Does architecture have anything to do with worship?

In a recent blog post at The Christian Pundit, borrowed in a further post at the Aquila Report, Rebecca Van Doodewaard makes an argument about the integral connection between church architecture and theology:

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.

Now I have no desire to defend the church growth movement, and I share Van Doodewaard’s concern about the decline in doctrinal clarity about worship. I also agree that where we worship says a lot about what we think we are doing in our worship.

But it is my agreement with her premises that leads me to disagree with some of the claims Van Doodewaard makes. Is it really the case that worshiping, for example, in a strip mall tells people that “we don’t take our church any more seriously than we take our shopping”? Why is choosing to worship God in a “windowless shoebox … a theological disconnect, unless you’re in a developing country,  jail, or a Chinese house church”? To be sure, we should think about the context for our worship and arrange it in a way most conducive to what we are doing. But I would suggest that this is a pragmatic exercise, rather than a theological one.  Of course, the practice of wisdom is informed and shaped by our theology, but to highlight architecture as a theological issue distinct in character from whether or not we worship at 9:30 or 11:00 on a Sunday morning is to confuse the theology of worship with mere circumstance.

There was a time when the architecture of worship did matter theologically. That was the time of the Mosaic Covenant. But when Jesus told the Samaritan woman that in the future God simply sought worshipers who worship him in spirit and in truth, Christians came to abandon the temple worship, choosing instead to worship in homes, forest clearings, or wherever else seemed convenient. The church again placed great stress on the theological connection between architecture and worship in the medieval period. Along with architecture clerical vestments, organs, images, and much more was determined to have theological significance. But all of this – done in the name of creating an atmosphere conducive of worship and teaching the illiterate – came upon the backs of the poor, and simply served to distract the church from the real stuff of worship: the preaching of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and sharing with the poor.

Today so many churches are consumed with debates about worship, but those debates are not usually about the matters with which the New Testament is concerned. People argue about music, architecture, and what to wear. Churches devote massive proportions of their budgets to building projects, instruments, and sound systems. Yet it is hard to find churches with good preaching and attention to the sacraments. It is hard to find churches that focus on praying and singing the Word of Christ. It is hard to find churches that devote three quarters of their budget to caring for the poor (including the clergy), as Calvin thought was appropriate.

Putting a lot of stock in where you worship, and in its architecture, does say something about your worship. What that says may well be, as it was in so many of those European churches Van Doodewaard mentions, that you fail to grasp what really matters. If worshiping in a windowless box is the most helpful way to communicate to your community that what really matters is the gathering of God’s people around the Word and sacraments, I’d say that’s the right connection to draw between architecture and theology.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on April 24, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Does architecture have anything to do with worship?.

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