What Mormons Can Teach Evangelicals About Church Architecture

Last month I had occasion to visit Utah. (Twice, in fact.) While driving around the state, I took note of the culture constructed by the religion of a certain presidential hopeful. As you might imagine, the number of Mormon “stake centers” there borders on the absurd. They are easy to spot, even from the Interstate, due to their distinctively modular architecture.

If you’ve never lived within the proposed boundaries of the putative state of Deseret, this may sound weird, but I can identify the age of a Mormon meetinghouse at a glance. You see, each building from the 60s looks pretty much identical to the others built at that time. Same for any other vintage. It seems about once a decade, high command decides what a new church should look like and passes the blueprint down the line.

English: A stake center of The Church of Jesus...

English: A stake center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Located in West Valley City, Utah, USA, this architectural style is typical of those built in the 1990’s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The current model looks like a New England congregational church building ordered from a SkyMall catalogue:

“The Colonial”
If God is indeed “in the details” then this incredible church building speaks to the American spirit! The extraordinary red brick and white panelling is hand painted for startling realism. Impress guests with the charm of your elegant 84″ Concord steeple which stands as a symbol of the strength and freedom of an enduring generation.*

*Any similarity to actual SkyMall listings is purely coincidental.

But seriously, while it is easy to make fun of industrial uniformity and steeples that look like they were purchased at Costco, there is a reason the Mormons do what they do. By streamlining production and design, they gain the same efficiencies of scale that a McMansion developer gains. Sure, each church isn’t its own individual snowflake, but they are functional, well-appointed, and cost-effective.

Actually, the efficiencies don’t stop at common blueprints. I unceremoniously mentioned that these buildings are called “stake centers.” Within the Mormon hierarchical structure, each stake is made up of multiple “wards” or “branches.” Each of these smaller, geographically-defined units functions as a distinct congregation for weekly programming, yet will convene in a common meeting place. This kind of efficiency makes one wish that the LDS ran the DMV.

In another corner of American religion, Evangelicals have also acquired a reputation for elevating efficiency in the construction of their places of worship. Usually this is a backhanded compliment coming in the same breath as a complaint over compromised aesthetics. Matt’s article on Evangelical church architecture last year elicited just such a comment from Christopher Benson:

Sorry to be a grump, but I don’t think the vast swath of American Evangelicals will ever prioritize or appreciate church architecture because [biting my lower lip] of a prevailing lowbrow aesthetic, populist impulse, and utilitarian calculus. Evangelicals, in my observation, usually pursue truth and goodness to the neglect of beauty, as if beauty is luxurious indulgence or gratuitous ornamentation. Once we comprehend that beauty is an essential rather than accidental attribute of God, our image-bearing will involve beauty-making.

Here is my point: Mormons actually prioritize church architecture precisely because of a certain utilitarian calculus. There is no failure to think deeply about how they build meetinghouses, rather an abundance of theological reflection balanced against economic realities. Every aspect of their cookie-cutter blueprint is strategically ordered to best serve the ordinary needs of the local congregation. Each building is intended, not to be an architectural marvel, but instead a center of community life–dances and dramas, Boy Scouts and basketball, and, of course, religious instruction and congregational administration.

Yet Mormons cannot be written off as aesthetic ascetics. They have built dozens of ornate temples where all of the official stuff like marriages and baptisms take place. These facilities are constructed at much greater expense and a much greater emphasis on beauty. Still, the design of their weekly meeting places brings a different principle to the fore.

Perhaps we have underestimated both Evangelical buildings that look like warehouses and Mormon buildings that look like they were purchased at a warehouse store. Both models are achieving some level of functional excellence in a world of scarce resources. A thing that is, actually, quite beautiful.

 

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  • James Arcadi

    Of course one need not look to the LDS for administrative efficiency. Christians have organized themselves into dioceses and parishes long before the LDS came around.

    Any walk around a country village in England shows how the church building is “a center of community life–dances and dramas, Boy Scouts and basketball, and, of course, religious instruction and congregational administration. ” …ok, maybe not Boy Scouts and basketball.

    Likewise aren’t the “ornate temples” of the LDS just the Mormon version of cathedrals?

    I’m just wondering how much of what was said here could be learned by just attending to fairly standard church practice in non-Evangelical streams of the Church?

  • Keith Miller

    James,

    I agree that Mormons aren’t doing something particularly remarkable, but do you see that Evangelicals deserve credit for their architectural philosophy as well?

    • James Arcadi

      I’m not sure I was making a point about Evangelical architectural/organizational philosophy. It seemed to me that you were commending Mormon principles for Evangelicals to emulate. My point was simply that it seems that those same principles need not be commended from a non-Christian source, but rather those principles are already embedded in certain Christian traditions. My hidden assumption is that it would be better for Evangelicals to first learn from Christian sources before learning from other religions.

      • Keith Miller

        James,

        I agree with your “hidden assumption.” My post was not not about authentically praising Mormons (I made fun of their Costco steeples, etc), but demonstrating that they are reasoned and intentional in how they build buildings.

        Accordingly, when we find Evangelical buildings that exemplify similar principles shouldn’t we find evidences of design already operational there as well? Maybe Evangelicals are not the unthinking “beauty-neglecters” that they are often portrayed to be.

  • Adam

    I applaud the Mormons for their ability to administrate and administrate. If they took over the DMV, I’d be ecstatic. I wasn’t moved by your extolling the aesthetics of their buildings though. The older aesthetic traditions in Christendom have the cathedral or what not as being itself an aesthetic experience (ideally) serving the purpose of integrating the sensory appetite for the pleasing with the spiritual appetite for the holy and sensitizing the former through the attempt to address the latter. Why think there is anything as interesting as that going on in the pragmatic calculus of Mormon architecture? Mostly their temples remind me of some of the fervent but gauche gold-bathing that catholics inflicted on their altar pieces in the baroque reaction to the reformation.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe if Evangelical churches had mandatory tithing like the Mormons do we could build pretty buildings too AND still afford to give alms to the poor as the Mormons are known for as well. The reality is that it is not financially feasible for most churches to sink the kind of money into a building to make it even remotely aesthetically appealing. If churches want to make any impact on their communities at all they are forced to sacrifice aesthetics in order to have the resources to reach the world. Even in the Old Testament the Ark of the Covenant was housed in a tent during less abundant times. I wonder what the persecuted church in China and other parts of the globe would think of a discussion like this?

    • Keith Miller

      These are some good considerations. I may post a follow-up delving into these precise areas.

  • Martin Nussbaum

    The question we should ask about church architecture is whether it bears the weight of the mystery.

    • Keith Miller

      Martin,

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      I agree that the weight of mystery is a question that bears on church architecture, but I don’t think it can be the only one. As I mentioned in another comment, I want to go into this in another post next week.

  • http://paulwilkinson.wordpress.com Paul Wilkinson

    We’ve noticed a similarity with Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting places here in our part of Canada. And while it’s not so cookie-cutter, some Salvation Army churches here from the last two decades tend toward a similar pattern.

    The alternative? Everybody else hires architectural firms and pays them big bucks to basically reinvent the wheel. That may not be good stewardship.

  • http://google Michael Aller

    The conformity of the Mormon architecture is just another example of centralized Cult control over their people. On Meet the Press , Romney proclaimed that ” We are all children of the same God”. The tragedy is how many ignorant people are willing to accept this blasphemy. Mormons worship a man god and believe that they themselves may become gods. If this is acceptable theology then the end times must really be upon us.

    • Kami Mensonides

      The statement “We are all children of the same God” is not blasphemous. The theology of the man is. We indeed are all children of the same God, every last one of us. And it might do us good to keep that in perspective when dealing with the “ignorant.”
      I really appreciate your passion though. And as a former Mormon I ask you to pray that the control be lifted off those people. The architecture of the church buildings only reflects the all encompassing blueprint of the church life. Not an easy task to overcome this when someone’s whole life is built upon it. It’s actually a great foundation that is secure and feels good. The “adversary” loves to use this structure to keep God’s children in bondage.

  • Anastasios

    I suppose the same sentiments expressed here about Mormonism would also apply to groups like Iglesia ni Cristo, La Luz Del Mundo, etc. You should check out their architecture sometime!