Building Faith

by Margaret M. Grubiak, appearing in Volume 42

In Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, sociologists Robert Brenneman and Brian Miller conclude what architects and architectural historians have long contended: buildings matter. This book is a stark realization that the “shaping influence” of buildings “has for far too long gone largely unobserved in the social sciences and, in particular, in the subfield dedicated to the sociology of religion,” and that to fully understand religious groups “involves accounting for the physical structures that help shape their practices and beliefs.” 

Building Faith asserts that all of us who study and think about religion, no matter our discipline, need to take seriously religion’s material world. It is a subject of importance to Brenneman, who teaches sociology at Goshen College, and Miller, who teaches sociology at Wheaton College.

Sagrada Família, Barcelona. Photo:

The authors apply personal experience and social science approaches to the study of Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim places of worship. The Christian churches range from Catholic and Pentecostal Orthodox to mainline Protestant to Evangelical, Mennonite, and Seventh-Day Adventist. The diversity of religious buildings they examine range from high-style, architect-designed churches to vernacular buildings realized with congregants’ own materials and labor.

Their geographical focus is their homes of Vermont and Chicago and its suburbs and, more surprisingly, Guatemala City, an outgrowth of Brenneman’s other sociological research on gangs. This “cross-national comparison” feels forced due to Brenneman’s highly selective examples from one Central American country. They claim it is useful given “the globalization of religious buildings,” as illustrated by how one Guatemalan megachurch took as its models Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston and the Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas. Their examinations of Chicagoland religious structures and planning and zoning and church buildings’ long histories are more convincing in their survey methodology.

This book considers adaptive reuse, historic preservation, phenomenology, and high style and vernacular architecture, although the authors do not name these concepts as such, demonstrating that disciplinary divides remain. Rather, they introduce their own language.

They use the term “space bending” to describe when congregations create worship spaces out of older buildings and unusual circumstances, such as adapting a former U.S. army horse stable for Muslim worship in Vermont and a parking garage for evangelical worship in Guatemala. They also weigh the phenomenology of religious buildings—how sound, smell, lighting, windows (or lack thereof), room scale, and materials like tile flooring affect the experience of the space—without employing the term itself or its rich philosophical tradition.

The many people who shape religious buildings—congregation members, local governmental officials, community members, and architects—are at the forefront of the study. They coin the phrase “building energy” to describe the excitement, unity, and even conflict among congregation members that comes with realizing new worship spaces. The influence of town planning and zoning rules and neighbor input brings into focus how “religious buildings are always under negotiation,” even by outsiders.

The authors observe that “time matters” in the lifecycle of religious buildings that serve as a worship home over decades for one congregation or pass in ownership to others. Such acts of historic preservation provide a tangible record of “communities, practices, and social histories.”

They devote a chapter to interviews with architects of religious buildings, including LeRoy Troyer (a distant relative of Brenneman), who late in his career designed the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, and Duncan Stroik, editor of this journal. The authors make the important point, not to be forgotten, that “the particular religious formation of the architects themselves tends to shape how they think about their task.”

Religious historian Jeanne Halgren Kilde once wrote, “Strangely, what is frequently missing in analyses of religious architecture is religion,” in a pointed critique of architectural historians who ignore theology in their interpretations. Brenneman and Miller make a parallel assertion in Building Faith: what is frequently missing in the sociological analyses of religion is architecture.

The challenge of thinking about sacred space and religious architecture remains being aware of the interplay of religious beliefs, the people and congregations who hold them, and the material spaces where they are carried out. One wonders what insights Brenneman and Miller would glean from the field of material religion (focused on artifacts like prayer beads, images and paintings, and clothing that aid in living out religious beliefs) by scholars such as Colleen McDannell, Salley Promey, and David Morgan.

An even wider interdisciplinary lens challenges us all to know and do better in our study of sacred architecture.