November 6, 2009

Evangelical Church Architecture in the 21st century


I have run across quite a few blog articles recently dealing with church architecture. I found that I had many the opinion but that my thoughts on the subject weren’t as focused as they should be (being that theology and architecture are both pretty important to me). So I sat down and organized them. I admit up front that a good majority of this is rant material but it provided me with a good framework in which to build my thoughts.


I can’t say for certain (but have a pretty good hunch) that building a building has always come to down how much it costs. In any case built edifices today do. In the secular architectural sphere, architects everywhere are trying to cram the most beauty (quality and sense of space) into their (seemingly) ever restricting project budget. The same fight is present within religious architecture though with slightly different nomenclature. Instead of the corporate “what is the cheapest I can build this building and still retain employees” it is “what is the cheapest I can build this building so we can give the extra to missionaries”.

The whole “if we save money on this building we can give it away” mindset is a subtractive attitude that has wreaked massive destruction on modern church architecture. As a design process it flows like this: An architect designs a church on an inflated idea of function and aesthetics. The church client then starts ripping off all the unnecessary pieces until it is within the then decided budgetary constraints. The resulting building is usually a poorly designed, poorly functioning, shambling mess.

Many churches fall too far the other way: spending far too much. This inflated cost is either the result of a far too extravagant aesthetic or superfluous functionality. (see Aesthetics and Function)

The guiding principle when it comes to the budget of a church building should be one of Stewardship:

-What are my limits financially and what is the most sound way of seeing this project through?

-Will the aesthetics and function be provided for in the best possible manner within the limits decided on above?

-Will the church be producing in a good quality building that will make a sound investment through sound and sustainable construction methods?


My response to the adage “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is that you should be able to. The design of a book cover, if it is done well, should construe the heart of the book before you even open it. While Theology is explicitly expressed through a creedal statement or sermon, it is also construed through architecture (sometimes more so). There are many different design solutions for church architecture, and they are ultimately judged on how well they impart the beliefs of the church. Particularly how the particular church perceives God, how they perceive their community around it, how they perceive their material possessions, and how they perceive their selves. The beauty in the design will be how well the building relays these perceptions and how well these perceptions line up with truth.

Christianity has this inherent tension between the sacred and the mundane, a battle often fought in the realm of architecture. Through the grace of Christ and the ever-present presence of the Spirit, we can meet anywhere at any time and offer worship to God. But we also recognize that there is a sacred hierarchy to the world and certain spaces will tap into the beauty and rhythm of the created order better than others. Worship can be better directed and the Truth of the Lord can be more clearly seen in these places. Most buildings exist somewhere between these extremes; between the cathedral and the house church, to which there are appropriate situations and solutions for both.

There are objective measures for architecture just as there is a particular solution for any given design. The church should recognize that these governing design principles are not grounded in style but rather a particular style will flow out of these principles. A good church design is not immediately judged by whether it is of the lofty Gothic vein or the open Modern vein, but by its connection with the greater song of creation surrounding it. The building should be in rhythm with its location upon this earth and set this rhythm for the culture that surrounds it.

The church has a rich architectural history on which to continue conversation with; which it should be very grateful for and always take advantage of. Not all buildings types can enjoy this privilege (I’m looking at you airports). However, the church must be careful not to dismiss current technologies and philosophies when it comes to architecture, as there has been much to learn from this past century. The church should be the forerunner of culture precisely because it can provide the history to give meaning and perspective to progress.

The guiding principle when it comes to the aesthetic of a church building should be one of Beauty:

-What building response provides the most beautiful solution given the limits of cost and function?

-How is the theology of the church displayed through the building?

-How well does the church respond to its particular place in this world?


Most of my issues with modern church architecture stem from the function of the building which in turn stems from how Evangelicals think about and do church. There needs to be strong inherent reasons behind the activities we fill a church building with in order for the program to produce strong architecture.

The Sanctuary

A place for weekly communal worship, the practice of sacraments, and for special occasions relating to the church body (ie. Marriage, funerals, etc). Functionally it should accommodate all these activities but it should not be a slave to any of them. There needs to be a conscious effort to infuse some aspect of sacredness to this space (see aesthetics). It is disturbing to see a space that was once designed to impart the beauty of the Creator being slowly turned into a music venue. Just because you worship with guitars and drums does not mean you need to shut off all natural light and ignore the past 1500 years of church architecture. On the other hand the symmetrical center aisle, though convenient for weddings and having strong historic roots, is not always the best design solution.

The Support spaces

Lobbies, restrooms, mechanical/electrical rooms, and stairs are necessary and needed. Not much to say except they cost money and shouldn’t detract from the overall design.

The rest of the Functional Church building

Offices, educational spaces, fellowship spaces, libraries, and storage rooms make up the bulk of most modern Evangelical churches. Most of these in most cases are either superfluous or irrelevant. The church should look to its community for most of these. Most churches today are in the process of replacing Sunday school with small groups (a great allocation of existing interior space that the church body owns-the individual members’ houses). The church might use existing communal spaces in the community (civic centers or parks) for large fellowship activities and rent or buy small office space. By utilizing community resources the church strengthens it bond to its community, increases its profile within the community, and monetarily supports the community’s local economy.

If the community is found to be deficient in any of these areas, then by all means the church should build them but making sure that they are offered to and accessed by the community. The church building and the church’s activities should directly respond to the needs of the immediate surrounding community.

The guiding principle when it comes to the function of a church building should be one of Purpose:

-Are the activities that are driving the design of the building inherent to strengthening the body and glorifying to God?

-Are any functions redundant with the functions of the community?

-What is the best way in which the functions of the building and the activities of the church best redeem, strengthen, and sustain the community around it?


Joshua Butcher said...

Hi Jacob,

I saw an article today that you might enjoy reading:

Jeremiah Haynes said...

Hi, A friend sent me a link to this article. I enjoyed reading through it and looking at your art work. I'm actually working on my MArch thesis right now; it's on spirituality in Christian architecture. I'm designing a chapel for Westmont College in Santa Barbara. I noticed we have the same last name, maybe we're related somewhere way back!

Nigel Walter said...

Hi Jacob

Nice blog - thank you!

I'm not sure beauty can be "crammed". Sounds too much like a commodity for comfort. To me beauty, elegance, design is often subtractive...

On the other hand I couldn't agree more about the "subtractive" attitude to money in the church. This is often the approach here in the UK - I guess not geographical then. My experience of God is of outrageous generosity. And building projects are often a way of God teaching us about sacrificial giving. Which as you suggest not excuse overfunding of vanity projects.

What flavour of church are your involved with?

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