All church buildings tell stories about the people who build them and about their understanding of how God meets his gathered people. To understand the stories new church buildings tell, I started with an old one—Hollywood Presbyterian, built in 1924.
That's not very old as buildings go, but it is old on a human horizon. Our grandparents built such places. Hollywood Presbyterian is a Southern California evangelical monument, where Henrietta Mears inspired future leaders like Campus Crusade's Bill Bright.
You have seen buildings just like this on a hundred urban streets—a neo-gothic brick pile shoe-horned onto a corner, just inside the sidewalk. With its soaring tower, it "looks like a church," but it doesn't make much of an impression on its environment. Step into the grand old sanctuary, however, and a hush comes over the world. In the sacred darkness, stained-glass windows, ornate wooden trusses, stone arches, and a high pulpit unmistakably communicate "holy place." Dominating the chancel are five ornamented thrones, the center one designated for the preacher to sit in until the moment he ascends the pulpit, ten feet above the congregation. If Moses appeared lugging the Ten Commandments, he would fit right in. This is a church that makes you want to sing "A Mighty Fortress." This is what our grandparents meant when they said "sanctuary."
Now take, by contrast, Saddleback Community Church, the "Purpose-Driven Church" that pastor Rick Warren leads in south Orange County, California. This gigantic Southern Baptist "seeker-sensitive" congregation is hardly obsessed with buildings—they met in a tent for years. When it came time to build a 3,000-seat worship center, Saddleback deliberately chose an architectural firm that had never designed a church. They wanted to avoid creating a "churchy" environment that might put off newcomers.
The most impressive spot in this open, airy campus is outside on the main patio, a broad rectangle of concrete, undecorated except for a square of nine large palm trees and some concrete benches. Along one side of the rectangle is the vast, reflective-glass wall of the main church building. Looking at it you see simultaneously three scenes. Through the glass, you look in to the interior of the worship center. Reflected in the glass you see an immense outdoor vista of sky, palms, and patio. And etched into the glass are words, so that a message stretches over the indoor and outdoor scenes. OUR PURPOSES: MAGNIFICATION, MEMBERSHIP, MATURITY, MINISTRY, and MISSION. Clustered around these words are biblical phrases that underscore each word's meaning.
The effect is subtle, since the color is all in the outdoor reflection, while the words are a glass gray. Yet the wall unmistakably communicates that this church is governed by a purpose, inside and out.
Another outdoor patio has the baptistry as its focal point—an attractive, below-ground fountain, with steps leading into a shallow, splashing pool. It might be in the courtyard of a bank building, a lovely spot to eat a sack lunch. The fountain looks nonreligious, but those who attend Saddleback will soon know its purpose from the frequent baptisms performed after services. The design allows the pool to be filled to a depth suitable for immersions, and the broad steps then give easy access into the water. (The first person baptized in the pool was its architect, Brian Connor.)
For me, the most notable aspect of Saddleback is that all its grace is on the outside. Hollywood's building is like a shell protecting an inner sanctum, but Saddleback's worship center is nothing but a clean, airy exhibition space, with exposed air ducts, retractable bleachers, industrial carpet, giant JumboTron screens, and a stage that looks like a TV talk-show studio without the sofas.
As facilities director Karen Kelly explained to me, much of the reason for this utilitarian ethos is practical—trying to seat 3,000 people in a multipurpose facility on a limited budget. Nevertheless, the planners' greatest effort obviously went outside—into the message communicated on entering and leaving. It is not a grand message, such as the one Hollywood Presbyterian delivers. From a distance, Saddleback looks like an office building, and nothing about it would provoke reverence. Through a pleasant, neutral space, the building reaches out to new arrivals and says: We are people just like you, and you can feel comfortable with us—but pay attention, because we have a unique purpose.
Hollywood carries a different message: This is not the world; you will meet God here.
Hollywood is rooted in tradition and awe; Saddleback, almost devoid of history, is rooted in its clearly communicated purpose. Hollywood prefers darkness and mystery; Saddleback, simplicity and light. Hollywood is most concerned for the atmosphere of worship; Saddleback, for the atmosphere of arriving. Hollywood is pointed up; Saddleback, out. In the contrast between these two churches, one can see an outline of the changing church.
Exegeting new churches
Nobody keeps statistics on church buildings in America, so that, for example, no one can say with any accuracy how many display a cross as a central focus of worship, or how many use pews as opposed to individual seating. I visited new churches in the Los Angeles area because there are lots of new churches to see and because California continues to influence the nation. In particular, Southern California is a leader in producing what usc's Donald Miller calls the "new paradigm churches"—those like Calvary Chapel or the Vineyard, which have taken a decidedly untraditional path. I did not only visit "seeker sensitive" or "new paradigm" churches, however. I saw a wide spectrum—Presbyterian and Episcopal, Baptist and Christian and Missionary Alliance. I also talked to pastors, architects, and church administrators in other parts of the country, so I have some sense that what I describe is not unique to L.A.
Churches are built one at a time, on an entirely individual basis. Ordinarily a church committee, most of whose members have never built a church, meets with an architect whose first question is, "What do you want?" Church committees can rarely articulate what they want with much specificity. So they grope toward a design. Incrementally and unconsciously, church designs reveal what church people are thinking.
Of course, there are vast differences between liturgical, historically attuned churches and seeker-sensitive churches meeting in converted warehouses. My strong impression, however, is that underneath these differences are some fundamental similarities. You will find these trends, as I found them, in all kinds of new churches.
Emphasis on entering
I walked through new buildings that emphasized visual linkages to tradition, such as Romanesque arches and massive pipe organs, and churches that looked precisely like modern office buildings or condominium clubhouses. Yet every building I visited had, like Saddleback, put great energy into the question of how people arrive and depart.
It's not merely a question of parking and freeway access, though that is a major concern. The greater concern is how people feel as they enter the building. In the "Mother Vineyard" (formerly Anaheim) created from a Rockwell r&d office building, you find large, airy entryways and an extensive coffee bar for those who want to linger and mingle.
At Irvine Presbyterian Church, pastor Mark Roberts told me that the building committee spent as much time thinking about the approaches to the church as they did the interior sanctuary. An outside patio "probably tripled our friendliness quotient. I hear so much more from visitors how friendly we are. I don't have to say, 'Greet each other' so much, because people naturally stop to talk in the spaces designed to bring them together." (In harsher climates, large, well-lighted narthex areas perform this function of making people convivial and comfortable.)
It was not always so. Older churches like Hollywood Presbyterian were built with no concern whatsoever for the transition between sidewalk and sanctuary. Today's churches assume that people come with far less confidence and need a clear message from outside spaces that they are welcome, will feel comfortable, and can find friends if they want them.
Democracy and informality
Hollywood Presbyterian, like many older churches, is at pains to communicate the majesty of its ministry. The pastor sits in a high and lofty place until he rises even higher into the pulpit to preach. Heavy, ornate furniture and a raised, separated chancel communicate magnificence and hierarchy. This is not like somebody's house, unless that somebody is William Randolph Hearst.
Today's churches, even those that value liturgy and tradition, display understated, modest furniture at or near ground level. The Communion table—if one is visible at all—will be simpler than many dining room tables. The pulpit will be little more elaborate than a lectern. Access to the chancel or platform is usually by broad and central stairs, making little separation from the congregation.
Even churches determined to communicate transcendence show new informality and democracy in their worship space. Roman Catholic churches have pulled their altars away from the wall and out toward the congregation so that what happens there is not so much a hidden priestly mystery as a shared community ritual.
Todd Hunter, national director of the Vineyard churches, told me that their philosophy regarding buildings is "pragmatic and functional." "We would often say, 'People aren't afraid of a junior high school gym.' It doesn't have the connotation, 'darken the door of a church.' "
Natural light and electronic sound
Most new churches want light, and lots of it. Natural light establishes continuity with the outside world; the Creator God is emphasized, not the God of Mystery and Revelation. Besides, everybody in our age likes windows, as one can see in office buildings, banks, and shopping malls.
Yet not all new churches have large windows. Consider Lake Avenue Congregational Church, a large Pasadena congregation that moved from a dim, neo-gothic sanctuary to a modern, space-age auditorium that depends almost entirely on artificial light. Windows are expensive, both for construction and for heating and cooling. Also, windows fight against another new worship imperative: video.
Most of the large churches I visited have JumboTron screens, which they use to project musical lyrics, announcements, and a larger-than-life simultaneous version of the service in progress (Video clips and sermon notes are also used, but more sparingly.) Video is at war with windows. Projection is less effective in a room full of natural light.
Electronics are a fundamental part of new church buildings. Placement of JumboTron screens and video cameras must be considered as rigorously as where to put the baptistry. Backstage or underground control rooms, where the video production is orchestrated, are essential. Stage lights and sound systems require elaborate controls. Even modest churches have sound systems that would outdo entire recording studios a generation back.
Smaller churches may not be able to afford video technology, but they think about it. Irvine Presbyterian's Roberts told me that in planning their middle-sized church, "The hardest thing to give up was video technology." For him it meant, "We're not on the cutting edge of worship."
As we talked further, however, he showed considerable ambivalence. "It's not just a matter of good communication. There is a changed ethos." Roberts mentioned a church that used its JumboTron screens to show baptisms, "so you can get a good view. Does that make the baptism more personal or less? I don't know. I'm of the mind that it is less."
Such hesitations seem to be a minor-ity view, however. At least in large churches, worship has become something like attending a live recording of a TV show. The platforms are even decorated like TV sets, with their ubiquitous plants and understated "family-room" furniture. In most older churches, you cannot imagine a pastor as a late-night talk show host doing his show. That would seem jarring, even sacrilegious. In many of the newer churches, however, nothing would seem more natural.
New church buildings generally seat worshipers so that they surround the platform. That way, even people in the back rows are close. These churches are, in their seating configuration, a throwback to the auditorium churches first designed by evangelist Charles Finney. He wanted to stare every inquirer in the eye and (against architectural tradition of the time) designed his New York Broadway Tabernacle so that his audience surrounded him. That pattern survived to the early part of this century—the holy reverence of Hollywood Presbyterian has the same horseshoe balcony—when it was largely abandoned in favor of the traditional basilican style (a long rectangle with the chancel at one end).
Why has the semicircle come back? That's easy: it feels more personal, both in relation to the preacher (whose facial expressions can be seen even without the JumboTron) and in relation to other worshipers, who surround and face you like a family circle. The word, pastor Tod Bolsinger told me, is relational.
While this trend makes for good sociological dynamics, it also echoes an important theological issue. The liturgical renewal that took place in churches in the sixties emphasized the church as the "gathered people of God" rather than the church as priestly dispenser of sacraments or preacherly dispenser of truth. This is an important biblical theme that was recovered theologically and is now underscored architecturally.
Modern church buildings generate a congregation that seems friendly and accessible. Each worshiper can keep his or her space, as shown by the preference for theater seating. (In pews—generally less expensive than theater seating—you can't be sure that someone won't sit uncomfortably close.) Yet you can see it will still be easy to make friends if you want to. Even the pastor has a friendly face, which you rapidly get to know via the big screen.
In small to midsize churches, semicircular seating allows a congregation to go beyond relational to communal. Worshipers can hear each other as they speak and pray from their seats; they look each other in the eye as they worship; congregational singing is powerful, if the acoustics are right. I talked to several pastors who had, in conjunction with architects and acoustical engineers, spent considerable effort tuning their sanctuary to make it "live" enough for congregational singing yet not so live that the preacher's words were garbled by the echo. These pastors believed "live" acoustics made for a stronger sense of the church as body of Christ.
That does not seem to be the trend, however. In larger, "all-electric" auditoriums, amplified sound overwhelms everything. You can only hear what is generated from the platform. Carpeting and cushions swallow audience noise. This may be true even in very small churches if they use a contemporary "band" sound.
What our churches say
Only churches with public confidence, security, and money construct durable buildings. The early Christians left few stone monuments, for they were a suspect minority. Today's church in China, similarly, will not be remembered for its buildings. Only after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire did European Christians begin to build. Anyone who has traveled in Europe knows how powerfully they published their beliefs in stone. Even today, in dense, modern city centers, cathedral spires speak of another time and another way. European villages are unthinkable without their churches, which seem to hold the crooked streets together, like a fastener at the central node.
From the time of Constantine, these churches often borrowed the form of the basilica, an oblong Roman building designed for public and imperial ceremonies and for law courts. Just as Roman basilicas cultivated respect and awe for the public authorities, basilican churches lend themselves to solemnity and humility before an awesome God. They are suited to a theology emphasizing Christ as ruler and judge. They are also suited to an ecclesiology that emphasizes, as noted above, the church as dispenser of sacrament and/or truth.
This basic form and feeling stayed remarkably constant through the centuries. The Reformation made the pulpit more prominent and downgraded or did away with visual symbols of worship—statues, paintings, and elaborate ceremonies. Reform is the appropriate word, however, not revolution. Right up to the present the typical older church building embodies the traditions of the basilican church. Even at Hollywood Presbyterian, which strays far from the classic form, the fundamental statements remain of the transcendence of God, the authority of the clergy, and the solemnity and holiness of worship.
In a stunning reversal of a 1.5 millennia trend, new churches convey the cheerful, democratic, informal atmosphere of modern American life. Their affections are horizontal. Hierarchy and awe are out. Friendliness and the enjoyment of nature are in. Even where church buildings attempt to connect to tradition, they usually do it in an airy, light-hearted way. They are in close continuity with the outside world. Most feel as normal as a shopping mall. They don't try to make grand statements; they try to make people comfortable.
For many centuries Christian churches pointed vertically, often erecting the tallest building in town. Today, churches extend outward, making people-friendly spaces. Look at our new buildings, and you will see our theology of church.
A place to meet the people of God. This is an informal age, in which people wear casual clothes to important affairs, and grocery clerks call you by your first name. So new churches follow that kind of feeling. Transcendence, authority, and solemnity don't fit. Friendliness, naturalness, informality do.
The pastor as one of us. In Protestant churches, the pastor has always been "one of us"—but one called to be an authoritative instrument of God, preaching his Word. Thus the high, ornate pulpits and the chancels cut off from the congregation. That is radically changed. Nowadays, anybody can hop up to the chancel from the congregation—there's no barrier, just some broad steps. Nothing sets the pastor apart from anyone else.
Ironically, the pastor more than ever is crucial to a successful church. Where once churches displayed Jesus in stained glass, now many display the pastor in JumboTron. The pastor's face is the key image. But—here is where the irony can be ironed out—the video lets us see the pastor as simply one of us. Seeing his winsome smile, we feel that we know him personally, even if we are sharing the view with 3,000 other "friends." He speaks to us less as an oracle of God than as a persuasive friend.
Worship is persuasion. Whereas the Reformers sought to raise preaching to the level of sacrament, they never dreamed of displacing the sacraments. Yet new church buildings suggest that something like this is happening. The ecclesiastical furniture of sacrament—the tables, the baptistries—are less and less noticeable, if visible at all. New churches are designed as spaces for communication, not sacrament or ceremony. We have moved persuasion—with rhetorical flourish, the pastor presents a "message" to the people—to the center of our worship. The people come to hear the pastor.
Second, they come for music. That's why video is such a natural fit in the new churches. TV is, after all, the mode of communication Americans know best. Similarly, it is the mode of entertainment Americans know best. Many modern church buildings are clearly intended to house a video spectacle—a service that can be captured well on tape but is fun to see "live."
It is true that praise music remains vital to worship, but mainly by way of electronic sound broadcast from the platform. The congregation participates, but in most new churches their voices are neither needed nor heard. The music functions as an auxiliary to the pastor's persuasive message. The congregation expresses agreement by singing along.
Church is for evangelism. The last thought occurring to builders of medieval cathedrals was whether "unbelievers" would feel comfortable. Yet that is the first thought behind many new churches. They consciously draw from secular architecture, assuming that unbelievers will feel most comfortable with that. Mark Roberts, pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, told me that the church's building committee spent large amounts of time discussing the values of Fashion Island, a nearby mall. Architect Lew Dominy, who designed the Irvine church, said that "there is a generation coming up with values generated by retail shopping. They expect places to sit. They expect plantings."
George Whitefield, then John Wesley, took preaching out of the churches because they wanted to reach the unsaved where they were—in the coal fields. This scandalized the church leaders of the time. Now the church is being turned into a place, and public worship into an occasion, where the unsaved feel comfortable. This too scandalizes some church leaders. Still, the church-growth movement has won. Its theology is seldom forgotten by those building new churches.
What's new and what's ageless
Once for six months I worshiped in a fourteenth-century French cathedral. I found that as the weeks passed its beauty penetrated me deeply, elevating my soul toward God. Yet I also noticed that the cathedral was nearly empty. I am therefore not an alarmist about the new churches. I regret losing the reference to transcendence, the stillness and awe that the best older churches provoke. The diminishing of sacrament troubles me. Yet I like very much the simplicity, lightness, and ease with my neighbors that the best new churches can evoke. I can't see any claim that vertical is necessarily better than horizontal. Scripture emphasizes that one is inextricably linked to the other. Loving my neighbor is closest kin to loving God. The new churches are not decadent, it seems to me. They are just different. They are suited to a new time.
I would define the newness this way: Christianity is reaping the fruits of disestablishment. For the first time since Constantine, we are truly on the periphery of Western civilization. We have lots of people, money, sophistication, and security, but we can no longer assume that other Americans sympathize with or understand what we are doing. For that matter, we ourselves easily forget.
The very meaning of "the people of God" has a fragile hold on Christians' consciousness. It is extremely important that we connect with one another, building our identity as disciples together. In a way that our grandparents did not, we need to go to church to express our identity as the people of God and to be persuaded anew that Jesus is Lord. The new churches help us do that. They remind us we're not alone. They also help us appeal to outsiders in a way that is reassuring and doesn't seem cultic.
Having said all that, it helps me to know that new churches do not necessarily have to look like a shopping mall. At the end of one day touring churches, architect Lew Dominy asked me whether I would like to see one more building. He took me to the coastal city of Carlsbad, where we stopped at Saint Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church, which he designed.
As with every new church I saw, the approach to Saint Elizabeth's is important—a lovely patio and garden area underneath twin Spanish towers. The interior, though, is what captivated me. It makes the statements of a horizontal church in a simple but exquisite way. The sanctuary is very simple, filled with light from high windows. Pressed concrete, formed and colored to look like rough sandstone, makes the floor. Overhead are exposed wooden trusses and tension members (steel rods, like those you sometimes see in old barns, holding the walls together across central spans). It looks like a working building, but with a style completely unlike the industrial air ducts and steel girders I had seen elsewhere.
I think the pastor was a little offended when I told him it reminded me of a barn. What I meant is that an old barn is often a peaceful and living place—high, quiet, cool, with a pattern of light and darkness descending from its cracked boards, and the smell of sweet straw and warm active creatures. Saint Elizabeth's put me in mind of moments I have paused in such barns.
Or perhaps I may put it more simply: Saint Elizabeth Seton is a lovely place to be. As such, it says something ageless—that beauty belongs to God, and when we build in his name we want to make something beautiful. Some new churches strike me as very ugly, and many strike me as ordinary and uninspired. I have seen a few that are exquisite. I found it comforting that amid the modernity of video churches and secular entryways, with the toned-down informality of chancels and the loss of grand statements, people still manage to create beautiful new places in the name of Jesus.
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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