FROM HOUSE CHURCH TO FANCY CATHEDRALS #3
CONTEMPORARY CHURCH ARCHITECTURE
Over the last two hundred years, the two dominating architectural patterns employed by Protestant churches are the divided chancel form (used in liturgical churches) and the concert stage form (used in evangelical churches).190 The chancel is the area where the clergy (and sometimes the choir) conduct the service.191 In the chancel-style church, a rail or screen that separates the clergy from the laity still exists.
The concert-style church building was profoundly influenced by nineteenth-century revivalism.192 It is essentially an auditorium. The building is structured to emphasize the dramatic performance of the preacher and the choir.193 Its structure implicitly suggests that the choir (or worship team) performs for the congregation to stimulate their worship or entertain them.194 It also calls excessive attention to the preacher whether he is standing or sitting. In the concert-style building, a small Communion table may appear on the floor below the pulpit. The Communion table is typically decorated with brass candlesticks, a cross, and flowers. Two candles on the Communion table have become the sign of orthodoxy in most Protestant churches today. As with so many parts of the church service, the presence of candles was borrowed from the ceremonial court of the Roman Empire.195
Yet despite these variations, all Protestant architecture produces the same sterile effects that were present in the Constantinian basilicas. They continue to maintain the unbiblical division between clergy and laity. And they encourage the congregation to assume a spectator role. The arrangement and mood of the building conditions the congregation toward passivity. The pulpit platform acts like a stage, and the congregation occupies the theater.196 In short, Christian architecture has stalemated the functioning of God's people since it was born in the fourth century.
EXEGETING THE BUILDING
At this point, you may be thinking to yourself, So what's the big deal? Who cares if the first-century Christians did not have buildings? Or if church buildings were patterned after pagan beliefs and practices? Or if medieval Catholics based their architecture on pagan philosophy? What has that got to do with us today?
Consider this next sentence: The social location of the church meeting expresses and influences the character of the church.197 If you assume that where the church gathers is simply a matter of convenience, you are tragically mistaken. You are overlooking a basic reality of humanity. Every building we encounter elicits a response from us. By its interior and exterior, it explicidy shows us what the church is and how it functions.
To put it in the words of Henri Lefebvre, "Space is never empty; it always embodies a meaning."198 This principle is also expressed in the architectural motto "form follows function." The form of the building reflects its particular function.199
The social setting of a church's meeting place is a good index of that church's understanding of God's purpose for His body. A church's location teaches us how to meet. It teaches us what is important and what is not. And it teaches us what is acceptable to say to each other and what is not.
We learn these lessons from the setting in which we gather— whether it be a church edifice or a private home. These lessons are by no means neutral. Go into any given church building and exegete the architecture. Ask yourself what objects are higher and which are lower. Ask yourself what is at the front and what is at the back. Ask yourself in what ways it might be possible to "adjust" the direction of the meeting on the spur of the moment. Ask yourself how easy or hard it would be for a church member to speak where he is seated so that all may see and hear him.
If you look at the church building setting and ask yourself these questions (and others like them), you will understand why the contemporary church has the character it does. If you ask the same set of questions about a living room, you will get a very different set of answers. You will understand why being a church in a house setting (as were the early Christians) has the character it does.
The church's social location is a crucial factor in church life. It cannot be assumed as simply "an accidental truth of history."200 Social locations can teach good and godly people very bad lessons and choke their lives together. Calling attention to the importance of the social location of the church (house or church edifice) helps us to understand the tremendous power of our social environment.
To put a finer point on it, the church building is based on the benighted idea that worship is removed from everyday life. People vary, of course, on how profoundly they emphasize this disjunction.
Some groups have gone out of their way to emphasize it by insisting that worship could occur only in specific kinds of spaces designed to make you feel differently than you feel in everyday life.
The disjunction between worship and everyday life characterizes Western Christianity. Worship is seen as something detached from the whole fabric of life and packaged for group consumption. Centuries of Gothic architecture have taught us badly about what worship really is. Few people can walk into a powerful cathedral without experiencing the power of the space.
The lighting is indirect and subdued. The ceilings are high. The colors are earthy and rich. Sound travels in a specific way. All these things work together to give us a sense of awe and wonder. They are designed to manipulate the senses and create a "worshipful atmosphere."201
Some traditions add smells to the mix. But the effect is always the same: Our senses interact with our space to bring us to a particular state of the soul—a state of awe, mystery, and transcendence that equals an escape from normal life.202
We Protestants have replaced some of the grander architectural embellishments with a specific use of music intended to achieve the same end. Consequently, in Protestant circles "good" worship leaders are those who can use music to evoke what other traditions use space to evoke; specifically, a soulish sense of worshipfulness.203 But this is disjointed from everyday life and is inauthentic. Jonathan Edwards rightfully pointed out that emotions are transient and cannot be used to measure one's relationship with God.204
This disjunction between secular and spiritual is highlighted by the fact that the typical church building requires you to "process" in by walking up stairs or moving through a narthex. This adds to the sense that you are moving from everyday life to is required. All of this flunks the Monday test. No matter how good Sunday was, Monday morning still comes to test our worship.205
Watch a choir don their robes before the church service. Ther smile, laugh, and even joke. But once the service starts, they become different people. You will not often catch them smiling or laughing. This false separation of secular and sacred—this "stained-glaa mystique" of Sunday morning church—flies in the face of truth and reality. In addition, the church building is far less warm, personal, and friendly than someone's home—the organic meeting place of the early Christians.206 The church building is not designed for intimacy nor fellowship. In most church buildings, the seating consists of wooden pews bolted to the floor. The pews (or chairs) are arranged in rows, all facing toward the pulpit. The pulpit sits on an elevated platform, which is often where the clergy also sits (remnants of the Roman basilica).
This arrangement makes it nearly impossible for one worshipper to look into the face of another. Instead, it creates a sit-and-soak form of worship that turns functioning Christians into "pew potatoes." To state it differently, the architecture emphasizes fellowship between: God and His people via the pastor! Yet despite these facts, we Christians still treat the building as if it is sacred.
Granted, you may object to the idea that the church building is hallowed. But (for most of us) our actions and words betray our belief. Listen to Christians speak of the church building. Listen to yourself as you speak of it. Do you ever hear it referred to as "church"? Do you ever hear it spoken of as "God's house"? The general consensus among Christians of all denominations is that "a church is essentially a place set apart for worship."207 This has been true for the last 1,700 years. Constantine is still living and breathing in our minds.
THE INCREDIBLY HIGH COST OF OVERHEAD
Most contemporary Christians mistakenly view the church building as a necessary part of worship. Therefore, they never question the need to financially support a building and its maintenance.
The church edifice demands a vast infusion of money. In the United States alone, real estate owned by institutional churches today is worth over $230 billion. Church building debt, service, and maintenance consumes about 18 percent of the $50 to $60 billion tithed to churches annually.208 Point: Contemporary Christians are spending an astronomical amount of money on their buildings.
All the traditional reasons put forth for "needing" a church building collapse under careful scrutiny.209 We so easily forget that the early Christians turned the world upside down without them (see Acts 17:6). They grew rapidly for three hundred years without the help (or hindrance) of church buildings.
In the business world, overhead kills. Overhead is what gets added on to the "real" work a business does for its clients. Overhead pays for the building, the pencils, and the accounting staff. Furthermore, church buildings (as well as salaried pastors and staff) require very large ongoing expenses rather than onetime outlays. These budget busters take their cut out of a church's monetary giving not just today, but next month, next year, and so on.
Contrast the overhead of a traditional church, which includes salaried staff and church buildings, with the overhead of a house church. Rather than such overhead siphoning off 50 to 85 percent of the house church's monetary giving, its operating costs amount to a small percentage of the budget, freeing more than 95 percent of its shared money for delivering real services like ministry, mission, and outreach to the world.210
CAN WE DEFY THIS TRADITION?
Most of us are completely unaware of what we lost as Christians when we began erecting places devoted exclusively for worship. The Christian faith was born in believers' homes, yet every Sunday morning, scores of Christians sit in a building with pagan origins that is based upon pagan philosophy.
There does not exist a shred of biblical support for the church building.211 Yet scores of Christians pay good money each year to sanctify their brick and stone. By doing so, they have supported an artificial setting where they are lulled into passivity and prevented from being natural or intimate with other believers.212
We have become victims of our past. We have been fathered by Constantine who gave us the prestigious status of owning a building. We have been blinded by the Romans and Greeks who forced upon us their hierarchically structured basilicas. We have been taken by the Goths who imposed upon us their Platonic architecture. We have been hijacked by the Egyptians and Babylonians who gave us our sacred steeples. And we have been swindled by the Athenians who imposed on us their Doric columns.213
Somehow we have been taught to feel holier when we are in "the house of God" and have inherited a pathological dependency upon an edifice to carry out our worship to God. At bottom, the church building has taught us badly about what church is and what it does. The building is an architectural denial of the priesthood of all believers. It is a contradiction of the very nature of the ekklesia—which is a countercultural community. The church building impedes our understanding and experience that the church is Christ's functioning body that lives and breathes under His direct headship.
It is high time we Christians wake up to the fact that we are being neither biblical nor spiritual by supporting church buildings. And we are doing great damage to the message of the New Testament by calling man-made buildings "churches." If every Christian on the planet would never call a building a church again, this alone would create a revolution in our faith.
John Newton rightly said, "Let not him who worships under a steeple condemn him who worships under a chimney." With that in mind, what biblical, spiritual, or historical authority does any Christian have to gather under a steeple in the first place?
1. Church buildings enable a large number of people to gather together for worship. How did the early church manage to worship in homes with so many people and still see themselves as a single body of believers? Practically, how do organic churches today maintain every-member functioning as they grow in size?
Today Christians often assume that the early churches were large like many contemporary institutional churches. This, however, was not the case. The early Christians met in homes for their church gatherings (Acts 2:46; 20:20; Romans 16:3, 5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2). Given the size of first-century houses, the early Christian churches were rather small compared to today's standards. In his book Paul's Idea of Community, New Testament scholar Robert Banks says the average-sized church included thirty to thirty-five people.214
Some first-century churches, such as the one in Jerusalem, were much larger. Luke tells us that the church in Jerusalem met in homes all throughout the city (Acts 2:46). Yet each home gathering didn't see itself as a separate church or denomination but as part of the one church in the city. For this reason, Luke always refers to this church as "the church at Jerusalem," never as the "churches at Jerusalem" (Acts 8:1, 11:22, 15:4). When the entire church needed to come together for a specific purpose (i.e., Acts 15), it met in an already existing facility that was large enough to accommodate everyone. The porch of Solomon outside the Temple was used for such occasions (Acts 5:12).
Today, when an organic church grows too large to gather in a single home, it will typically multiply into separate home meetings throughout the city. Yet it will often still see itself as one church meeting in different locations. If the home groups need to congregate together for special occasions, they often rent or borrow a large space to accommodate everyone.
2. I'm not sure I understand the problem with church buildings. Are you saying that they are bad because the first ones were modeled on large public buildings or promoted by an emperor with suspect theological grounding? Is there anything in Scripture that prohibits the body of Christ from meeting in them?
The answer to the first question is no, that is not what we are saying. By detailing their origin, however, we are showing that they developed apart from any scriptural mandate, contrary to what some Christians believe. Furthermore, we believe they detract from a proper understanding of the church as the body of believers.
Although Scripture never discusses the topic specifically, church buildings teach us a number of bad lessons that run contrary to New Testament principles. They limit the involvement of and fellowship between members. Often their grandeur distances people from God rather than reminding them that Christ indwells each believer. As Winston Churchill said: "First we shape our buildings. Thereafter, they shape us." This has definitely been the case with the church building.
The idea that the church building is "the house of God" and is constantly referred to as "church" is not only unbiblical, it violates the New Testament understanding of what the ekklesia really is. We believe that this is why the early Christians did not erect such buildings until the era of Constantine.
Church historian Rodney Stark says, "For far too long, historians have accepted the claim that the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (ca. 285-337) caused the triumph of Christianity. To the contrary, he destroyed its most attractive and dynamic aspects, turning a high-intensity, grassroots movement into an arrogant institution controlled by an elite who often managed to be both brutal and lax. ... Constantine's 'favor' was his decision to divert to the Christians the massive state funding on which the pagan temples had always depended. Overnight, Christianity became 'the most-favoured recipient of the near limitless resources of imperial favors.' A faith that had been meeting in humble structures was suddenly housed in magnificent public buildings—the new church of Saint Peter in Rome was modeled on the basilican form used for imperial throne rooms."
3. Just because Plato, a pagan philosopher, was the first to articulate how sound, light, and color influence mood and elicit splendor, awe, and worship, why is it wrong for churches to consider how to maximize these factors when designing their buildings? Isn't it appropriate to employ these to the fullest in Christian worship? After all, Scripture makes clear that we are to remember God's holiness and righteousness.
Our point in that brief discussion on Plato was simply to show that pagan philosophy had a hand in engineering sacred buildings to create a psychological experience in those who occupy them. To our minds, psychological experience ought never to be confused with spiritual experience.
4. Since believers are in a church building only two to three hours a week, how can you say that these structures stymie the functioning of God's people?
Most Christians equate church services in a church building with "church." Church leaders often quote Hebrews 10:25 ("not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together") when telling members they should "go to church" on Sunday mornings. This reinforces the misconception that when the New Testament writers talk about church, what they had in mind is passively sitting through a service in a special building once a week.
But the fact is, the New Testament vision of the church meeting is one in which every member functions and participates in the gathering. And as we have established, the church building defeats this purpose by its architecture.
Case in point: I (Frank) have met a number of pastors who came to the conviction that the New Testament teaches that church meetings are to be open and participatory. Shortly after making this discovery, these pastors "opened up" their church services to allow members to freely function. In every case, it did not work. The members were still passive. The reason: the architecture of the building. Pews and elevated floors, for example, are not conducive for open sharing. They obstruct it. By contrast, when these same congregations began meeting in homes, functioning and every-member participation flourished.
To put it another way: If we equate church with sitting in a pew and taking a mostly passive role, then church buildings are appropriate for the task (but we still cannot claim that they are biblical since the New Testament knows nothing of church buildings).
On the other hand, if we believe that God's idea of a church meeting is for every member to participate in ministering spiritually to one another, then church buildings as we know them today greatly hinder that process.
(THE AUTHORS ARE PARTLY RIGHT HERE BUT IT IS OBVIOUS THEY HAVE NOT STUDIED "CHURCH GOVERNMENT" TO ITS FULL DEPTH. AND THE NEW TESTAMENT SHOWS FOR DIFFERENT DYNAMICS, SOME TOWNS MAY HAVE HAD A NUMBER OF HOMES THEY MET IN, IT IS ALSO TRUE THE NEW TESTAMENT DOES NOT ALWAYS BREAK IT DOWN IN THOSE TERMS ALL THE TIME. SO SOME TOWNS AND CHRISTIANS MAY HAVE GATHERED IN ONE PLACE. BUT CERTAINLY THERE IS NO TEACHING IN GOD'S WORD THAT CHRISTIANS SHOULD BUILD HUGE FANCY CATHEDRALS OR CHURCH BUILDINGS THAT ARE HUGE AND THEATER TYPE AND ENTERTAINMENT SHRINES TO ATTRACT PEOPLE.
5. Wasn't the concept of "sacred space" a Jewish idea as well as a pagan idea?
Yes, the Jews believed in sacred spaces (the Temple), a sacred priesthood (the Levites), and sacred rituals (the Old Testament sacrifices). However, these things were done away with by Christ's death, and the New Testament Christians knew nothing of them. Later, the Christians picked up these concepts from the pagans, not the Jews. This chapter supplies evidence for that statement.
6. Do you think it's always wrong for a group of Christians to use a building for worship or ministry?
Not at all. Paul rented a building (the Hall of Tyrannus) when he was in Ephesus, and the church of Jerusalem used the outer courts of the Temple for special gatherings. What we are establishing in this chapter are five key points: (1) it is unbiblical to call a building a "church," "the house of God," "the temple of God," "the sanctuary of the Lord," and other similar terms; (2) the architecture of the typical church building hinders the church from having open-participatory meetings; (3) it is unscriptural to treat a building as though it were sacred; (4) a typical church building should not be the site of all church meetings because the average building is not designed for face-to-face community; and (5) it is a profound error to assume that all churches should own or rent buildings for their gatherings. It is our opinion that each church should seek the Lord's guidance on this question rather than assume the presence of a building to be the Christian norm. Tracing the history of the "church" building helps us to understand why and how we use them today.
TO BE CONTINUED WITH OTHER "SACRED COW" ORDER OF WORSHIP SERVICES