A sermon “zinger” used to encourage church plants instead of resuscitating old churches goes like this: “It is easier to have a baby than to raise the dead!” Jesus, however, did only the latter. Evangelism is a bit more complicated than the sound bite conveys, simply because people are. Whether or not they are consciously aware of it, many non-Christians are seeking a deeper, ecclesial reality in their life, not a gospel that caters to their present one. If non-Christians go to church, or back to church, a significant percentage of them want it to look, architecturally, like a traditional church. If you doubt this assertion, look into Lifeway’s recent survey that shows it to be true.
This is why Christopher Benson’s Hosting the Holy One post on beauty in our churches is not merely a concern for hipster Christian aesthetes, but for anyone who cares about evangelism. Preserving old churches – especially our endangered pre-modern ones – should therefore be considered alongside the prospect of building new ones. (Though it is fair to hope that such restorations will not replicate the disorientation and iconoclastic purging to which some well-meaning congregations have unfortunately resorted.) Even when building anew, however, churches should consider constructing in traditional styles. A vanguard of traditional architecture, centered at Notre Dame, is growing, and as the New Liturgical Movement points out, it is not necessarily more expensive to build that way. For more, see the Institute for Sacred Architecture or Philip Bess’ excellent book Till We Have Built Jerusalem. Evangelicalism boasts a great variety of architectural styles in its history, and they can be recovered.
But, some might ask, Isn’t the pragmatic modern style of architecture more conducive to pragmatic evangelicalism? Not by a longshot. In An Architecture of Immanence, Mark Torgerson demonstrated the alliance of Protestant liberalism (to which evangelicalism is traditionally opposed) and architectural modernism. His diligently researched book concludes that flat, immanent modern architecture is uniquely suited to mid-century liberal Protestant denial of the supernatural, both of which (he seems to subtly imply) have been outmoded. Before evangelicals build in the modern, pragmatic style, therefore, they might want to consider whether or not the architecture they worship in will be counteracting the sermons preached therein for decades to come. It is impossible for architecture to be neutral.
Still, I’m not too hopeful about the possibilities for an evangelical recovery of traditional architecture. Having spurned the superior resources of Christendom, evangelicals have great difficulty detaching themselves from our dominant culture, and architecture is no exception. In addition, our economic downturn will do much to regenerate that ancient argument (John 12:5) against extravagance in worship, as if the poor were not ministered to by beauty as well. God, needless to say, does not require exquisite buildings, and “wherever two or three or gathered” still, of course, holds true. But as the “easier to have a baby than raise the dead!” dictum catches on, we best brace ourselves for Chick-fil-A church plants (available on Sundays!), or some really ugly babies.
[crossposted at North American Churches]