The Purpose of a Church

by Peter Grant, appearing in Volume 2

It is important to remind ourselves of the purpose of a church. It’s not a hall, or a residence, or an administrative building: rather, it is the house of God, and must reflect that primary mission in its design. One can walk into a house, and feel to-tally unmoved by it, or one can be drawn into the warmth and love of a true family ambience, but in each case, it’s those who live there, and the way they use the house, which make it into what it is. A house is basically functional, and is given character by its occupants. A church is different. It should be a place which grabs hold of one’s attention, creating an atmosphere which says “This is God’s house — holy ground!” What we should strive for in church design is to provide the physical environment for prayer, and a deepening of our relationship with God. When building a house, few would insist that the design of the kitchen or dining room should make one feel hungry! However, a church should make one hungry; hungry for God.

Bear in mind the reasons why people come to a church. Some will come in times of tragedy or disaster, such as the recent massacre at Littleton in Colorado. They are seeking God’s help to bear the pain of loss or suffering, and to try to make sense of something for which there is no satisfactory worldly explanation. Others will come to give thanks to God and rejoice with and in Him for the graces they have received: a proposal of marriage; the birth of a child; a new job or promotion. Some will come as a matter of routine, with faith that has grown tepid with familiarity: but the atmosphere they encounter should be one which challenges them to renew their commitment. All these things take place in the world, but all have a Divine dimension to them as well — indeed, this is their most important dimension! It is most appropriate that we should both find and express that Divine dimension in a church that displays and emphasizes that transcendence.

The design of churches can produce buildings that will affect thousands of people over the life of the building. Relatively few will visit a house; many will visit an office complex or shopping mall, but few will remember the atmosphere as being inspiring. Sensitive and inspired architects can create church designs which though very simple, due to budgetary and space restrictions, nonetheless use space and visual elements to draw people’s awareness to the supremacy of God, and to emphasize His Eucharistic presence, and the reality of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on His Cross. These churches will confront visitors, no matter how lukewarm their faith, with the intense and vibrant existence of God, portrayed and embodied in a physical structure. And many, many people will remember their encounters with our Lord, which were helped to become possible through these purposeful church designs.