One Problem with Modern Church Buildings

Sam Rainer

August 16, 2010

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…

13 comments on “One Problem with Modern Church Buildings”

  1. Ed Eubanks says:

    Good post, Sam.

    Three (mostly) anecdotal follow-ups:

    First (and less anecdotal), there are some very good books on the confluence of church and architecture. While naturally focusing more on worship spaces than more mundane spaces like a fellowship hall (and I mean “mundane” in the classical sense), these books offer insightful voices into the concerns you mention. It is vital, I think, to incorporate the Gospel into the architecture— which is a medium of expression like so many other cultural artifacts.

    Second, there’s a pretty outstanding contemporary example of embracing architecture as a medium in this way in Covenant Presbyterian Church of Nashville (that link is to a video— ~8min.— that is a brief documentary of their sanctuary and why they built it that way). This example is, admittedly, on the extreme end of that spectrum; Covenant Presbyterian Church has taken some “heat” for how they chose to use the money they spent on it. But I think a lot of their principles are sound, regardless of where you come down on that question.

    Third: James actually disliked that his term “pragmatism” became so popular, because he felt that such labels were, ironically, not pragmatic— so he switched his nomenclature to refer to it as “pragmaticism” instead! (That’s my University of South Carolina Philosophy education at work, right there.)

  2. Sam Rainer says:

    Great insights, Ed. And thanks for the link!

    You’re correct. James did not like the term pragmatism (which actually began with his friend, Charles Peirce), but since it became popular (which is what he wanted), it stuck. James most preferred the term “humanism” for his philosophy (which now has a whole different meaning). Personally, I like saying “that’s very pragmatic” instead of “that’s very humanistic.” 🙂

    1. Dennis says:

      Pragmatism does not focus on what works. Pragmatism focuses on meaning, especially among communities. I think you are confusing the current use of the phrase “politically pragmatic” and pragmatism as the discipline. The philosophy that assigns value to purpose is the philosophy of utility, or utilitarianism (although, utilitarianism is even more complicated than what you are describing). This is why Peirce could give the Humble Argument for God, because pragmatism does not focus on personal or communal truth, but on meaning enforced by community. As such, Peirce is also knows as the father of Semiotics.

      I think attempting to understand church buildings as designed community-meaning creation is an interesting idea (what I think you are attempting to say). However, making such a claim involves a better understanding of pragmatism, if indeed pragmatism is necessary for the understanding of church architecture.

      1. Sam Rainer says:

        Dennis – thanks for your comments. I would have to disagree with you on James’ pragmatism. You say, “pragmatism does not focus on what works.” But James himself claims the opposite in Pragmatism. According to James, something is true only to the extent that it helps a person’s experience and remains consistent with other ideas. Claims are valid only if they lead to practical changes in an individual’s experience and fit within the collective experience of the community. James called this collective community experience the “stock of opinions.” James contended the “only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience’s demands” (p. 522, Writings 1902-1910. New York: The Library of America.)

        I will admit that James was a divided personality. He sought to reconcile science and religion—to make each “work” together. He wanted to believe in Darwinian biology and a supreme Creator. He wanted to reconcile the tender-minded rationalist and the tough-minded empiricist. Pragmatism was his attempt to bridge the divide between two poles. However, he tends to lean one way or the other. He is more empiricist than rationalist, more religious than irreligious, and more pluralistic than monist.

        And I do believe that James’ philosophy has had an impact on church buildings. Most churches build with practical considerations and not theological considerations. And without James’ “what works is true” philosophical influence, I don’t think this would be as true. …of course, James would argue it is true since it’s been validated by the community 🙂

  3. Rodney says:

    Could it be a bit overarching to assume that if a church builds a practical building that they did not consider theology? Could it be that this church chooses to go simple and – in your summation “pragmatic” – to use dollars more wisely on a building used only a few hours each week and chooses to tell the gospel story in other ways? Could it be that when a modern church comes out of a portable setting (like our church is in now) where the use of technology and arts is required to move people to the awe and reverence once inspired by architecture that they simply want to keep with what God has been using in their midst? Could it be that implying a church has embraced pragmatism if they don’t have classical architecture is somewhat Pharisaical and legalistic since there is absolutely no prescriptive truth in Scripture regarding the specifics of the building where the New Testament church gathers? Finally, could it be that implying pragmatism because a building doesn’t match your personal preference or what inspires you personally to worship is a hasty generalization?

    Just a few questions to consider before making such sweeping generalizations 😉

  4. Sam Rainer says:

    Rodney – Thanks for your questions (they are good ones), but I think you’re reading into my thoughts a bit much. In future posts–as we build–I’ll detail how to tell the gospel story with a building WITHOUT classical architecture and millions of dollars, and to do so WITH technology and the arts. My point is simply that theology needs to be our starting point and not pragmatism (in everything the church does, not just with buildings). A suburban box building can just as easily tell the gospel story as a cathedral, but I believe many (not all) church leaders do not keep this in mind when they build.

    For instance, conversations typically begin like, “How can we take this space/acreage and get the most people in it?” or “How can this parking lot fit the most cars?” or “How can we create a worship experience that is attractive to the most people?” That’s pragmatism, which helps the church become more efficient. It’s a good thing.

    What I don’t hear, however, are conversations beginning like, “How can this building tell the Christian metanarrative to the next several generations?”

    You can do both–have theology as a starting point, but also be pragmatic in building.

  5. Rodney says:

    “You can do both–have theology as a starting point, but also be pragmatic in building.”

    Love it! Couldn’t agree more there.

    Just had to pry a little…I learned a little debating skill living with John David for a year at UT 😉

    I love the work you do for the Church. Keep it up for our generation!

  6. Sam Rainer says:

    Thanks Rodney. Good discussion…and I appreciate you prying a little. God’s blessings to you as well.

  7. Terry Reed says:

    As the mission I pastor is looking to build soon, I relate to your article. Small mission congregations have to be especially pragmatic simply from a financial standpoint. However, the goal should be to build the building that will best help you minister the gospel which cannot be confined to a building. Thanks for the great insights.

    Terry Reed

  8. As architects who design church buildings, we struggle every day to try to help our church clients come to grips ith this issue. Is worship about buildings? Do buildings really impact how we worship? Can one worship better in one environment as opposed to another? Christians have discussed these questions ever since we began moving our worship services out of our homes into larger public spaces, sometime in the first couple of hundred years after the founding of the Church. Today, we are very aware of how expensive buildings are and how much of our resources they can absorb. This concern about cost makes it easier to justify the “Big Box” church building where pragmatism is all that matters. Indeed, many church leaders insist we design only with the unchurched and the unbeliever in mind. They think that any traditional element can be a “turnoff” to the unchurched and therefore, we must design to meet the needs and expectations of the outsider – the plainer the better. After all, we don’t want to offend anyone with overt Christian forms or symbols. Can architecture provide for both the pragmatic and the devine? Can a building help convey the Gospel? Can architecture contribute to our worship of God? Absolutely! Otherwise, I would not be an architect.

  9. rongeyer says:

    A useful (pragmatic?) test of where a congregation has begun the task of building is to uncover the question that serves as its foundation. Many churches begin by asking “WHAT should be built?” and make a nice object. Others get around to asking “HOW will this serve the ministry to which we are called?” and make an effective tool. Too few ask “WHY are we here?” Those that do, are best able to undertake God-honoring ministry” with both the tools and objects that result.

    Ron Geyer, AIA

  10. Duncan Lennox says:

    How refreshing to stumble upon this discussion. It is encouraging to find I am not alone in the world in trying to think through a biblical philosophy on things beyond personal salvation and personal piety. As a member of a church which is likely to put up the biggest plainest box it can for the money, I found the discussion helpful for my own thinking. Pragmatism is like a bad infection, once contracted is hard to eliminate. I look forward to seeing how the discussion develops.

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