Naked Church Buildings
We are getting ready to add a few flourishes to our place of worship at Calvary Church this summer. A team of talented artists from our congregation have given their time as an act of worship to design something that I would describe as “simply beautiful.” It is "simple" because we have a very small budget to work with and we want to be wise managers of the resources God has given us. (Anyway, simple is in!) It is also "beautiful" because we believe that beauty glorifies God. Soon the pasty white walls will be covered with richer colors. The cream carpet will be torn from the stage and replaced with something more fitting. Attention will be given to lighting, the stage, and even the cross (the team is retaining some of the ancient elements to give it an ancient-modern feel). It's going to be a great space for enjoying God together on Sundays.
During 20 plus years of pastoral ministry and dozens of projects large and small I’ve heard people say some really dumb things when it comes to beautifying the place of worship. Common objections I’ve heard include: “Shouldn’t we be giving this money to missions?” I always wonder if this these people ever ask the same question before they make improvements to their own home (see Haggai 1). Or “Shouldn’t we be giving this money to the poor?” Jesus addressed this question a long time ago (see Mark 26:6-13) and rebuked those who asked it. In short, we should give to the poor while also giving our resources as “beautiful” offerings to God. Both are important and both proclaim the gospel (note especially Mathew 26:13). I believe that God wants and expects us to actually do more than one thing at a time. (Why is there so much "either/or" thinking among Christians?) Or there’s the “Why should we be worried with how things look?” The short answer: “God likes beauty. He created it.” I could cite a dozen more silly objections…
Most of my life I have gone to church in very simple places of worship. No art. No stained glass windows. No tapestries. No elaborate architecture. My fundamentalist pastors taught me that such things were unnecessary, unbiblical, wasteful, or worse—Catholic (by the way--isn’t the cross Catholic?)! Our church buildings were naked. But something always gave me pause. Even THEY (my fundamentalist mentors) seemed to be ok with some décor in the house of God. Nice pews (why not just sit on the floor?), steeples and brass communion dishes (are steeples really practical? Do we really need brass communion trays?) as well as modern amenities like carpet, indoor plumbing, air-conditioning (why not do without and give the money to the poor?). Where did they draw the line? How did they work this out theologically? They didn’t. I had to grapple with it later.
Over the years I’ve thought more about this topic—sometimes sitting with open Bible in some of the worlds’ most beautiful Cathedrals in Europe. I love art (as many of you know) and I love studying the meaning(s) found in the church architecture. (Medieval places of worship have been referred to as “theology put into stone.”) I have also enjoyed reading some on a theology/history of church architecture for fun. (One of my favorites is Richard Taylor's little book How to Read a Church. A great companion when traipsing about in Europe.) Here are a few thoughts for those who are still interested in what I’m saying (and I’m not offended if you aren’t). We might call it a short “theology of church architecture” or a “defense of beauty.”
Beauty is found all over the pages of Scripture. God created a beautiful world and called it good (Genesis 1). The Hebrew word “good” refers to both aesthetic goodness as well as moral goodness. He gave instructions to Moses for his people to build a beautiful place of worship while they lived like homeless nomads in the desert. (I sometimes wonder if it ever ticked them off that God had such a nice house while they lived in tents.) Of course the Temple was beautiful—as was the Second Temple (though it paled in comparison). These structures were festooned with flourishes that were completely impractical. They were for beauty! In short, God is no "philistine" (a despiser of art). In fact, he was upset with his people for living in such nice homes while his house was neglected (See Haggai and Malachi). For 2,000 years the church has created beautiful places of worship--there was a short hiatus during periods of persecution but during the pre-Constantinian period there is ample evidence of beauty and art being used in places of worship. God is also preparing a beautiful place for us to live forever (see Revelation 21) described as a beautifully-adorned bride in waiting. I could go on…
Some would reject to my use of the Old Testament for theological guidance. (Just a short rant here.) But this is unbiblical (pardon the pun). Many evangelicals view the Old Testament (OT) as the “editor’s preface” (all except for their favorite passages--like the creation narrative!) and the New Testament as the “real Bible.” (Scofield’s notes by contrast were often seen as more inspired!) They give “lip service” to the biblical teaching that all of God’s word is inspired and “useful,” but they seldom read all of it or preach all of it, and even less seldom do they attempt to apply all of it to life. (When 2 Timothy 3:16-17 was written to the church, the reference was to the OT.) This erroneous view of Scripture enables them to relegate the elaborate detail given to the places of worship (Tabernacle, Temple, Second Temple) as passé. These passages are even considered a boring nuisance. First century Christians who continued to worship in the Temple and met in homes on Sunday evening would have been horrified by such a careless disregard for the OT. I am not arguing, of course, that we need to construct places of worship in twenty-first century Iowa using the specifications God gave to Moses for Israel in the fifteenth-century B.C. (Early Ethiopian Christianity actually did this—complete with replicas of the Ark of the Covenant.) What I am saying is that there are “principles” in the OT that can help us.
The places of worship in the Old Testament were constructed for beauty and service with consideration given to their cultural context. They were not “plain” but neither were they museums. They also took into consideration the use of native materials and the design of structures found in surrounding cultures. The Tabernacle and Temple used by Israel were both similar in design to structures archaeologists have uncovered throughout Mesopotamia and Egypt. I think that three principles emerge. 1. Our places of worship should be beautiful for the glory of God. 2. Our places of worship should be functional or practical so that they can be used for service. 3. Our places of worship should be appropriate or relevant to the surrounding culture.
I think this is sound pastoral counsel—and it has guided my thinking about church architecture over the years. I want the church to be beautiful (personally I would probably like a lot more beauty but there are budget constraints!) I also want our church to be functional—this is a place to pray and play, to worship and work, to fellowship and have fun. It must be practical. I also want our church to be appropriate to the local community in which God has placed us. Notre Dame (Paris) would look out of place on the corner of Evans and Roosevelt! (Though I think it is beautiful, I might even argue that it was over the top for twelfth-century France where most people lived in hovels.) On the other hand, a painted wood structure in rural Kenya, adorned with a cross, hand-sewn tapestries, and a few furnishings that might be considered luxury items for a local peasant, can also capture these elements. (Have you noticed how even in the most impoverished places in the world, some care is bestowed on the place of worship?) While this is not the final word on a theology of architecture, it has guided me as a pastor over the years as I think about how to use God’s resources. Ultimately it is ALL about GOD. I believe that the care we show for our places of worship says something to the world about our devotion to worship Him as well as our dedication to serve our community.