Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Architecture of Worship

I am married to a builder. A very good one at that. He has given me an appreciation for my man-made surroundings. Over the years I have become increasingly concerned with the lack of architectural beauty and ingenuity that pervades our landscape.

As I look through pictures of buildings I can't help but wonder what has happened to our cities? Has the adage "don't judge a book by its cover" been applied to the places we inhabit as well, or did that cliche' first stem from our compromise with architectural beauty?

It seems to me that we can learn a lot about a person or people by the buildings they inhabit. For instance, when did we decide that it was okay for our places of worship to look like boxes?

My husband and I like to play a little game we call, "name that denomination." When we are traveling through a new town we try to guess what type of church we are looking at before we ever see a denomination name.

For instance, Episcopal churches are some of the prettiest little churches around. They are generally easy to spot. The steps always lead up to the small front door, which may or may not be hand-carved, and
is often, but not always, painted red. Stained glass is always present, and if the building is a few hundred years old, you might get lucky enough to find a church cemetery on the grounds. Episcopal churches are also generally quite small.

Contrast this to a Nazarene church. I'm sorry, nothing against Nazarenes, but did someone decide to design the ugliest building they could think of? Most Nazarene churches look the same. A long rectangular building, definitely Stoic inspired, with that ever popular - flat roof with minimal slant, usually painted a salmony-pink or other pastel color. Sometimes it is difficult to tell where the front door is on a Nazarene church - but rest assured, when you find it, it will be a big door. Hmm... gotta wonder if this says something about theology as well! For me, I prefer worshiping in a small front door, big back door type of church. But, that's another conversation.

Lutheran churches are also relatively easy to spot. They are larger than Episcopal churches and have stained glass, however, I think they're concerned with their dwindling numbers because they seem to be caught in a conundrum, unwilling to give up their Episcopal roots entirely, but secretly hoping to confuse unsuspecting worshippers from the Nazarene church.

I won't even mention the mega-non-denominational church. Besides, you wouldn't be able to find it, it just blends right in with all the other buildings around it. Like I said, our buildings reveal way more about us than we would ever be willing to admit.

"...One more question," Kung Chen urged. "Was it the compromisers or the resisters who came to our city?"
But Yang Anwei could not answer. Yet after a little while he said with his wrinkled smile, "I daresay it was the compromisers, for see how they have settled into our people! You have only to look at their ruined temple. Who goes there now to worship on their sacred day except a handful of them?"
"...There is something strange in them," he declared. " It is not in all of them but it is in some of them."
"What is the difference?" Kung Chen asked.
The old man hesitated and then he said shrewdly, "If they worship their god they are strange; if they do not worship him they are like other men. In my long life in this city I have seen that the worship of a special god makes a special people."
"Then what we should do," Kung Chen declared, "is to steal them away from their god, so that they will become like us."
Yang Anwei laughed noiseless old laughter. "Or else destroy their god," he retorted.
"How can we do that?" Kung Chen asked. "This god cannot be seen, he is not of stone or clay, as the gods of our common people are. He is a subtle god who lives only in their minds."
"Then destroy the god in their minds," Yang Anwei said.
"It is not hard to destroy that god."

~ Excerpt from Peony, by Pearl Buck


  1. I love your blog! It is great! And thought provoking. I love this post on churches - We also enjoy looking at the buildings different churches have and then discussing what we can learn about that church from their building. And I love the quote from Peony! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    Jen D

  2. I'm so glad to find another lover of church architecture as well! I find that it is a provocative subject. Thanks for the writing encouragement also!

  3. I am pleased to see that there are others at Trinity Church who think so much about the way architecture shapes our lives, especially with regard to homes and church buildings. We need to develop a culture that values aesthetics in these things and prioritizes it. Keep up the conversation, and we'll be cheering.

    Justin Appel