Intelligent design for places of worship

Can architects construct sacred space?

“The Church isn’t a building, it’s people”, say the evangelical congregations. Buildings are de-emphasized; there is no more “sacred space”, special places set apart and built by people to be literally inhabited by God, because we understand God to be omnipresent. He doesn’t need a human place in order to reveal Himself to us.  I agree with Diana Eck: “Architects don’t construct the sacred – how could they?” What an impossible task that would be. Miroslav Volf says that the sacred is essentially non-producible by human effort, and non-REproducible as well. In the history of the world people have constructed many beautiful spaces (not necessarily churches) where we somehow feel closer to God. The world needs places like that, no question; as we’ve been taught, however, connecting with God can occur in your living room, in your car, or anywhere in between. You don’t have to go to a building to do it.

Church or mall?

If you’re going to construct “sacred” space, you better be prepared to spend some money. A place where the God of the Universe lives can’t simply use common materials; it’s a special place, set apart. It has to be well constructed in every way. Therefore, since God doesn’t need a home, rather than spend money on exquisite buildings we spend it ministering to people in our community and around the world. No doubt that’s a major part of what we’re called to do in life. Perhaps it’s no surprise that, as Edwin Heathcote says, “The out-of-town megachurch has to contend with the mega-mart, the big shed retailers for the Sunday audience… and [they] remain profoundly cynical about the importance of space… quick to erect and cheap to run”. Our buildings for worship and ministry (I’m hesitant to even call them “churches”, because the church is people) become bland and indistinguishable from the local mall, office building or movie theatre. And the church seems to be okay with that.

Buildings shape us

But as an architect I’m continually thinking about the nature of built space all around me and the profound way, even on a sub-conscious level, it affects my life. And then I imagine how it could be better. Consider Winston Churchill’s words: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Look around and you can probably guess which people live, work and shop in poorly designed buildings, just from the expression on their faces! The average person spends 90% of their lives in buildings, so you know from personal experience what I’m talking about. Conversely, when you walk into a well designed, carefully considered and skillfully executed building you know it right away. It’s uplifting, you feel somehow more alive.

Dwelling in the House of the Lord

In the Psalms, David talks about “dwelling in the house of the Lord” (Ps 23:6, 27:4) which, by most accounts, refers to a spiritual dwelling or the afterlife. Until Christians get to heaven, however, they have to dwell on this earth. What does that really mean though, to dwell here on earth? Martin Heidegger defines it as “the way in which humans fulfill their wandering from birth to death on earth under the sky.” And we are wanderers; God’s curse in Genesis 4:12 makes it very clear, “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” As we wander the earth in our lostness, we long for everything to be made right again, to regain our lost place in the world. Reconciliation. You’ve probably felt it too. Christian Norberg-Schulz talks about dwelling as not just a roof and a number of square feet, but in the qualitative sense, to belong to a place, to find meaningfulness. “When we identify with a place, we dedicate ourselves to a way of being in the world” he says. And again “Human identity presupposes the identity of place.” The post-modern sense of alienation and arbitrariness we see all around us (even within the church community) I think is at least partially caused by a lack of identity with place, that is, a loss of meaningful places in our cities, public institutions and yes, even (perhaps especially) our homes.

Qualities of Space

There is a direct connection between the quality of the spaces I inhabit and my underlying satisfaction with life. Please note I’m not demanding luxury or opulence at every turn, or expensive materials on every surface, as in a place you might define as “sacred”. It’s not about that. It’s about carefully considering (i.e. “designing”) our fundamental relationship to our surroundings. Heidegger calls these basic elements of existence the four-fold: earth and sky, people and divinity. Well designed architecture will consider our relationship with the ground, how the building is situated on it or in it (“of it” as Frank Lloyd Wright said about a house on a hill). It will pay attention to the quality of light at various times of day, made evident by the sun’s shifting position in the sky and the quality of the atmosphere. Architect Steven Holl, for instance, conceptualized the Chapel of St. Ignatius with no less than seven different types of light in various parts of the building. Much of this was accomplished with careful spatial organization, placement of windows, paint and drywall, but what an amazing result! Meaningful space will also address in some way the relationship between humans and the divine, obviously especially important in buildings for worship. In other words, “design” matters.

Homogeneity Rules

When our places for worship become indistinguishable from the other types of buildings around us, when their quality of space is more or less homogenous with the rest of the world, how will it affect the Christian community? My daughter’s friend, when visiting our church for the first time, said that it looks like a mall! What does one do in a mall if not consume stuff, either physically or visually. Should we be surprised that Christian values are slowly being eroded, replaced by marketplace values? If our places of worship do not properly allow us to identify with Christianity, with what will we then identify?

More meaningful spaces

What we desperately need is more “intelligent design” in our cities, public institutions and homes. We need more spaces that enable dwelling, in the true sense of the word, allowing people to identify with place as a means of being in the world. In other words, to help bring about true meaningfulness to our short time here on earth.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. Are there particular meaningful places in your life? What places do you identify with?

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10 Responses to Intelligent Design for Places of Worship

  1. Pastor Ed Gregorcic says:

    Well said…Kelly has clearly expressed the importance that a well thought out ‘space’ plays in our worship experience, the space should not be a hindrance to one’s experience, rather the space should allow for the experience. Keeping in mind that we’re speaking about the sublime, the transcendent and the Holy Spirit is not confined to time nor space . Therefore the church building/space is just that, a space where the church (Ecclesia – called out ones) meets for the exultation of Christ and the administration of the Holy ordinances and as such is a means to (a tool to serve) the end.

  2. Great thoughts Kelly! I think there are many different facets to what creates a sense of belonging in a space, which is really at the heart of the message about Christianity in particular…we belong to this new sense of family, a spiritual family, which is why there is great emphasis in evangelical circles on reminding ourselves that the places we gather do matter, but they may not be the focal point of our faith experience.

    I think one challenge that spatial design for faith communities that doesn’t necessarily get a lot of focus is the reality that whatever space is created, it needs to be appealing to a multi-generational and multi-ethnic community. The context for where these spaces are built (rural, urban, domestic, international) plays a role in helping to determine what is needed, but also what would be most inviting to a majority of people.

    I wonder if there is room to experiment with the traditional expectation a little bit. Take for instance the concept of the worship space. Typically it is everyone facing toward a stage of some sort, elevating the reality of a top-down kind of experience, but what if the space became more focused on the community and less focused on the production? Perhaps a space that was more circular in nature with a stage in the middle, or to the side would achieve the sense of togetherness, belonging and community that most of these spaces are hoping to produce?

    Personally speaking, when I enter a space I am looking for evidence of being inviting in nature: clean lines and unique structural elements that produce a sense of wonder or discovery.

    • Sounds like you’re very spatially perceptive, Jason! Coincidentally there are some ideas in a couple of books I’m reading now that are directly related to your comments. One is that there are basic or “archetypal” conditions in our physical world that are experienced in the same way by everyone. The idea is that we can make architecture that has consistent and predictable psychological effects on people of any generation or ethnicity: “inviting”, “welcoming”, “energetic”, “contemplative”, etc. To make meaningful buildings we need to design with these conditions in mind. The other thing I’m reading about is how the physical form of our church buildings throughout history has actually influenced the development of Christianity itself. That may be a future blog topic, so stay tuned!

  3. Jean Claude says:

    Thank you for this opportunity. Both, the Christian and the architect agree with your blog.
    The New Testament Church is not a building. The “assembly” (ekklesia) Greek word for church, is used 115 times in the New Testament. At least 92 times this word refers to a local congregation. Other references are to Christ body of believers in all nations for all ages. Catholic (universal) or local, the church always refers to a spiritual organism under Christ. Because the universal church will not become a tangible reality until Christ’s return, the New Testament emphasis is placed upon the idea of the local church, a constructed dwelling, where Christians assemble in a given time and place. This being said, there is absolutely no reason why it should not be (in your words) “a well-designed, carefully considered and skillfully executed building.
    God bless

    • The interesting thing, Jean Claude, is that as humans, our mind, body and spirit cannot be separated; what affects one also affects the others. That’s why I think architecture is so important, because our physical environments (where our bodies exist) have such power to positively or negatively influence our minds and spirits as well.

  4. Hey Kelly! Thanks for linking me to this. Great post. A ton of stuff to chew on here…

    My simple response would be, “I agree.” Let me qualify that a bit…

    The past 50 years in (North American) church life have, indeed, been characterized by what you mentioned…an overwhelming attitude and mentality of consumerism. Sometimes inadvertently, but (most often) deliberately, church leaders have created experiences and offered “products,” in a sense, to Christians and the general public, hoping this model of attraction might be an in-road to sharing the Gospel. Our buildings (or lack thereof) have reflected this values.

    But perhaps the pendulum has swung too far. The contemporary model of church, really, at its best, was about trying to engage more people with the message of Jesus. Not a bad goal! But we’ve missed some steps along the way. There’s a certain utilitarian feeling to our worship spaces that most definitely could (and should) be re-thought in terms of spiritual nurture, and (as Jason alluded to) communal focus. The gathering of God’s people is not meant to be a consumer event (where we come, download a bunch of information, experiences, and content). It’s meant to be a celebration of God’s work in and among us, and a time to build one another up, fuelling the community for life on mission.

    Beauty, use of light, and other design elements are crucial in achieving these goals. And, for the vast majority of church history, they have been! Perhaps a piece of the current pushback against the consumer model needs to be a re-evaluation of the spaces we’re creating.

    Here’s what stuck out the most to me from your post:

    “Meaningful space will also address in some way the relationship between humans and the divine, obviously especially important in buildings for worship. In other words, “design” matters.”

    One final thought: we are created by an infinitely creative God…something I think we Evangelicals, especially, tend to forget. Creativity, design, art, and beautiful things are not a distraction from the spiritual life, rather, they are a central expression of it! As we are in God’s image, part of that includes creating things ourselves.

    Blessings, Kelly, hope you’re doing well!! Thanks for the thoughts.

    • When I think of consumerism I think of short term, grab-and-go, quickly digested and on to the next thing. Maybe okay for pop culture and fashion, but for cultural institutions such as Christianity the cycle of change is much longer. I think there is an interesting dichotomy that may be unique to church buildings: on one hand we’re on this earth temporarily, so architectural expression of transcendence is appropriate; on the other hand Christianity as a cultural phenomenon has been around for more than two millennia, so church buildings should express some of that permanence. Instead of making buildings that last a couple of decades, why shouldn’t we be creating buildings that last for centuries, or even longer, and what would that look like?

  5. John Linden says:

    Kelly, I’m interested in the future blog on “how the physical form of our church buildings throughout history has actually influenced the development of Christianity itself”.

    What book are you reading on that topic?

    • It’s an interesting book called “Sacred power, sacred space: an introduction to Christian architecture and worship” by Jeanne Halgren Kilde. Quite often in the history of church architecture, changes in the physical expression of church buildings were brought about not by functional necessities of the church itself but by local political or social forces, which in turn influenced the characteristics of Christianity.

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