Posts tagged church building
The Raw Church Movement: Sanctuary VS Auditorium

Sanctuary VS Auditorium

In the last post in this series I explored the all too controversial dress code. In today's post I would like to focus on the next concept to emerge in the Barna group survey: the worship space.

While most may assume that millennial Christians are anti-tradition this survey reveals a more nuanced reality. The topic of worship space is a perfect example. The same millennials who prefer to dress casual to dignified also prefer a sanctuary to an auditorium as a worship space. An incredible 77% of those surveyed said a sanctuary - a more traditional and ancient worship space - was more appealing than a modern-fresh-cushion-seat-auditorium.

As a millennial, I have to say I agree. I'm not really a big fan of the auditorium church. Of course, I'm not suggesting that its bad. Auditorium churches are actually really good at removing the intimidation the unchurched often experience in a classic church building. Its a more neutral space that eliminates what - to many people - has the potential to be a stumbling block to Christ. Auditorium churches are neat, and I think they should stay. Nevertheless, I also vote that we keep the old school "sanctuary". It has a charm and depth to it that just cant be replicated in an auditorium. And perhaps, it is this charm and depth that millennials find appealing. While most modern churches look like every other building we go to, the old school "sanctuary" feels more like a... well... a sanctuary. A place to get away, even if for a minute, and rejuvenate. 

However, that doesn't automatically make me a fan of the sanctuary model either. Truth is, the old school sanctuary and the modern auditorium are really the same thing. The only difference between these two worship spaces are their cosmetics. But underneath both there is a narrative that has not changed. It is this narrative that I find the most unappealing.

Church architecture often reflects both culture and theology. Nowhere in the Bible are we instructed on what a church building should look like for the simple reason that church buildings don't exist in the Bible. Now, I'm not against church buildings as a place for gatherings, training, and other relevant and practical uses but I am the first to admit that the existence of the church building does not find its roots in the Bible or the New Testament believers. Church buildings came later.[1]

Because church buildings do not originate in the Bible, those who designed them did not do so under the guidance of Holy Writ but instead utilized the trends of their day and the theological worldview that they had. Thus, generally speaking, Coptic churches architecturally reflect Coptic (Egyptian) culture, Greek Orthodox churches reflect Greek architecture and the Medieval churches reflect Medieval/ Gothic culture. However, religious architecture carries an element which its cultural context does not which is what tends to set churches apart from other structures. These differences are often fueled by the churches theology (its narrative).

For example, in Catholic churches the center of attention is on the altar where the mass is enacted. In Protestant churches the center of attention is on the podium where the Bible is preached. Because the center of Catholic worship is the mass it influences their architecture and likewise for the Protestants whose central focus in worship is the preaching of the Bible. A lot more can be said about the seating arrangement, the height of the ceiling, the height of the platform, stained glass windows, the size of the main entrance, the placement of the baptistery, steeples and other elements of church architecture which I don't have time to get into. Suffice to say, church architecture tells a story. It reveals the church's beliefs, values, and priorities.

The sad part is lot's of modern Protestant churches don't realize this. It seems many of them just copy what others have done without any thought to the story their architecture is telling. And the most damaging part is when the architecture tells a story that is different from the story Jesus came to tell. And this is perhaps the reason why I am not a big fan of many church buildings whether they be modern or ancient. To be frank, I find many of them inadvertently damage the story. When the center of attention is a stage where the audience passively sits in straight, long rows, and watches the clergy perform we are sending the message that what matters in church is not community but passive observance. The story this tells is that the most important people are those on the stage. The holiest man is the pastor. And the baptistery tends to be hidden or tucked away in the back. At times its hidden behind the enormous lectern which shields the preacher making both the preacher and God seem unapproachable. None of these architectural elements seem to reflect the story Jesus came to tell - a story of self sacrifice, redemption, togetherness, community, restoration, and sanctification. 

I am not an architect, so I will not presume on what a church building should or shouldn't look like. My only contention is that, by and large, church architecture should more accurately reflect the narrative of scripture. I would love to see a church that had a seating arrangement that inspired community rather than repelled it. A church whose design reflected the priesthood of all believers instead of placing certain people on a higher platform than others. A church where the baptistery was visible and inviting and where the people did not feel like mere spectators in a theatrical worship performance but were, in many ways, the very heart beat of it. A church where the grandeur of God was honored, but not at the expense of his withness, his intimacy, and his approach-ability. A church that was designed for the benefit of others instead of itself. A place built to facilitate training, equipping, and practical service and evangelism as opposed to a place construed for nothing more than the comfort and nurture of its own members.

New Testament Christians met primarily in one another's homes.[2] While synagogues and temple courts were often used as well these were not used as "church buildings" in the sense that we think of them today. Perhaps part of how we can recapture an architecture that tells the story of Jesus is to go back and explore what made the house church so effective in the NT. Perhaps it is because the inherent architecture of a home is exactly the kind of space needed to reflect the narrative of Jesus. And perhaps, that is exactly what we need.

Further reading: New Testament house churches: A model for today's complex world?


[1] ...“It can be rightly said that Christianity was the first non-temple-based religion ever to emerge.... Strikingly nowhere in the New Testament do we find the terms church (ekklesia), temple, or house of God used to refer to a building” (11). According to Viola, sacred temples were a concept that belonged to paganism and Judaism. The sacred temple of Judaism and its services were done away with at the cross. Because of this, the New Testament Christians met in homes. However, over time Christians began to pray for the dead martyrs, then to them. Their grave yards became viewed as holy places on which shrines were built and eventually buildings were built over the grave sites (during the time of Constantine) and considered holy as well. All of this has origins in paganism and not Christianity. When Constantine came on the scene he built cathedrals for the Christians and even named the cathedrals after certain saints. A practice which was also pagan. The church building then came to be viewed as a sacred place. Having no biblical precedent to defend this, the proponents of the church building began pointing to the Old Testament temple as a defense for their sacred church buildings, but this was based on faulty exegesis. Viola rightly argues that the New Testament church was the people not the building. He traces the concept of a sacred building in Christianity to paganism, Clement of Alexandria (the first recorded to use ekklesia in reference to a meeting place) and Constantine whom was the first to, “erect special buildings for worship” (12). For Viola, church is people not buildings. The church is something you are a part of not an edifice you go to. I agree with Viola in the sense that the incredible amount of money spent in up keeping a building most people only use once or twice a week could be better spent in reaching the lost. - Excerpt from "Pagan Christianity? A Book Review."
[2] Acts 2:46; 5:42; 20:20; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Philemon 1, 2; Colossians 4:15.