A few years ago I wrote a post about church buildings which garnered a bit of discussion on social media. Some coming from a similar background (namely, Chinese churches) echoed my concerns and others suggested that I was too simplistic in my analysis. And to be fair, those disagreeing with me were probably right. After reading the article again, I confess that I was quite emotional about the matter, especially since I was seeing churches that I personally know sink further into stagnation, and it was my hope that a simple post like this would raise the issue in at least the hearts and minds of my peers so that we can make better and more Gospel-minded decisions when we are in positions to do so.
Nevertheless, I stand by the premise that the church is not a building but a body. More specifically, it is a body of believers called by God and formed by the Gospel on a mission to see disciples made. As such, while buildings are important, the health of the body is far more significant.
And yet…there is a lot to say about church buildings, and this recent article published by The Gospel Coalition titled The Underrated Strategic Value of Church Buildings helpfully draws our attention to that. I commend this article to you because it raises a number of pertinent issues, and so I won’t repeat what the author has to say.
But there is one thing that I will note. In an age that values profit and productivity over everything else, church buildings do communicate something profound about the human condition that other buildings do not. Buildings are about space and how we design our space is intimately related to what we value. For example, if efficiency and productivity are the core values of an organisation, then little effort will be given to building spaces that encourage creativity and community. Buildings will thus tend towards going upwards because land space is expensive (and remember, it’s about minimising cost) and we’ll try to cram as many people into one room as possible (did someone say open office or hot desking?!) Now for an organisation which seeks to maximise profit, this makes total sense. To be sure, increasing amounts of studies have been released to show that this type of architecture is actually having an adverse effect on productivity, but that’s a discussion for another time. But do you see? How we allocate space depends on what we value.
And this is why one of my professors mentioned that St Andrew’s Cathedral in the Sydney CBD stands in sharp contrast to its surrounding buildings. Rather than building upwards and maximising every square inch of the building, the Cathedral is spread across a relatively big piece of land that could have been used to build apartments/offices instead. Instead of being a multi-storey complex, the Cathedral is a humble building which sole purpose is to enable sinners, saints, and sceptics to gather to know God. The building itself communicates that it is not about profit or productivity, but that worship and witness is crucial to the Christian faith. In the midst of a busy business district, the physical building of a church stands as a sore thumb reminding onlookers that the human being is more than work and efficiency. Instead, it is fundamentally about who God is, who we are in light of who He is, and who we worship. God matters, relationship matters, worship matters, preaching matters. And so buildings can powerfully portray these realities that are often neglected in the buildings that we are used to. Additionally, Christian buildings (and I’m not just talking about the church now) can also reaffirm the Christian belief about the goodness of aesthetics. Beauty and art are all part of God’s good creation and it appears that we have lost our sense of that in our over-industrialised world. So much of ancient architecture, music, art, literature, and the like were works of Christians who held that we are vice-regents of God’s creation, called to exercise godly dominion over all. Perhaps it is time for us to recapture our sense of this and seal it in stone.
As such, I hope no one hears me say that church buildings are not important. They are. But let’s never lose sight of the fact that we are most fundamentally called to build the body.