It’s easy to go about our lives without appreciating the finer details of buildings where we live, work, and worship. The structures themselves, we might say, aren’t as important as the activities taking place inside. That would be a grave mistake, says Murray Rae, who teaches theology at the University of Otago in New Zealand. His book, Architecture and Theology: The Art of Place, shows how the design of buildings and public spaces gives shape and purpose to our lives and communities. W. David O. Taylor, assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, spoke with Rae about the interplay between architecture and theology.

Is there something unique about how architecture, as distinct from other art forms, opens up new ways of seeing the world?

Architecture both molds and represents our lives, our aspirations, and our failings as human beings. The distinctive feature of the arts that shape our built environment, including architecture, is that we live within them almost all of the time. Their primary purpose is not to be viewed or listened to but to give us somewhere to dwell. They provide a unique opportunity, then, to gain new insight into what it means to dwell in Christ—and whether our lives reflect God’s created order. Intriguingly, architects through the ages have tried to create buildings that reflect the given order of things.

The Old Testament is full of theological engagement with place in general and buildings in particular. But in the New Testament, this engagement often takes on more of a figurative or symbolic character. (We learn, for instance, how the temple in Jerusalem points to Jesus, the true temple.) Does the New Testament offer any vision for church architecture, the construction of neighborhoods, the design of homes and cities, or the layout of public spaces?

In the New Testament, Jesus can seem indifferent about the fate of the temple building itself. He told the Jewish leaders that if the temple were destroyed, he would raise it up again in three days—a foreshadowing of the Resurrection (John 2:19). We commonly take this to mean that buildings and places are of little importance now because we have a new temple in the risen Jesus.

This, however, is only a half-truth. We should notice, for instance, that right before Jesus makes this statement, he throws out the moneychangers, clearing the temple of activity that conflicts with its purpose of worship. It matters a great deal to Jesus, then, that his Father’s house be treated with respect. And when we attend to Jesus’ teaching and activity, we see further confirmation that the gospel is not concerned only with spiritual matters, but with the whole of created existence. Good architecture is a vital ingredient of living well in God’s world—and a signpost pointing to the New Jerusalem he’s fashioning.

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Early Christian communities often took Roman public buildings, called “basilicas,” and converted them into churches. Could churches that meet in coffee shops or theaters make the case that they’re doing something similar?

Most everyone recalls Jesus’ instruction promising that wherever two or more are gathered, he is present. (Matt. 18:20). No building and no place is excluded from that promise. And yet we recognize that certain places are more congenial to worship and communion with God than other places.

The basilica precedent indicates that buildings designed for some other purpose can be adapted to Christian use. So there is no reason to suppose that the theater or the coffee shop cannot also be turned to the purpose of Christian worship. We must attend, however, to the ways in which particular spaces are more or less congenial to the activity of worship. A coffee shop is a meeting place, a place where food is shared, and where relationships can be formed and nourished. In theory, these features could be conducive to worship and fellowship. But the overall tendency, because of how the furniture is arranged, is to foster indifference to those seated elsewhere, which is less conducive to worship and fellowship.

Likewise with theaters: Fellowship with others is not easily encouraged by most theater designs, except perhaps in the vestibules that surround the performance space. Nor should worship be understood as a performance by actors on a stage, with the gathered believers as mere spectators.

We should consider how architecture can support and enrich our life together as church communities. It is no less important than the attention we give to music, or to the crafting of a sermon. Buildings have as much potential to disrupt or enrich our worship as music and preaching.

How can new projects of church architecture—whether “low” or “high,” simple or extravagant—become symbols of the new creation?

Church buildings should bear witness in some way to the reality of God and to the reality of our relation to God. There are numerous ways to do this. The most powerful tool at the architect’s disposal, though, is the use of light. The transcendent, mysterious, dynamic, and enlivening qualities of light can be used in even the simplest of buildings to speak of the One who is the source of life and light. Light has the power to lift us beyond the merely mundane, to rekindle hope, and to direct our attention to the glory of God.

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Second, the building should speak of God’s abundant generosity and hospitality. Jesus’ parables of the kingdom typically stress these aspects of God’s character. Our church buildings should likewise make clear that here is a place where the prodigal will be welcomed home; where the widow, the orphan, and the stranger will find comfort and sustenance; where those who live on the margins of society see that a place is set for them at the wedding feast of the King. Again, there are many architectural devices for expressing this generous hospitality. Openness, accessibility, and location can each make clear that the God we worship meets us with open arms.

How can ordinary believers contribute practically to the common good of the built environment?

We should avoid building walls meant to protect our own interests and exclude people we consider undesirable. Stated more positively, we should strive to build in ways that show love for our neighbors and provide opportunities for meeting and welcoming the stranger.

We also need to recover a commitment to the public square. Public space in modern cities is very often the space left over when private interests have been served. The biblical vision of the kingdom of God has to do, above all, with the harmonious coexistence of all that God has made. Salvation and human well-being involve the establishment of a new community; they are no private concern. We have often failed to recognize that in the way our urban spaces have evolved.

How might the average Christian go about becoming more architecturally literate?

The first thing, I guess, is to slow down and pay more attention to our built environment. Some of the charm and the beauty of architecture requires only to be noticed and enjoyed. Instead of passing rapidly through a building or taking the quick tourist photos, sit down, pay attention to the space, and contemplate.

Another way to improve our architectural literacy is to read. There are plenty of resources available that can help us to read architecture well. Many churches have visitor brochures that point out features of the architecture, while booksellers and libraries have rich resources available for those who are interested.

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Architecture and Theology: The Art of Place
Architecture and Theology: The Art of Place
Baylor University Press
305 pp., 54.99
Buy Architecture and Theology: The Art of Place from Amazon