Archeologists rooting around in the remains of 20th-century North American civilization are likely to be stumped by this question: Why, in the world’s richest society, was the design of churches so uniformly bad?
I considered this question recently while attending a worship service in a pre-engineered metal building with a retractable basketball goal hanging over the apse (or what would have been the apse), and plastic sheeting bulging between the metal slats that held the building’s insulation near the roof.
Church architecture of this era is not universally bad, but rather uniformly. From small town congregations to big city institutions, one can watch the degradation of church design like a bad movie in super-slow-motion: from the 1920s, when churches were still pretty nice, to the postwar years, when modernism began its death march through academia, to the brutalism of the 1970s, to the self-conscious non-churchiness of the 1990s . . . church design has been on a downward spiral for nearly 80 years.
The question is, why? The blame, I suggest, belongs in equal proportion to two camps: the designers and the congregations themselves.
Church designers (again, uniformly but not universally) are guilty of following the dicta of modernism that we were all taught in school, the ABCs of architecture: Form follows function, ornament is crime, less is more, and so on. These axioms, questionable in their own right, become downright deadly when applied to the design of worship spaces, where the “function” of encountering the Divine Presence is much harder to express in a formula than the function of holding, say, 500 seats and a choir. And it is the former function which invariably gets shorted when church design is limited to functional problem-solving.
In his jeremiad on church architecture Ugly as Sin, Michael S. Rose offers that good church architecture would have three qualities: permanence, verticality, and, since Rose is Catholic, symbolic content. Though not Catholic myself, I agree with Mr. Rose on all three points. Protestant churches can have symbols, they just need to be understated so the hyper-Calvinists don’t reach for the sledgehammers.
Unfortunately, most churches built in North America since World War II (and yes, I readily admit there are exceptions) lack all three of these qualities, sometimes to an alarming degree. Some churches I pass by as I travel from town to town in the Midwestern United States could be mistaken for storage sheds, pole barns, or discount tobacco stores, to which they bear an uncanny resemblance at times.
Bad church architecture is not, however, entirely the fault of architects. The other portion of blame goes to the congregation itself. Bad church architecture is as much the result of bad theology as it is of bad design. For over a hundred years, the evangelical Church in North America has been dominated by fundamentalism, a flavour of Christianity that affirms core points of doctrine that I also affirm (like the virgin birth of Christ), but that also emphasizes personal salvation as the only worthwhile goal of the Church. While personal salvation is unquestionably of supreme importance, the tendency to overfocus on this one aspect of God’s redemptive plan has had some unfortunate consequences.
One of those consequences has been the tendency of the Church to view buildings (tellingly called “facilities”) as nothing more than shelter, a place to keep the rain out while souls are being won for Jesus. This tendency, to see buildings as having only instrumental and not intrinsic value, has led directly to some of the unfortunate sheds that have been constructed, on purpose, by churches over the past half-century or so.
You may object at this point that churches are non-profit institutions (or should be), run by underpaid staff and volunteers, and that resources are too scarce to be wasted on carved stone gargoyles. But gargoyles are not the issue. The issue is the Church’s general disregard for good design.
In North America, the Church (broadly understood) has always been underfunded, yet it did not until recent decades build so poorly. Even frontier chapels erected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by pioneer communities have a dignity and beauty that is largely lacking in the North American Church’s more recent physical manifestations. And it is hard to argue that our communities are actually poorer than they were seventy or eighty or 120 years ago.
This argument from scarcity is also a poor reflection on God, who showers us with uncountable abundance if only we have the eyes to see it and the wisdom to steward it. People who claim that the Church lacks the resources to build well are betraying their lack of faith in the Resource from which all resources ultimately flow.
So what ought church architecture to be? Well, Mr. Rose’s three qualities (permanence, verticality, and symbolism) are a good place to start. But church architecture should be as diverse, I submit, as the body of Christ. There is no one right answer to that question, even in a relatively homogeneous culture. But we can agree, I hope, that church architecture should be expressive of the best of the visual arts, the best craft that can be brought to bear, and the most beauty that a community can see fit to sustain. To do this, we need to recognize that a church building may cost more, perhaps a lot more, than a school or an office building on a per square foot basis. That will be difficult for some to swallow, but those who see beauty as an unjustified expense tend to have an impoverished view not only of church design, but of what it means to be human, and ultimately, of God.