In the last few decades, American churches have gotten a new look—but don’t call it a facelift. Instead, think of it more as a toning-down, as church exteriors have ridden themselves of their steeples and other religious symbols, while their interiors can look more at home as a warehouse-turned-music-venue than a sacred space. American evangelical churches are increasingly taking on a more bare-bones and utilitarian look, often in order to save resources and better attract the unchurched. But is this bare-bones look really what churches should be aiming for? The history of church architecture, research, and our faith suggest otherwise, as beautiful sacred spaces provide powerful opportunities for witness and worship.
The History Of Church Architecture
The history of church architecture doesn’t quite align with Christian history, as churches got their start in homes, thanks to it being largely illegal or unpopular for much of its first few centuries. But once Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the state religion in 381, church architecture took off. Early churches took inspiration from Jewish and Roman architecture, though not their temples—neither Roman nor Jewish temples contained space for a gathering of people to worship, instead allowing only one or two people at a time to petition or offer up sacrifices. Instead, Christian churches mimicked Roman basilicas, which were large public spaces featuring aisles and halls that could fit a crowd.
As the centuries marched on, Christianity spread and had resources to spare, and its architecture became more cutting-edge and meticulously crafted. Churches were soon showing off building techniques that existed nowhere else, like adding a dome on top of a polygonal structure.
The Gothic architecture of the early second millennia continued this trend, as clergy, patrons and builders built taller and taller churches that seemed to reach towards the heavens. Gothic churches often featured cross-shaped floor plans and used lines of windows along the top of their walls to bounce light around and create a sense of mysticism and the Divine.
But with this greater architectural complexity also came greater separation of the public from the sacraments and the word of God. Later churches of the Middle Ages were sometimes made up of two rooms—one space would be for the public to sit in and engage in private devotion, while the other space would be for the clergy and the choir to recite Mass and partake in the sacraments. Often, the two rooms were separated by a screen, severely limiting the congregation’s ability to engage with and see the worship service.
These excesses, among other things, brought along the Reformation, which fundamentally reshaped church architecture. Protestant worship spaces were marked with an absence of saints, screens and iconography, instead preferring to minimize excess ornamentation and the distance between the clergy and their people. (Meanwhile, as a reaction to this split, Baroque-era Catholic churches only increased in decadence, at least for a time.)
Church Architecture in America
As Christianity entered the New World, its churches began to follow the architectural trends of its era, soon taking on the rational and restrained Neoclassical style in the age of Enlightenment. This eventually gave way to the Gothic Revival style, which celebrated the ‘high-church’ look as the Second Great Awakening was taking over the nation and seeding small country churches.
The 20th-century brought with it Victorian churches, Craftsman churches, and even Modernist churches, each demonstrating the architectural preferences of its time. But throughout each of these movements and trends, many things remained the same about American churches—almost all featured steeples, sloped roofs, exterior ornamentation and an overall attention to beauty, even if the buildings now look dated to our 21st-century eyes. But as the midcentury came and went, church architecture underwent a massive shift—suddenly, it was no longer in vogue to look like a church anymore.
American Christianity in the mid 20th-century was marked by revivalists like Billy Graham and Oral Roberts, bringing people to Christ one soul at a time. But in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the mainstream approach to evangelism changed, as church leaders wanted people to not only be saved, but to enter church life too. Thus the church-growth movement began, which focused more on drawing people into a church and focused less on going out into the community and holding large evangelistic events. And one of the ways churches sought to attract people into them was through architecture—or rather, a lack of it.
The theory was that a church building that looked more like it belonged in a strip mall or shopping center would be more accessible to those from unchurched backgrounds and it wouldn’t carry any of the visual baggage a traditional-looking church might. This approach is called ‘architectural evangelism.’ These types of ‘seeker-friendly’ churches are a dime-a-dozen now, but they can be defined by their use of low-cost materials, their repurposing or repetition of secular spaces, like theaters, warehouses, or storefronts, their boxy shapes, and their use of few or no ecclesiological markers, such a steeple, stained glass, or a cross. (It’s also interesting to note that churches started to act more business-like throughout the 20th-century and needed office spaces for additional staff—perhaps another reason for the move towards strip-mall and office-park-esque churches.) In contrast, the traditionally-styled churches of this time took inspiration from the millennia-old history of religious architecture, often featuring a sloped roof, a steeple, ornamental exterior elements, and multiple other Christian markers.
Beauty and Witness
But though a pared-down, on-trend worship space may seem to lower the barrier of entry for the unchurched, research has suggested that it might not hold true. In a 2014 study of over 800 millennials, Barna found that those who didn’t attend church or didn’t come from Christian backgrounds actually preferred Christian architecture that contained straightforward, religious imagery and looked more traditional. Barna went on to describe churches like this as “physically directing one’s attention to the divine [and]… providing a rich context of church history as the backdrop for worship.” In short, the study participants found the traditional-looking churches to be more attractive and beautiful.
Rev. Dr. Matthew Niermann, the Associate Dean of the College of Architecture, Visual Arts and Design at California Baptist University, facilitated a similar study and found comparable results, discovering that when comparing more seeker-friendly style churches and more traditional ones, unchurched and churched individuals are “primarily motivated and drawn to perceptions of beauty,” and preferred religious architecture that’s marked with character and Christian symbolism, rather than a church that fits in with the surrounding suburban streetscape.
But traditionally-styled churches can be more than a personal witness or preference—they can also be a witness to the community too. For centuries, religious architecture featured cutting-edge techniques as a way to dedicate fine-tuned craftsmanship to God and demonstrate the riches and depths of his glory. In many communities, churches were the pinnacles of what architecture could do. Today, beautiful spaces of worship can still provide a sense of pride for the community, as well as a place for reverence and reflection. As architect Sukie Leung says, “Good architecture helps communities flourish by cultivating a healthy sense of collective identity.” A meticulously-designed church can not only impress a sense of beauty and awe upon an individual, but it can also share that feeling with its surrounding community.
Beauty and Worship
First, it’s important to remember that God does not dwell in temples made with human hands (Acts 7:48), and that Jesus is present with his people despite the shape or style of the space they worship in. And though attractiveness shouldn’t be the sole or most important focus of a church, the most important focus is not the only focus.
In trying to spend as little money on a worship space as possible or making it nondescript as to make it unassuming or inoffensive, we risk forgetting three things: one, that we worship God in physical bodies in physical spaces; two, that these physical spaces are place of spiritual formation; and three, that all beauty comes from God and is just a taste of his perfection and majesty.
American evangelicalism has long walked a tightrope between gnosticism and pragmatism about our time on earth. After all, the thinking goes, if God’s chosen will be spending eternity in heaven, does our fleeting time in this world really matter? And on this, Scripture is clear—yes! God created a physical, living and breathing world for his people and filled it with not just the bare minimum to survive, but also with richly-flavored foods, jaw-dropping landscapes, and stunning flora and fauna. And though our world has been corrupted with sin, we are assured that one day all of creation will be redeemed and made new through Christ (Romans 8:18-22). God cares about the physical world, and so we should care about the physical spaces we worship him in.
But these physical spaces of worship can also shape us. “Our faith in Christ and obedience to Christ is always embodied,” says Rev. Duke Kwon, lead pastor at Grace Meridian Hill and co-author of Reparations, “We have never worshiped our Lord in anything but physical bodies and anywhere but in a physical space. Thus, the architecture and aesthetics of our houses of worship—what we see, hear, feel, even smell—invariably shape our communion with Christ and one another week after week.”
Spaces often give us cues of how we are to act in them—a library or a museum inspire peace and quiet, while a music venue or a playground invites noise and celebration. In the same way, we should be careful that our places of worship are created to encourage space for reverence and reflection, and not only for loud praise music or electric guitars. Our churches should be designed in light of the fact that their aesthetics are a tool for spiritual formation.
But a carefully-designed church is not a frivolity or waste of money—rather, it’s an important reminder of a crucial truth: that God is the author of and ultimate standard of beauty. As the wonders of our world testify, we do not worship a God who could care less about the details of his creation. We are also his unique creation in that we are the only inhabitants of this world that can enjoy this beauty, as God shares with us this generous part of his being. A beautiful worship space delights and enchants God’s people, and allows them to understand that we worship a good God who gives us good things.
Bringing Beauty Back
Before discussing the practical ways to bring both beauty and the sacred into our worship spaces, it’s important to note that very few churches worldwide (and nationwide) have the budget to design a 21st-century Notre Dame. In fact, 7 out of 10 churches in the US have a weekly gathering size of 100 people or fewer. It’s easy to imagine what a beautifully-designed church would look like for a congregation that was flush with resources—but what about for one that’s barely scraping by? In light of that, these ideas will be first and foremost accessible to church plants, churches in economically disadvantaged areas, and churches with low attendance.
One of the best ways that beauty can be brought back into church is by remembering the sacred. Though it may seem exclusionary or stuffy, it’s important that our worship spaces remind us that we serve a Divine, all-perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful being who would be inaccessible to us had he not reached down and sought communion with his broken people—God is so much more than someone who offers us a ticket to be the best version of ourselves and a get-out-of-jail card on our deathbed.
Worship spaces can remember the sacred by adding ecclesiological elements like a cross to the altar, religious art or Stations of the Cross. Clergy can wear stoles or robes, as a way to remind the congregation of the special role God has ordained them to play in serving his people. We can also use tapestries and flags that are indicative of the church calendar and remind us of the ancient rhythms of our faith.
There are other opportunities to celebrate beauty in the church too, like using higher-quality items for regular sacraments like communion and baptism. A locally-crafted baptismal bowl or communion plate can celebrate the craftsmanship God gives us, as well as honor the community we’re a part of. Additionally, fresh flowers at the altar or a community garden near the entrance reminds us of the goodness and provision of his creation. Each of these things can create a sense of beauty within a worship space, and demonstrate an attention of detail and care to the physical world.
A beautiful church is not something that is only reserved for centuries-old mainline denominations, or congregations with resources to spare. Instead, a beautiful church can be a powerful witness to the community, connect us with the traditions of our ancient and sufficient faith, remind us of the beauty of God and his provision, and shape our spiritual formation week-in and week-out. Beauty in the church should not be an afterthought, but instead a key consideration as we design the spaces we worship our magnificent and glorious God in.