A few weeks ago, I attended an evening service at a southern California church that shall remain nameless. Its name doesn’t matter, because churches like this are a dime a dozen around here. The worship service convened in a mammoth rectangular building that was some sort of converted warehouse or light-industrial complex. It was like one long, ugly wedding banquet hall, jazzed up with stage lighting, several huge jumbotron screens, and, well, not much else that I can remember.
Don’t get me wrong. The service itself was great, and the band was great. God was there; it was a church.
But I found myself extremely distracted by the enormity and bland ugliness of the building I was supposed to be reverent and pious in. It was like trying to have a moment with God in CostCo or the huge storage section of IKEA. It was not impossible in this environment to get into the reverential mode; but it was certainly not easy.
I wondered: am I alone in feeling like we are missing something here? Why are evangelicals so unconcerned with a church building that is aesthetically pleasing? What happened to the Christian commitment to build beautiful cathedrals and sacred spaces that architects 1000 years from now will look back upon for inspiration?
Meanwhile, I had just read this article on Out of Ur blog, describing the results of a poll that asked non-Christians what sort of church architecture was most appealing to them. The results found that most unchurched adults preferred the gothic look, with the white-steeple-and-pillar exterior coming in second. In last place was the more contemporary office/warehouse aesthetic.
And yet, how many churches are bothering with gothic arches anymore? Or steeples? Or anything architecturally daring? Answer: next to none. Pastors today seem to think that money spent on “extravagant” building design is money wasted. It’s the old protestant thrift rearing it’s head again: the notion (unBibical, I would say) that “superfluity” or “needless adornment” is somehow a sin.
Don’t we serve a God of abundance? Isn’t he the God who gave the Israelites some pretty elaborate—some might say superfluous—instruction on building the tabernacle? (Even while they were wandering the desert, scared and hungry.) I mean, just look at his instructions for how he wanted them to build the lampstand:
"Make a lampstand of pure gold and hammer it out, base and shaft; its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms shall be of one piece with it. Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand—three on one side and three on the other. Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand.And on the lampstand there are to be four cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms. One bud shall be under the first pair of branches extending from the lampstand, a second bud under the second pair, and a third bud under the third pair—six branches in all. The buds and branches shall all be of one piece with the lampstand, hammered out of pure gold. (Exodus 25: 31-36).
Can you imagine the reaction of a pastor today who would get that instruction? They’d be like, “can’t we just buy a lampstand at Kohl's?”
The point is, we serve a God who does not seem to be offended when we are a tad superfluous in our resources—IF it is in worship of him. He didn’t seem to mind when the sinful woman washed his feet with expensive perfume, after all.
So why don’t we take the money we have and make some beautiful buildings again? Why don’t we hire Richard Meier to design a church like this for our next building project?
Yeah, it’s a risky proposition; yes, it’s too much money. But everything we spend money on is a risk. Why not invest in beauty for a change?