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Form follows function ::

Maybe the walls don’t have ears, but every building has a voice, says MARTIN MORGAN, as he investigates the form and function of our church buildings
Source: Perspective Vo2 No1 ©Perpsective 1999

YOU DON’T NEED ME!” said the Architect, walking away from his clients in frustration. He’d been asked to design a building for a new church. That’s easy. But this time, something didn’t quite fit. “You keep saying people are Holy, not buildings … so how do you expect me to make this thing look like a CHURCH?” Someone, at least, had clearly recognised the inconsistency of claiming buildings are not holy, while trying to make them look like they are!
Take, for example, the famous “Crystal Cathedral” in Anaheim, California. People still flock to see this truly awesome building. Its goal was to be impressive – and it is. But at what cost? Well, the multi-million dollar price tag is obvious. But the fact that it as designed by an architect attempting to embody “holiness” is a much higher cost. Every architect knows there’s no such thing as a “neutral” building. The fact-is, buildings aren’t silent – they speak. Think of Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome or Mexico, and you’ll almost certainly have mental images of the buildings through which we’ve interpreted their culture. Likewise, when we think of “church”, most of us have a strong mental image of a building. It’s hardly surprising, when you consider how much time, effort and money has been poured into developing the awesome buildings our culture-has labelled as “churches”.

In fact, the history of the english word church provides some basis for this effort. Derived from the Greek auptaxov = “Lord’s house”, church was seen as an appropriate word to translate acvlzcrra = “Assembly” from the New Testament documents because it was a special building in which the assembly took place in the translator’s time.

The resulting stereotype for church architecture, ancient or modem, is extremely strong…a spire, steeply sloping roof-line, stained glass, gothic arches, long naves, and high walls. All these features emphasise “verticality”, and distinguish the church from “normal” buildings, making it immediately. recognisable. A graphic example of this was the recent World Expo entitled “The City of the Future”. Amidst the strange, unidentifiable sci-fi shapes, the only familiar profile belonged to “the church.”

Now of course, we could interpret: this as a sign of ongoing stability and a continuing positive profile in the community. Or else the design could just as easily be underlining the strength of various other convictions – that the church is medieval, stagnant, other-worldly, alienating, and out of touch!
The sad irony, though, is that the attempt to embody “the holy” and make awesome buildings has dulled the sharpness of what the church is all – about. Gothic arches do point to the -~ skies, but do they really point to heaven?
Unfortunately, ambiguity reigns in buildings used by churches. What exactly is being suggested by the building that you meet in? More importantly, is it what you want to suggest? –
For evangelicals, it’s easy to say a focus on the building directs attention away from “the true church”. However, the problem remains, because no matter where you meet, your building will convey a message – ignoring the issue doesn’t make it go away.
Original Christian. meeting places moved progressively from the Jerusalem temple to private homes (although the incident in Acts 20:7-12 may be a good argument for purpose designed buildings!) Halls and synagogues were also used. Congregations then began to model larger buildings on the Roman civil meeting halls. or Basilicas. These were functional. circular halls designed around a place for speaking ‘and baptism.
Between the fourth and sixteenth centuries, though. a separation between “secular” and “sacred” architecture developed. And it was simply assumed to be correct. This separation symbolised the theological separation between the “laity” and the “priesthood”. With a focus on the altar. the building became an enshrined place for specialist priests to represent people in the sacrifice of the mass. Preaching was an activity for outside the building, in the square or on the steps, Most church buildings did not have pulpits before the Reformation. They were simply not designed for preaching or listening to God’s word – instead, they were virtually regarded as Temples.

In direct contrast, the Reformers gave prime emphasis to God’s word preached and listened to. Pulpits and reading stands became central in evangelical church buildings. At the same time any objects liable to lead to idolatry were removed . Newer evangelical meeting places were more simple with a central place for preaching. Methods for acoustic clarity were developed. The original function of the church building had returned.

Just as the Christians of the previous centuries chose the Basilica as a helpful model, we have various models available. Too often we choose a traditional arrangement without thinking about what effect the building is having. More recently there’s been a widespread rejection of the traditional arrangements, with congregations choosing to meet in theatres, halls, classrooms and warehouses. This can be healthy, but these buildings convey messages too, and need just as much thought if we don’t want them to undermine the gospel.

Perhaps we need to carry the Reformation on to question the stereotypes people have of church and church buildings. From the time of the Tabernacle and Solomon’s temple it was acknowledged that God could not be contained in a building (1 Kings 8:27). However we have continuously seen attempts to do just that. This happens both blatantly and in more subtle ways, but the result is always the same: idolatry.
If the church really is “God’s people” then the halls we rent, homes we live in and other meeting places are equally “church” buildings. Church buildings must never become a focus – but ironically, in order for this to happen they need focused thought. In the final analysis, a church building should help us, God’s people, realise it is we who are called to be holy – our buildings are no longer temples, because we are now God’s temple as His Spirit dwells among us and within us.

Martin Morgan was a final year theological student who previously studied architecture when he penned this article

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