Shape of Things to Come?

Michael Metzger

American Christians are generally a happy lot – but don’t act very holy. Surveys indicate American believers behave about as badly as those who don’t attend church. There are all sorts of contributors to this calamity, but how many consider architecture’s role?

America has no lack of believers. Gallup surveys indicate 94 percent of Americans believe in God and 74 percent claim to have made a commitment to Jesus Christ. About 34 percent confess to a “new birth” experience. The problem is a lack of holiness. As Dallas Willard notes, what is “natural” for Christians – “in terms of unethical actions, crime, mental distress and disorder, family failures, addictions, and financial misdealings” – is just as natural for those who don’t attend church.1 It’s a problem rooted in part in not understanding the connection between creation and holiness.

In the beginning, the earth was formless and void. Nothing was distinctive; everything was everything. God divided the chaos into categories. “The Book of Genesis,” writes Iain McGilchrist, “speaks of God creating by dividing – the earth from the heavens, the sea from the dry land, the night from the day, and so on.”2 An agnostic, McGilchrist recognizes dividing is related to holiness, which can mean other. God is holy, other than creation. The holy God differentiates the formless, denoting this particular thing is different (other than) that particular thing. This makes human flourishing possible. Humans can’t flourish if they can’t differentiate between good and evil.

These distinctions go all the way to architecture. God is omnipresent – everywhere – but everything and everywhere is not holy in a fallen world. God’s presence is more vivified in particular places, less so in others. The Jews symbolized this in constructing the Holy of Holies in the temple. This sacred place vivified God’s holy presence. It was supposed to vivify holiness in believers. For centuries the church erected these kinds of sacred places, distinct settings necessary for shaping deep desires for holiness. People still experience this when visiting older cathedrals. They become reflective, solemn.

These sacred places took a backseat beginning in the European Reformation. According to McGilchrist, the Reformers “were keen to do away with the concrete instantiations of holiness in any one place or object.” Reacting to Roman formalism, the Reformers said the church existed literally everywhere, so “actual churches became less significant: every place was as good as any other in which to hold a service. The force of this was that every place was as holy as any other, provided the word of God could be proclaimed there, which by definition it could.”

Preaching is important, but as the sermon replaced the Eucharist as centerpiece of the service, “sacred centres gave way to centres of attention,” writes American art historian Joseph Koerner.3 He was referring to the physical layout of churches. The focus was no longer the altar and the sacraments, but the pulpit and the sermon. Spiritual formation became nothing more than information, writes Calvin College professor James K. A. Smith. And that information isn’t usually dispensed until midway through the service.

I recently observed this while visiting a well-known church in a major U.S. city. It met in a theater, offering several weekend services. I arrived early for the 10:00am service, having been told that over 2,000 people attend, filling every theater seat. That proved unnecessary. At 10:00am less than 50 people had moseyed in. By 10:15 a couple hundred had made it. By 10:30 the theater was nearly full – just in time for the sermon.

Can you imagine arriving 30 minutes late for an important business meeting? “If everything and everywhere is holy,” McGilchrist writes, “then nothing and nowhere is holy.” When there are no distinctive worship settings – if a gym or theater is as good as a sanctuary – worship becomes secondary. The service becomes a series of songs serving as warm-up for the sermon. That’s why so many show up so late.

It’s also why so many show up so infrequently. Amy O’Leary reports in the New York Times about new churches meeting in art galleries, yoga studios, business incubators, coffee shops, and movie theaters. They’re “part of a wave of experimentation around the country by evangelicals to reinvent ‘church’ in an increasingly secular culture.”4 These churches are popping up “as the megachurch boom of recent decades, with stadium seating for huge crowds, faces strong headwinds.” These headwinds are leading younger evangelicals to downsize (a good idea) but deemphasize sacred places. These moves draw younger people, but do they develop desires for holiness? The jury is out.

One church reports enthusiastic crowds but an annual turnover rate of nearly 40 percent. Is that what holiness looks like? According to another study, published in 2005 in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion by sociologists C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler, attendance at these churches is sporadic. Though members report being happy with these kinds of churches, is infrequent attendance a mark of holiness?

We’d do well to tap the wisdom of Winston Churchill. “First we shape our buildings, then they shape us.” If coffeehouses are the shape of things to come, we can reliably forecast the shape of believers’ behaviors. It’s not promising. Granted, building a sanctuary is beyond the means of most new churches. But there are other ways to skin this cat. Some church plants, Anglican for example, rent existing churches and meet on Sunday afternoon or evening. It can be done. But it requires appreciating the role of the built environment, architecture, in building desires for godly living.

1 Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 209.
2 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)
3 Joseph Koerner, The Reformation of the Image (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004), pp. 420-21.
4 Amy O’Leary, “Building Congregations Around Art Galleries and Cafes as Spirituality Wanes,” The New York Times, December 29, 2012.


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  1. Mike, thank you very much for writing this. I have shared it w/an architect friend who thinks about architecture much in the vein that yourself and Dr. Garber do. I’m sure he will enjoy it. I have also shared it w/a friend who is a music minister at an Anglican church plant that meets in a high school in Vienna. They are surely on the cusp of being able to afford to build and/or rent space from another “holy” building, so I hope he will enjoy it.

    Sadly, you are correct that we have lost much of what it means to be the “body of Christ” because we do not hold the “body and blood” of the Sacrament in its proper order in worship. I’m reminded of the Scriptures where the Apostle challenges the way that the church of the first century practiced the “Holy Meal.” It obviously wouldn’t have been a big deal if people showed up late and didn’t get any if it wasn’t considered an important part of regular worship meetings, right?

  2. Having “backpacked” through the cathedrals of Europe, I would agree that they stir up a sense of awe/worship/separate from the world that I agree is vital. I think we also see the same “slacking off” in the wearing jeans and flip flops to worship, but that’s a different essay. I so want to question your idea that “Humans can’t flourish if they can’t differentiate between good and evil” as I have always considered the Garden of Eden “perfect flourishing” and that eating the fruit to know the difference between good and evil was the fall. I think humans can’t flourish without seeking and following the will of God which will always keep you on the side of good. Small, technical point. Good premise and essay.

  3. Interesting! There are many thoughts here, Mike, which are compelling and important to take account of today. I particularly appreciated your treatment of creation as ‘division’ – as distinguishing between, e.g. self and ‘other’. I find this particularly compelling when I consider that the world’s current focus appears to be on dismantling distinctions. “Equal rights” has come to mean we’re all identical – and with animal rights and environmental activists chiming in, pretty soon we’re all just “nature” – or something. . . .

    We are losing our ability any distinguish legitimately between old, young, animal, human, male, female, athletic, academic, pregnant, or not, diseased or disabled, healthy, natural, manmade. . . . let alone good or evil; right or wrong.

    With respect to “Holy places” it’s such a fine line, isn’t it, to where we compartmentalize God to a particular place and, by definition, effectively exclude Him from other places? I think the Evangelical attempts to spread the Holy to all of our world – including coffee shops – is admirable to the extent that it remembers and celebrates God’s immanence. Unfortunately, worshipping in shopping malls and coffee shops tends to veil the opposite attribute in paradox: God’s transcendence. His Holiness.

    Likewise, the attempt to praise God with music of ‘today’ – in amplified worship bands that (with the exception of the lyrics) do not differ appreciably from anything you’d hear on the radio – is all well and good to keep the praise of God constantly on our lips. At some point, though, the songs no longer seem sacred. They’re ‘every day’! I think one part of the ‘showing up late’ to church is for that very reason. The “worship band” feels more like entertainment, punctuated by amplified exhortations to stand, to sit, to raise your hands, to clap your hands, to sing to God, to listen, etc. It seems very far from Holy Worship. It feels more like a pep rally.

    For years now, my singing has been almost exclusively of “sacred” music. . . .

    On one level, I could find it encouraging that people are not showing up for the musical floor show, even as they do find it important to show up for the sermon – which I would hope is still a thoughtful presentation of God’s Word to His people. . . .

    I don’t know where we got this idea that church attendance must be “enthusiastic”. I don’t know where we got the idea that churches – to be healthy – must be big and ever-growing. As to the protestant – and especially the evangelical idea of what the sacraments are all about, well, that’s been problematic for a while now, hasn’t it? Anyway, it seems clear to me that God is dismantling a lot of our ideas about what “church” is.

    It will be interesting to see where He takes us.

    Meanwhile, thank you – as ever – for your very thoughtful observations.

  4. Maybe the root is in the shaping of our own temples. Those able to reach a place of Worship are perceived as holy. Those unable to, are perceived as unholy. However, if as temples of the Holy Spirit we treasure the temple contents we come to celebrate where two or three gather.
    Conscious of those who are no longer able to, facilitating opportunities for them to meet where they are. Meet where people are not where you expect them to be. Women at the well and Emmaus road come to mind. The prompting to break bread and fellowship around the Word is apt. Ark of testimony ever present.

  5. Dear Marble:

    In many ways, your comments are more helpful than mine. Yes, so many questions. I’d enjoy seeing you take them up further in a future column. Game?

  6. Mike, I remember our old DTS Church History prof saying, the Methodists were loosing many members so they decided there needed to be an emphasis on holiness, and out of that was born the “Holiness Movement.”
    I have been praying for more than 30 years for a spiritual awakening in our country based upon God’s mercy, we certainly can’t generate it through any other means, especially architecture or icons. RVH

  7. Rich:

    No one is saying architecture “generates” anything. It contributes however to our flourishing as humans. You intuitively sense this, since you don’t live in a 400 square-foot cinderblock abode. If beauty does not contribute to your sense of well-being, why then do you include art and good food and colors and music in your home? Communism believed architecture and aesthetics do little to enhance life. If you doubt this, visit a 1960s Moscow high rise. Observe how buildings shape human behavior. Not pretty. The Christian faith has always held that beauty is beneficial and central to God’s nature. The gospel is about human flourishing – requiring aesthetics – and not merely sustainability – which requires as little as possible to survive.

  8. Thanks for taking up my favorite subject, Mike! I find myself cycling between poles on the “sacred space” thing, because I want to affirm with Kuyper that “every square inch” belongs to God. But I also don’t want local churches thinking that any place that keeps the rain out is good enough for worship. So I’m torn.

    I do agree, though, that seeing the sermon as the focal point of public worship may be an Enlightenment distortion that we should address.

    Thanks for this.

  9. Mike:

    Weren’t the first Christians more in the ancient coffeeshops vs. church buildings? Those lovely churches weren’t around in the early church (at least I don’t think they were)were they? I more imagine the early believers sitting around drinking grande pomegranate juice, no whip, room for cream vs sitting in a respectful building. I’m probably wrong.

    Agreed that the sermon has become the center piece. But again, the idea of a pastor as a vocation, that isn’t biblical right?

    I believe that in modern evangelical yoga/coffee house/mega churches, people show up for the sermons- skipping music, not because they aren’t moved by the music, but because there are many good speakers, and many folks in my generation didn’t ever experience gripping sermons growing up. Where I grew up, in the Methodist church, we would show up on time for Granny Smith to play the organ, and then fall asleep for the sermon. 🙂 I woke up when the plate was passed. I always had my quarters in a tiny envelope. Was always amazed when I saw a 10 dollar bill.

    I am very thankful for the evangelicals willingness to be in theaters and high schools and coffee shops. It is what drew me in 15 years ago. That you didn’t’ have to talk to a priest to know God nor sit in a steepled building to try to talk to him. I think it is more about what is happening inside the places than the places themselves. Just my opinion.

  10. Casey:

    … and a worthy opinion!

    A few tweaks. The early church was primarily Jewish for its first 300 years. It often met in synagogues. Pastors weren’t primarily preachers. They were shepherds – and often viewed as rich resources in the community at large as uncommonly wise men who could contribute to the flourishing of the city. Of course they preached. But it was simply a part of what they did. My point was architecture indicates an elevation of that role that’s unprecedented.

    As for your upbringing, that’s sad to hear – but I had the same experience. I would however counter that bad example make bad law. Methodists, as well as Anglicans and Catholics, don’t believe you have to talk to a priest to talk to God. Second, what drew you to church was not a theater but Jesus (“no man comes to the Father except I draw him”). I get your point – humanly speaking, a theater was attractive. But Peter Berger has a wise counterpoint. In America, the problem is not drawing a crowd. It’s the kind of Christians that are formed (malformed, actually) in part due to the environment (architecture, style of service). When you draw people to a coffee shop, you unwittingly foster a consumerist orientation to the faith. That goes a long way toward explaining the exponential growth in church staff. When you meet in a theater, you unwittingly foster a patron mindset. Churchill was right. First we shape our buildings. Then they shape us.

    These are complex and difficult tensions. I’m glad you’re in the game.

  11. My understanding is that historically, in the UK buildings were built as spaces that dominated the land. Cathedrals that initially were monastic centres of culture have become museums. Churches that were built for the gentry to be comfortable with their lot.
    Wesley, Whitfield taking the gospel beyond the walls. Spurgeon accepting the ploughman’s access. This shaped the inclusion of pulpit and there positioning. The pulpit then becoming the position of authority. The Word taking dominance over Spirit and Communion. House/homegroups being an attempt to restore the later. The danger is the particular place or person that is seen to direct the experience of relating to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I personally celebrate the Father primarily through creation as per OT journey. Christ in me, as per gospel/letters journey and Holy Spirit through self/community journey. The appropriate space being the appropriate place to congregate. I note no response to my initial post.

  12. Hi Barnabas:

    My lack of response is not due to disinterest but rather trying to digest all that you write. It’s a big meal! I hardly know where to begin. Know that I’m chewing on your thoughts and masticating as well.

  13. Quote: “The focus was no longer the alter and the sacraments, but the pulpit and the sermon.” A vast majority of the Liturgical Churches continue to make the sacraments and alter (i.e. Eucharist) the focal point of service. I would argue that congregants of these particular churches behave no better than those who attend the Evangelical mega churches. I left the Liturgical Church 15 years ago because it felt stagnant and lifeless. I thought the Evangelical mega church was the solution. After years of fighting with my wife and kids to drive 15 miles away to attend a crowded mini-concert (Lights, camera, Worship!) followed by a pep talk (Wow, isn’t he clever and funny.), that routine felt pretty stagnant, too. This is clearly a western problem. Consider architecture? I wonder how architecture shapes the underground churches in China or Egypt? Chinese underground churches – aptly coined, “house churches,” cannot independently own property and hence meet in private homes, often in secret for fear of imprisonment. I am almost certain you wont find any churches like this while backpacking through Europe. In 2011, Nicola Davison wrote in the The Guardian that there are as many as 130 million practicing Christians in China. How many practicing Christians would remain in the US under such scrutiny and prosecution? China proves that smaller places and living spaces can be sacred. Here in the US, “house churches” remain an afterthought of most modern Christians, who routinely attend weekly services. In his epic book, “The Forgotten God,” Francis Chan states that if the Holy Spirit were to leave most modern Churches, they would go on functioning no differently than if the Holy Spirit were present. I couldn’t agree more. I am one of those Evangelicals desiring more Holiness, and (as you put it) “reinventing,” or “downsizing” church. I am convinced that downsizing is a good idea, and precisely what is necessary to reclaim sacred places. Consider Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “The Tipping Point.” In it he states the rule of 150. The rule of 150 says that congregants of a church, members of a club, or members of a community banking on the epidemic spread of shared ideals needs to be particularly aware of the perils of size. Historically, going beyond the “tipping point” of 150 fragments a sense of community, and immediately becomes less effective in reaching people. This is only part of the problem, but (if you look closely) is one that is also rooted in architecture.

  14. It seems to me that ‘place’ always had a special significance within the Scriptures. Of course the ultimate example of that is the incarnation: God, in Christ, relates to humanity personally in a ‘place’. But the OT is also very keen on the relationship between the knowable YHWH and the ‘place’ of meeting. Some of these places became ‘sacred’ in the sense we think of it (i.e., Sinai), but other places of encountering God did not find their ways into the idea that a particular place ‘continued’ as a ‘sacred place’ such as the ‘place’ of the raising of Lazarus (certainly no small thing!). But the OT often has the narrative of the fact that when God and a man or woman have an encounter, the ‘place’ is noted with some kind of pillar of stones or altar, as Jacob’s encounter at Bethel (Gen 28) indicates.

    So, maybe we ought to be thinking about architecture as a subset of the realm where God meets with His people in a special way. We mark that out AFTER the evidence of the place being a ‘place of meeting’ with God. I sense just a bit of old fashioned pragmatism rising its head with the idea that if can just create the right ‘space’, then we can be assured of God’s presence in a wonderful way. Architecture is important underneath a broader category of a ‘place of restored creation’. Another way of speaking of this might be looking at the aspect of ‘beauty’ and ‘splendor’ of which Scripture certainly speaks.

  15. The persecuted church context, Jay, is an excellent leveller ,in this context.
    IMO too many people together has the danger of promoting a militancy in numbers. Creating a battle of numbers not spirituality and holiness.

  16. Like you thoughts DaveCDog. With the addition that the NT encourages us to see ourselves as a place as well. The emphasis as you say being recognising a meeting point as opposed to providing a point that could be one.
    Meeting where the Lord is not where we expect Him to be. I sense an association with Paul’s comment ‘without love’, that ‘a building or place without the Lord becomes..’
    Each community IMO needs to journey within their context but recognising the paths, boundary points, wells and cisterns of the previous generations. I think is an attempt to do that within the context of ‘Streams of living water’Richard Foster and the Bible Society as the point of resonance.

  17. “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.” (Isaiah 42:16)

  18. Isaiah 58:12 And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places:
    thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations;
    and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach,
    The restorer of paths to dwell in. (KJV)

  19. Mike, I remember a helpful analogy you shared a long time ago about oysters in the Chesapeake Bay and upstream vs. downstream problems. I’m going to suggest much of this post and the ensuing comments are focusing too far downstream. If we don’t fix the problem upstream, we’re wasting a lot of energy and time.

    You began this post, “the church doesn’t act very holy.” No disagreement there. Proposed solution? Altering our buildings, because they are part of the problem. But I interject, as you would likely say to one of us, “you’re thinking too far downstream, Jeff.”

    If impurity, unholiness, or laziness is the recognized problem, Jesus commanded a solution didn’t He? A really far upstream solution.

    You ARE the culture guy Mike. You’ve pressed me and others about preaching vs. communion for it’s culture-making power. You want us to feel our learning not just fill our minds.

    Ok, then, individual and corporate church discipline is HUGE for all that. Teaching, practicing, prioritizing the commitment of believers in each local church to be responsible for ‘one-another’ is THE proposed solution for unholiness in those who claim to be believers. Rebuking, correcting, showing a better way, etc. And, to boot, it’s impressive from a culture-making perspective. It takes place not just once a week in a ‘building’, but throughout the week, as members of the TRUE building build one another up (i.e the New Test references for architecture are heavily focused on the collection of Christians themselves, not the buildings they meet in).

    I think we’re focusing on the wrong target, by comparing structures, if we don’t prioritize obedience to Jesus’ command from Matthew 18. Your church experience with the late attenders, Jay Lambert’s liturgical and concert church, may have multiple contributing factors, but the lack of this is definitely one of them, if not the most obvious.

    This is no way is to discredit having a good built environment, I’m all for that, but there seems to be a blind spot to this conversation.

  20. Jeff

    Simply suggesting that architecture contributes to, but is not determinative of, holiness. I’m sure there are millions of other contributors as well. Erecting the kinds of structures that would contribute more to holiness (as opposed to what is mostly out there) seems like a fairly “upstream” idea to me.

  21. Buildings do affect our attitudes but the idea of coming to a worship service 30 minutes late so you can hear the message and then meet your friends after the service speaks more about our unwillingness to give God his due than our church architecture. I get the feeling that these people treat the worship the way we treat the advertisements appearing on the screens of theaters before the movie is shown.

    They aren’t comfortable singing and escaping from themselves into God’s presence and the words don’t challenge them intellectually. So they skip that part of the service to focus on the message.

    I am surprised they don’t just download the message to their ipods so they can listen while they go jogging on Sunday morning…;-/

  22. “Gallup surveys indicate 94 percent of Americans believe in God and 74 percent claim to have made a commitment to Jesus Christ.” I was amazed at this statistic since most people I know outside of church have NOT made a commitment to Jesus Christ. When was this poll taken? I did a brief search online and found a poll from the 1990s citing these numbers. Anyway, I was just curious…and would be amazed if that’s true today!

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