Rethinking Sacred Space in the Age of the Megachurch

May 1, 2008

There is an old legend told about the conversion of Russia to Orthodoxy in 988. Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv wanted to unite his people in a common religion, but was not sure which to choose. So he sent messengers out to the lands of Catholicism, Islam, Judaism and Orthodox Christianity. It was the impressions the messengers had of their visit to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople that won him over to Orthodox Christianity. Speaking of the worship they saw in the Great Church they said, "We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth. It would be impossible to find on earth any splendor greater than this...Never shall we be able to forget so great a beauty." I have always been fascinated by this story. I think there is something remarkable about the fact that the very foundation and establishment of the Russian Church's "conversion story" is based on their discovery of God through architecture.

The magnificence of Hagia Sofia is of course legendary. Built on an unprecedented scale with a dome that seems to float on its pendentives like rims of light, its glory is said to have prompted the Emperor Justinian to declare, ?Solomon, I have surpassed thee.? Most certainly the wow factor of the building informed the opinion of Volodomyr's messengers, but I have always wondered if there was something more than the expression of sublime awe that prompted such avowal. While an impressive architectural feat, surely Volodymyr?s messengers would have reported that a larger dome capped Rome?s Pantheon. Or was there something more that spurred such praise of its splendor?

Walking into Hagia Sofia, the vast unobstructed interior of the church leads the eye in two directions. While traditional basilicas draw the eye toward the altar and the eastern apse, Hagia Sofia also draws the eye upward, to the dome, the vault of heaven that appears suspended on a luminous bed of radiance. It is the tension between transcendence and the sacraments that makes this space so special. Surely, thought Justinian when he compared his church to the Temple, God is present here; this is a sacred space.

For many Christians, especially conservative Protestants, this is where a red flag goes up. I was raised in an evangelical church where we called the main worship space an auditorium because ?sanctuary? seemed too close to suggesting that this space was any more special or sacred than another space. In this environment I learned to de-mysticize my faith. Since God was omnipresent, than everywhere, in theory, must be holy. In practice this equated to God living in the human heart, not in physical buildings. Later, while attending a Calvinist church, I learned that we should never make distinctions between the religious and the secular, that all of life is religion. But over the years my own experience has led me to challenge this. The calm still of walking through an empty cathedral, the smell of incense, the taste of the elements ? these things have given me an experience of the mysterium tremendum that seems connected to special places, or perhaps, places made special.

C.S. Lewis once spoke fondly of special places ? imaginary woods where faeries dance and satyrs frolic. These are fictional worlds, but they can inform our perception of the real world nonetheless. The schoolboy, he argues, who reads about enchanted woods does not despise real woods because he has read of these special places. The reading, he argued, ?makes all real woods a little enchanted.? 1

I wonder if we have lost something in our Protestant tradition by doing away with the idea of special places, places where art and architecture join together to simulate God?s presence in a way that makes the simulation not only desire the real thing more fully, but helps us to see the holy in the ?real woods? of our cities. I like the term sacred space for the same reason that Lewis likes the term enchanted. The ?magic? of the space is not about God living there ? it is about us setting space apart. While temples house gods, the Christian notion of church is communal, flesh and blood. The church as a building is a symbolic extension of this community, and as a physical space where Christians come together, it shapes, by means of design and placement, how we understand what it means to be a community.

The term "sacredness? can be assigned to places for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it is a place where something important occurred, an event that defines the identity of a people. Mecca and Jerusalem are considered ?holy? cities because of their centrality to faith identities, but perhaps this distinction could be also stretched to cities like Boston and Plymouth in telling the sacred story of American civic religion. The term sacredness is also used to set apart places of great carnage and destruction, Lisbon, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Auschwitz; places which evoke a reverent ineffability otherwise connected to the divine. It?s also used to describe buildings that house important objects or remains, the relics of saints. But is there something innately sacred about certain architectural constructs, or to put it another way, are there architectural features or qualities evoke a sense of holiness?

For me, the divide between sacred and secular is not a matter of style. That is, I would not say that the cathedral is ?sacred? architecture and the big-box store is ?secular?. When we begin to carve up creation in ways that elevate styles and conventions as ?sacred? over ?worldly? we begin to reassign those square inches of creation in ways that undermine the potential for all styles to fall under Peter?s blanket of kosher ? being set apart. I believe that cultural variety is the treasure promised by Christ?s redemption, and that hierarchies we develop along stylistic lines are not only culturally imposed, but are a sinful distortions of the treasure box. There is no godly ?style? for worship or architecture just as there is no godly style for painting or how we fashion our hair or the type of ice-cream we prefer. God delights in the multi-flavoured richness of variety. Although certain architectural styles do reflect particular sects or flavors of Christianity (for example the squared dome of Orthodox churches) I prefer to speak of the decorum or fittingness of architectural metaphors. While all of life is indeed religious, there is something peculiar about places of worship that distinguishes them from everyday or ordinary life. The place of worship is not simply a utilitarian space where people gather, it is place where we come together through the symbol of a body ? an image further reinforced through the Eucharist. Even the simplest images of a church family and a house of worship create metaphorical links between church communities and the intimacy of domestic relationships. While early Christians did worship together in private homes, the idea of the church as a house is a rich metaphor that reflects and shapes an image of Christian identity. Even the Puritan notion of a ?meeting house? has a significance beyond geographical space ? the idea of a ?meeting house? is a symbolic concentration of authenticity, simplicity and hospitality. There is something artificial about meeting together with other Christians to worship that extends beyond the pragmatic convenience of mass-delivering a message or sermon to a group. The very act of coming together, of coming to the table, suggests that the Eucharist is a symbolic destination. By setting these places apart as destinations where we meet or come, we impart meaning on them, we make them sacramental.

I would like to suggest that even when conscious efforts are made to neutralize the set-apart quality of a church building or worship space, the very nature of communal worship as an abstraction or symbolic concentration of our service to God in which we are perpetually worshiping through word and deed, means that there can never be neutral or ?secular? worship spaces. Despite the best efforts of the Puritans to create a neutral worship space in which congregant would not be distracted from hearing the word of scripture, the act of moving the Eucharist off to the side and making the pulpit the center of worship was a powerful architectural metaphor. Historically, the placement of altars, pulpits and baptismal fonts have been some of the strongest indicators of fundamental doctrinal positions of a denomination. As a symbolic representation of Christian community, worship spaces do more than contain or shelter people, they reveal the character, theology and values of a community. This is why worship space is important.

But what happens when the arrangement of a worship space suggests a different type of community ? an art museum perhaps or a sports stadium? Can the space itself effect a people's communal identity? To examine this question I would like to examine the architecture of two contemporary ?mega? churches: one American, the other Canadian.

Big is beautiful.

They say that everything's bigger in Texas, and in its own way, the architectural space of Lakewood Church in Houston is impressive. Able to accommodate an average attendance of 46,000, North America's largest congregation may have traded video projection screens for stained glass windows, but it maintains a grandiose vastness that could compete with the largest gothic nave. But despite its raw size, the building holds no architectural pretense. Avoiding ecclesiastical symbols and references to any traditional church form, Lakewood is an exercise in downplayed architecture. From the outside it resembles an outgrown Walmart, on the inside, a soccer stadium. In actuality, Lakewood is a sports arena, or it was. To meet the needs of increased attendance, Lakewood bought and converted Houston's Compaq Center, former home to the Houston Rockets.

In an era when churches of almost every denomination are closing, mega-churches like Lakewood continue to grow. Some have argued that their success is due to their slick business-savvy approach to doing church. Noticeably absent is any visual reference to the cross. Instead, the church is festooned with its company logo, a blazing lamp. Each choice of song and prayer is a careful marketing decision. Lakewood has a clear corporate identity. They know who their key demographic is, and it know how to maintain their success rate. Others have argued that people flock to Lakewood because of the motivational power-of-positive-thinking that characterizes its Christianity-lite theology. Another explanation is the snowball effect of the megachurch. When a congregation reaches a critical mass, the size alone becomes a self-generating attraction. People are attracted by not only the size, but the belief that something important is happening in that place. Richard Ostling describes this as a ?social vortex? where growth begets more growth. 2 Social psychologists are quick to point out that this also happens in sport fandom when people ?jump on the bandwagon? of fan identity. People want to identify with a winning team; it makes them winners.

Perhaps we can consider the success of the megachurch as a cumulative effect of a number of factors which combine together to create a symbolic presence of vitality and growth in a contemporary society where mega-malls have translated the pursuit of happiness into a booming cultural norm of accessible goods consumption. Megachurches are almost always located in the suburbs of big cities ? the ever-expanding fringe where big-box stores dominate the landscape. Prominently located on large tracts of land visible from the highway, the megachurch competes with Target and Home Depot to attract consumers with promises of ample parking and convenient service. In this context it makes sense to have one more social environment where people can come together to enjoy the company of other people.

As many observers have noted, the social phenomenon of the megamall has replaced the genuine social interaction of the marketplace with places that fulfill all the acquisitive needs of the market without fulfilling or honouring genuine communal requirements. People go the mall to be around other people without any real sense of belonging, without a sense of responsibility to that community. As David Guterson once pointed out, these malls are so thoroughly ?divorced from the communities in which they sit that they will appear to rest like permanently docked space-ships against the landscape, windowless and turned in upon their own affairs". 3 Whereas the traditional city marketplace that one still finds in areas like Toronto?s Kensington was a place vulnerable to the rhythm of the city, the mega-mall is a world set apart, a simulacra of the market -- untouched, alienated and generic. What then does it mean to have churches that also sit apart from the community? Does the ?space-ship? architecture of megachurches like Lakewood have implications for how they understand community? And what does it mean when the models for vitality and growth are drawn from the retail sector in which size and numbers are the gage for success?

Which brings me back to Hagia Sofia... or Chartres or Cologne or St. Peters; is it the vortex of magnitude that makes a space bigger than life and a little brighter than mundane? In many ways, Lakewood epitomizes the big-is-better mindset of corporate America, but Lakewood, paradoxically, doesn't dominate the landscape in the same way as the great cathedrals. Its Mcstructure is self-conscious and patently bland. It has no spire reaching up to the heavens and no bell tower to toll the community together. The reach of its congregants is too vast, spread out across the endless sprawl of suburbia. As Paul Goldberger once observed, "the Gothic cathedral was designed to inspire awe and thoughts of transcendence. Megachurches celebrate comfort, ease and the very idea of contemporary suburban life." 4 There is an almost apologetic aesthetic at play in the building?s artifice, casually inviting you to kick up your feet and enjoy the game as it lazily slouches toward mediocrity.

While Lakewood may fail to impress architecturally, it succeeds in comfort. There are no cheap seats where sound is lost or view of the liturgical action obstructed. Every sightline angle has been considered, all acoustic pockets accounted for. Its raised proscenium thrust stage provides creates a semblance of intimacy but allows enough distance for indulgent spectatorship. It is the architectural equivalent of a t-shirt and a pair of jeans ? a place of worship indistinct from everyday life.

The desire of a congregation to make their place of worship a part of everyday life rather than a place apart is admirable, and on many levels I can understand the challenge of a church like Lakewood. Historically, the distinctions between popular forms of ?entertainment? and ?high? forms of ?art? (both in an out of the church) allowed the rich and educated to maintain their cultural superiority over the lower classes. Over a long period of time, as ?high art? lost touch with the lives of ordinary people, popular forms of art and entertainment began to play a vital role in shaping and reflecting everyday lived experiences. The church has not always had a strong record of dealing effectively with culture, and it is understandable that the church has traditionally aligned itself with the ?high-art? tradition in its endorsement of certain styles of worship and architecture. It is also understandable that a church like Lakewood, which has no theological or historical heritage, may not want to appropriate the architectural heritage of another Christian tradition and may be drawn to the architectural constructs of entertainment. The problem with a church like Lakewood is not the use of these forms, but the oblivious way in which they regard such forms as neutral. We should not confuse the sameness of the megamall with neutrality. Its structural homogeneity, isolated and windowless, is a powerful architectural symbol of identity in contemporary culture. It is an image which reminds me of another architectural symbol, the mirrored room, in which all we see is ourselves. I wonder too whether we can think of the big-box format of megachurch architecture as neutral space? If shopping, as Zygmunt Baumann, argues, is the fundamental metaphor for identity formation in the present world 5, what does this mean to have a church that embodies the meaning of a shopping mall?

Embracing Shared Space

Of course, there is redemption. Redemption cuts short any easy distinctions between sacred and secular by ?buying back? styles and genres and forms. Which raises another question: can space be redeemed through architectural conversion? Lakewood is an example of reclaimed space, a former sports arena converted into a church through $95 million in facility improvements. Does this mean that this space has been redeemed?

One of the chief dangers in contemporary church architecture is the tendency to adopt all of the convenience and utility of building design and technology without thoughtfully reflecting on the way that space and technology inform how we think. The result is a re-run of old sermons with PowerPoint. But if we are going to take church architecture seriously we need to take seriously the impact of technology on our lives.

We now live in a period in which we are experiencing some of the most profound media changes since the publication of the Gutenberg bible. As global electronic media transforms not only what kind of information we take in but how we take it in, we are experiencing what Thomas Kuhn called a ?paradigm shift? from a previously textual or print culture, a culture of words and the Word, to an electronic culture, a culture where we increasingly relate to reality through the interplay of sounds and images. The world of church practice that Lakewood represents assumes that electronic communication is just a tool or aid for communicating, but we need to recognize technology changes how we perceive and relate to reality in a postmodern world. It is not just a device for accessibility ? it is a unique language that we have learned through surfing and googling and watching MTV. For Protestants who have learned how to hone their message through clean logic and apologetic theology, the messiness of the contemporary cultural ?web? poses a threat. Some churches retreat into traditional form and liturgy as a reactionary measure; others adopt technology uncritically as a marketing nod to contemporaneous dazzle.

What does technology mean for sacred space? The post-Christendom guru Leonard Sweet sees a link between physical space and the opportunities provided by living in a post-print culture. In his article, Church Architecture for the 21st Century, he writes, ?Today we are undergoing another kind of spiritual awakening as the church undergoes a postmodern reformation from print to screen. That revolution can?t happen without altering the physical space of church.? 6 To understand this, perhaps we need to look at the 16th century architectural revolution away from the late-Medieval cathedral to understand the significance of print culture to worship space.

Walking through a Gothic church is a symbolic journey through salvation -- a microcosm of the universe and a prototype of the New Jerusalem. The metaphor is a journey in which you are drawn forward and upward by an exalted vision of light and height to the altar. The soaring vaults, stained glass and repeated vertical elements are designed to pull the believer through a portal of corporal torment to the altar of Eucharistic flesh. The Gothic Cathedral is the concrete expression of a holistic worldview in which space itself gives expression to the beliefs of the church.

This experiential or sacramental emphasis, of course, stands in stark contrast to the Protestant emphasis on word revelation as the primary source of God's truth. It is telling, and of no coincidence that the invention of the printing press and the first stirrings of the Protestant Reformation occurred at the same historical points. With this new technology, Reformers were not only able to foster their ideas through a distribution of the story into the vernacular of the people, they were able to talk about faith in the abstract. People began to pray with their eyes closed and aurality was elevated above other senses through the hearing of the spoken word. The Eucharist table, the focus of the cathedral, was shifted off to the side. Since the Reformation, where the Bible as written word became the domain of the Protestant imagination, we have been struggling with the meaning and use of church architecture. What does it mean to live as embodied creatures who take in our whole world through the fullness of visual, tactual, auditory, oral and olfactory sensation ? but who worship in an aesthetically sterile environment of sensory deprivation?

One of the concerns of the Taiz? Community in France and the Emergent church in North America is reconnecting to sensuality in worship. Many Protestants are now recognizing that one of sins of the Reformation was its rejection of God?s full gift of the five senses and are now looking for guidance to Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions that have preserved in their worship a sense of movement, colour and bodily resonance. But for many, this does not mean superficially appropriating historically grounded architectural styles. Many emerging churches, for example, find themselves gathering together in semi-permanent or multifunctional spaces. The challenge for them is not to build a sacred-style structure, but to create a God-glorifying places that embrace the changing nature of worship space itself ? to understand the value of improvisation and transiency when imagining sacred space.

As an alternative to the megachurch architecture of Lakewood I would like to examine a Canadian megachurch that is part of the larger emerging church movement, The Meeting House. As its name suggests, the Meeting House is a church rooted in the Mennonite tradition. Congregants meet together in Silver City movie theatres running from Waterloo to Toronto. It is one of the fastest growing churches in North America. Its ?tagline?: a Church for people who aren't into Church.

Like Lakewood, the Meeting House is reclaimed space. Aside from its permanent Oakville location, the architecture of church is established by Cineplex. This egalitarian transience has led the church to think through the meaning of creating a church space in a movie theatre without allowing church to be co-opted by the marketing strategies of Hollywood. On of the ways they have done this is by exploring the screen itself as more than a projection of words and images, but a space. As Bill Romanowski points out, the movie screen is ?not a surface but a space,? 7 a space where we enter other worlds, hear intimate conversations and follow the hero into battle. This is the magic of Hollywood.

One way of rethinking the screen is to view it as a version of the stained-glass window, a place where stories of relevance to our faith are told. In a post-print culture the epic stories of Star Wars and the Matrix resonate with us in the way that the Medieval Christian carried on a spiritual dialogue with the saints and prophets whose narratives filled every window. The classic Hollywood film presents a mythic vision of life informed by assumptions about ourselves, our world and our relationship to God. Every sermon at the Meeting House begins with a movie clip. These assumptions, the worldview behind the movie, are often the point of departure for understanding the radicality of the Christian worldview in response to popular culture.

This is one way in which the Meeting House uses its screen to create space, we might think of it as a Catholic sensibility ? through narrative images and sound congregants come to understand their own story. But there is another way that screen functions as space ? a way that reflects an Orthodox sensibility. Services at the Meeting House include a time for reflection on the screen while words, images and art are projected to a soundtrack of electronic ambient and trance music. The screen in this way functions less as a reflection of our lives than an open window that invites the presence of God through the work of the eyes and ears. In this way, the screen becomes a type of electronic icon. It does not recall or represent reality in the way that movies do, but rather, opens up a type of sacred visual and aural space for meditation, prayer and interaction with God.

One of the ways that the emerging church movement has challenged traditional church architecture is to make us think about the relationship between time and space. The modern church, it could be argued, abandoned both history and geography in the push to translate Christianity into timeless abstract truths. This is why the architecture, for a church like Lakewood is arbitrary and hegemonious. What would does it mean to commit to a different set of values? What does it mean for architecture to commit to specific place, to the identity, sounds, flavours and images of a city? What would it mean to lose our cultural infatuation with the future and size and growth; to think about redeeming the time we live in now ? and to realize that this time is informed by the liturgical echoes that extend back before the reformation and even before the time of Christ. Can we begin to think about sacred space as a navigable thing, something that shapes us as we move through it?

Modern church architecture seems to fall into two distinct camps ? those who avoid change at all costs and those embrace it fully, confusing novelty with relevance. The polemics of the so-called ?worship wars? are often split between those who are unwilling to accept change and those who celebrate it. The fact that we change and our world changes is inevitable -- it is how we deal with change that will define us. The message of Christ remains eternal ? but it is not conceptual idea above the fray. Christ, after all, established the church, he didn't write a book. The gospel is embodied in our hands, in our buildings in our cities. We live in a world that is much much smaller than it ever was before. Technology allows us to connect in ways that condense our shared global space. Can we begin to think of church as a place where we learn how to change together; a place where embrace the paradox of becoming more rooted in space while forging authentic relationship and sacred spaces through technology? Can we create shared space for the Desert Fathers and U2?

If the idea of setting space apart as sacred or sacramental is too liturgically-bound, perhaps we may draw on another biblical concept to think about space: kosher. The Levitical injunctions about setting apart certain foods and practices, making kosher, are about being mindful ? mindful of what one does, how they do it and why they do it. This mindfulness extends to God, and in the keeping of kosher, the Jew is made aware of God?s presence in a spirit of holiness. Through the mundane practice of eating, food preparation, and cleaning, that holiness is imbued in every moment of life. Ultimately, in the light of Peter?s vision, 8 kosher has very little to do with the injunctions themselves. It is about the mindfulness of the food that is put into one?s mouth. We should understand sacramentality as a Christian extension of kosher that stretches to the fullness of God?s creation, in which we are mindful not only of how we use worship spaces, but how the space itself affects us. We should be mindful of how space encourages or discourages us from being aware of our bodies and senses as the fleshy sensual beings that we are. We should be mindful of how space invites us to explore the tension between a God who is both glorious and intimate. And we should be mindful of how space brings us together with other believers, bound to us, to use the most intimate of biblical metaphors, as parts of one body. Finally, we should be mindful of how a worship space interacts with its surroundings ? the place, the city, where it dwells ? not as a place above the city, but in it ? engaging and respecting other spaces and other communities. Thinking mindfully about space is how we begin to construct sacred spaces that shape us as much as we shape them.

1. C.S. Lewis. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. (Harvest, 2002) 29.

2. Ostling, Richard N. "Superchurches and How They Grew." Time (August 5, 1991) 62-63.

3. Guterson, D. ?Enclosed. Encyclopedic. Endured. One Week at the Mall of America.? Harper's, (287, 1993) 49-56.

4. Paul Goldberger. ?The Gospel of Church Architecture, Revised.? New York Times. (April 20, 1995)

5. See Zygmunt Baumann, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press 2000).

6. Leonard Sweet. ?Church Architecture for the 21st Century? Your Church. (March/April 1999)

7. Bill Romanowski. Eyes Wide Open. Looking for God in Popular Culture. (Brazos: Grand Rapids, 2001) 67.

8. A reference to Peter?s vision in Acts 10:9-16