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.