such as the Wesleys used, and patriots and saints such as George Washington, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Robert E. Lee received wine from, is a powerful thing. It is especially powerful when I administer to it to someone whom I know shares the cup with a steady stream of forebears. In such instances I can almost envision them all lined up, row after row, smiling with hands on the next successive ancestor’s shoulder, behind the communicant.

    Yet at the same time, the seeming permanence of the building and it’s furnishings–their age and odd bits of decrepitude–serve as constant paradoxical reminders that these things too shall pass (Ubi sunt?), and that they are mere dancing shadows (The Republic, VII) of the true immutability promised to us through our redemption through Christ (“a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” 2 Cor. 5:7)). We actually have a very healthy attitude about this. We realize, all too well as of late, that we could lose all this in an instant, by the stroke of a judge’s pen even. That is something we’re perfectly at peace with if so called to do for the sake of the Gospel. Yet it would not be without grief, and it wouldn’t be without a great sense that something important and vital had been lost–a little death, really.

    Blessings, and keep up the good work.

    • Keith Miller

      BHunter,

      I am encouraged to hear of your experience in Charleston. While tenuously held, your tie to parishioners past is an exquisitely beautiful thing. As you recognize that you may be forced to forfeit this good gift, my argument applies to you only as a reminder that you ought not “lord it over” folks whose local church lacks such pedigree. Evangelicals forced to abdicate the facilities built by their faithful fore-bearers should receive our praise and approval for prioritizing the truth of the Gospel. But I pray that you and your fellow congregants would not need to suffer that death.

      • BHunter

        Dear Keith, I would be horrified to learn that I (or any of my fellow parishioners) lord it over others who don’t share the almost unique worship space we have. If nothing else, I hope it evokes humility because we realize how rare it is and how blessed we are by it. When I witness how inviting and genuinely hospitable we are to guests (many of whom are tourists who just come to “check out the space” but wind up getting a vibrant dose of the gospel in both word and liturgy), I think God has thus far delivered us from that temptation. I pray it always remains so. Your warning, I hope, goes well heeded.

        My roots are in Virginia, and my family was instrumental from the 1600s founding the Anglican Church (and later it’s American iteration–the Protestant Episcopal Church) in the Old Dominion. It grieves me to see ancient (by American standards) parishes loose their historic homes to law suits for upholding “the faith once delivered to the apostles.” We’ve just witnessed the same just down the “King’s Highway” in Savannah, where Christ Church was evicted from their historic building. We realize that we’re fixed in the cross-hairs of the revisionists in the “National” church, and that it could be just a matter of time before the trigger is pulled. I hope this keeps us honest as well as focused on what church really means. As sad as it would be to lose old brick, mortar, plaster, wood, and silver, we would not loose our church in any real sense. But we would be exiles, and it would change our worship, I’m afraid. But like all else, I cite the great Offertory Sentence: “All things come of thee, O LORD, and of thine own have we given thee.” The buildings and grounds and furnishings are God’s to do with according to his will, by his mercy.

  • Philip

    I, like Erin, and happy to see such a lucid and coherent apology for the modern church facility/pole barn. I’m still unconvinced that it’s a sound aesthetic philosophy.

    First, I’m not convinced that the argument outlined here is even a conscious principle in the building of Evangelical churches. Evangelicals may indeed be wary of corruption in their denomination, or even in their own local body, but do they really build their buildings with the express purpose of denying fuel to that corruption. My observations are limited, but I really find that unlikely. It appears to me that many congregations aren’t really thinking that far into the future when they build, and that itself might actually be a problem.

    Second, in response to the argument itself: William Harris stated above that a “theologically flat building” implies a “radical incarnation.” On the other side of that coin, such a space requires radical abstraction in worship. One of the great blessings of worshiping in a beautiful space is the aid given to my thoughts and sentiments through my senses. I see, hear, and sometimes smell beauty and a hint of glory, and thus I can imagine its divine form more precisely, more carefully. This kind of worship–often intimately and naturally connected with prescribed liturgy–remembers that man is not just spirit but also body. The standard evangelical place lacks those aids, at least in any interesting or compelling form; thus, worship leans more heavily, perhaps too heavily, on each individual’s powers of imagination and attention. The only shared thing is the word being spoken or sung, and this already is abstraction. That’s harder than it has to be (though it does seem fitting and natural in churches that rely so heavily on spontaneity).

    Yes, it is a bitter truth that lovely things are often twisted and soured by unlovely minds. It’s true that things fall apart, and sometimes–or rather, often–that means the sound doctrine of churches too. But to allow that to diminish our attempt to create a good now, and a lasting good, too, is the wrong response. A beautiful church might not be merely a monument to something good in the present, but a commitment, and one that must be passed down to one’s children, of conserving, of defending, that good into the future. That is beautiful and courageous and compelling, and not haughty but rather humbling.

  • http://www.theaterfirebook.com Meredith

    Readers of Keith’s article might be interested in “When the Church Became Theatre” by Jeanne Halgren Kilde, which looks at the architectural shift toward more theater-like church interiors in evangelical Protestant churches beginning in the mid-1800s. Refusing a beautiful exterior and traditional interior might reflect a number of things: a disconnect from the church’s aesthetic and liturgical traditions (or on the other hand, a sense that they are returning to the practices of the early church house meetings), an emphasis on the spiritual rather than the physical, practical monetary restraints, or local building codes. As Kilde states, it may also reflect the understanding that what transpires in the sanctuary is primarily performance/audience-oriented.
    http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/ReligionTheology/HistoryofChristianity/American/~~/dmlldz11c2EmY2k9OTc4MDE5NTE0MzQxNg==

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