Church Architecture: Not Cheap

The iMonk writes about the new building being built by Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nashville, considering that the resources so spent are mind-boggling but praising God for the visible, tangible architectural presence (see Zach Nielsen’s short comments too).

The goal of church architecture – of most architecture, really – is not prettiness. I’m not even talking about ultimate goals: I’m talking about what you’re trying to help people to sense inside a church building. Yes, a church building ought not to be ugly or just impatiently made if this can be helped, just as our language and our music ought not to be ugly or impatiently made without care for beauty, but we’re talking design, not just decoration.

Sure, use beautiful materials, but think about the importance of structure. Say you’re trying to show that the human is naked before the eyes of the Lord to whom all must give account: see the dome – some of you know I’m a fan of Christos Pantokrator images on domes, especially encircled with seraphim – before you see the volutes on the column capitals. Sometimes, of course, you will indeed think about that fresco of Christ, of ‘the entire person, God and human being, descend[ing ]to Hell after his burial, conquer[ing] the devil, destroy[ing] the power of Hell and [taking] from the devil all his power’ (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Art. IX).

In all of this, if you haven’t thought of the word prettiness at all, the person who walks in is far less likely, I think, to say to himself that this perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. If your architecture’s succeeded, he will sooner walk in amid the deeply reverent, heavenly music and be struck with the majesty of the Lord of Hosts, not with man’s attempts to dress him up in something like an incredibly lacy surplice – no offence meant to Romanists, honest. At best, your church building will confront the viewer with himself before the God who is both mighty and gracious to save.

Some of the questions about the possibility of idolatry seem to parallel those applied to music for liturgical use. The dignity and simple beauty of Gregorian chant should strike us, but so should the glory of William Byrd’s richly textured polyphony. We have to guard against idols of efficiency and idols of the acclaim of man. Use what Bach wrote for God if you can, but in the spirit in which he wrote it, not to generate praise but to stir us to receive and understand God’s grace in Scripture and the sacraments: the architecture and the music should melt into the gospel it proclaims.

Maybe some of this won’t come cheap (although neither do frequent upgrades to sound equipment to stay hip and all that), but I hope that a well-made meetinghouse for worship will destroy the false chasm between beauty for the eyes and beauty for the heart, that such a building in which to worship will help bring believers to willingly share their gifts with those who have less because they have been given much. If a church building made to last can express the more lasting permanence of our ancient but renewing faith, and give place to the people’s worship for many years to come, glory to God.

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