One Problem with Modern Church Buildings

Our church needs a new building. It’s no secret among our people that the fellowship hall needs to go—it was built in the 1920s originally as a grocery store. It has a well in the basement. And the linoleum on the main floor looks like camouflage. So, our long-range planning committee is meeting and discussing the future of what we build.

But before we build, we must understand the philosophy of church buildings.

First, the church is not a building. The people who constitute the church, however, typically meet in a building regularly. A new building is one of the most dangerous proposals a church leader can make to congregants. Church facilities are one of the most expensive and most critical tools church leaders use in shepherding God’s people. In short, buildings are important pieces in God’s mission of building his kingdom.

Second, making the church building the locus of community should be a priority for church leaders. From a biblical and a practical standpoint, the church building should be the place where the local community congregates. John’s gospel reveals Jesus came to earth and dwelled among the community of people (John 1:14). Biblically, a church detached and isolated from the community is not following the example of Christ. Practically, uninviting church buildings make it difficult for church members to invite their friends and family to worship with them.

But why do many modern church buildings look the way they do? One big reason is the philosophy of pragmatism and its influence on modern architecture.

William James invented the philosophy of pragmatism in the early 1900s. His original goal was to create a philosophy for the common person—something everyone could grasp and use. James’ philosophy had several deficiencies. It denied absolutes. It encouraged selfishness. And it didn’t explain sacrificial giving. Pragmatism also laid the groundwork for the beginnings of postmodernity. But James’ philosophy was widely popular during his time, and it left a permanent mark in many areas of our society, including church buildings.

James’ influence on the philosophy of church buildings is largely positive, and three aspects of James’ philosophy are evident in how leaders direct the building of their churches. The first two have positively influenced churches, while the last has had a negative impact.

Building what works. Pragmatism focuses on what works. If it is beneficial and helps accomplish a goal, then it must be true. James believed in truth’s cash value. Something should satisfactorily work in order to be true. This philosophy has brought more attention to the function of the church building. The building is now used to help accomplish the vision of the church. Leaders should view the church building as an extension of their mission and vision. The needs of the community and the needs of the congregants determine what gets built. The space has a purpose, and this purpose is to help leaders accomplish the goal of making disciples.

Building what the community validates. Pragmatism elevated personal experience within a framework of community-validated truth. This philosophy has influenced how churches build worship centers to accommodate the elevated view of personal worship experience. James greatly valued experience. For him truth could not be found apart from the collective experience of the community. Church leaders build worship areas according to the collective thought of people in a local context. Ministry leaders today emphasize this context; they highlight what type of worship experience will satisfy and reach the most people. In fact, our research shows that the worship area is the most important space as rated by congregants. Worship centers are built with this broad appeal in mind. They are built primarily to enhance the worship experience of the people.

Building without consideration of the grand story. The flying buttress was an architectural invention used to support the vaulted ceilings of the immense Gothic cathedrals. These buttresses were needed because of the high walls, which made a theological statement about the exaltedness of God. In fact, these cathedrals were built with numerous theological symbols in mind. Many were shaped in the form of a cross. They were highly decorated. The architect’s job in building them was to figure out how to represent best the theology of the church. Christian leaders ensured the building itself symbolized the Christian metanarrative.

James’ pragmatism has helped change this philosophy. Most modern church buildings are not theological statements. No longer is the starting point theology, but rather how—pragmatically—people will experience worship. Function is elevated over theology. Many church buildings, unlike Gothic cathedrals, do not direct worshipers to the Christian metanarrative. They help facilitate connections among people in the collective worship experience (which is critically important), but they do not remind worshipers of the theology of worship.

So if you’re looking into a new church facility, remember the philosophy behind what you build. Pragmatism has benefits for church architecture, but it also has left some things behind. Few would want to return to the Gothic era (me included). However, a building can make a powerful statement about God’s story.

Build what works. Build what will enhance worship and discipleship. But also tell the gospel story with the building.

In the future, I’ll blog about how (practically) we are telling the gospel story though our new church building. We’re just beginning the process. More to come…

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Sam  Rainer
Sam S. Rainer III serves as president of Rainer Research (rainerresearch.com), a firm dedicated to providing answers for better church health. He also serves as senior pastor at Stevens Street Baptist Church in Cookeville, TN. He writes, speaks, and consults on church health issues. You can connect with Sam at twitter.com/samrainer, or at his blog, samrainer.wordpress.com.

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