Christian Architecture from a Protestant Perspective
ARCHITECTURE’S ROLE IN CHRISTIANITY
Church architecture serves to frame and enhance our worship in a way that honors the One we worship. Churches are buildings shaped, crafted and set aside for the very special purpose of our corporate communion with our covenant God. But as works of art, they also speak to the larger culture around them. This is because architecture symbolizes, within the fabric of a community, the social hierarchy and aspiration—or the actual position—of the institution housed within it It reveals through artistic means, the relationship between larger transcendent constants and the immanent issues we confront in daily life. And, it provides a meaningful setting for our daily social and spiritual interactions.
In the past, churches were often the most prominent architectural edifices of a community, and Christians gladly served as patrons of church architecture because it proclaimed their faith and affirmed their world view. But today things have changed.
CHRISTIAN ARCHITECTURE TODAY
What I sense and see in my own involvement in the religious community, and in my reading, is that most Christians cannot begin a conversation on architecture. Several years ago I met a highly regarded Christian poet, who in response to a question I posed, answered, “I really don’t know, architecture is such an esoteric art form.” Her comments surprised me by illustrating well the current state of affairs. The architecture that churches are building today is as confused as the tastes, and faith, of building committee members.
Building committees, or other deciding powers, want inexpensive construction that solves basic functional needs. As they select their architect, they are often most concerned with how many churches he has designed, or whether he is well known. It would be nice if the architect is a believer, but they are looking, first, for a safe choice. They feel inadequate to assess philosophical or artistic aspects inherent in their task and simply hope for the best. The results we are seeing are disappointing, and the church is missing important opportunities to create significant new architecture.
WHY SPEND MONEY ON CHURCHES?
Events surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales illustrate my thoughts on this. To express their grief over her passing, the public spent over $40 million on flowers alone. She was a living symbol of important virtues to many people around the world. Could you ever justify on practical grounds alone such an expense? Of course not. But, this was a spontaneous expression of affection and sorrow from peoples’ hearts toward one they loved. Should not our expressions of love for our Savior be of a much greater kind? Judas Iscariot complained when Mary bathed Christ’s feet, just before his death, in a perfume valued at a year’s wages. As we know, Jesus rebuked Judas for his greed and false economy. We have been commanded to care for the poor and to share the gospel. We have also been commanded to love and honor God with all of our being. Here in the West, we have more than enough resources to do all three.
THE ROLE OF THE ARTS AND SYMBOLISM IN CHURCH BUILDINGS
Arts and symbolism should help us understand life as it really is, our sin, and the gospel. In the book of Numbers we read how God’s people, when leaving Egypt, grew tired of manna, the bread from heaven, and became bitter against God. So God sent deadly serpents among the people and many died. Then the people came to Moses, confessed their sins, and asked him to pray that God would remove the serpents. God responded to Moses’ prayer by instructing him to cast a serpent in bronze and raise it high above the people on a staff. Moses obeyed, and when the people looked upon this work of figurative art, they were healed. It is important to understand that the bronze serpent did not heal them. The bronze serpent served as a potent symbol of their grave sin and God’s powerful work of redemption. Later, Jesus noted that it also represented his own day, when he would be raised up on the cross to redeem his people from their sin for all time.
This was a correct use of a work of art in the life of God’s people. It represented both the law and the gospel and was evangelistic in a most powerful sense. But, generations later the Israelites began worshipping the bronze serpent, offering incense before it, leading King Hezekiah to destroy it. Such use and misuse demonstrates both how valuable as well as how dangerous works of art can be in the life of the church. The Protestant reformers reacted to idolatrous use of art in the church in their day.
I believe we should see the law and the gospel conveyed through works of art in the Church, and on our church buildings. We should have murals depicting the history of God’s people through the ages; we should have stained glass honoring the heroes of the faith, we should make use of symbols, provided they are understood. But if they are worshipped, they should be removed. And our teachers and elders bear great responsibility in helping us keep this balance.