Architecture's Role in Christianity
Church architecture serves to frame and enhance our worship in a way that
honors the One we worship. Churches are buildings shaped, crafted, and set aside
for the very special purpose of our corporate communion with our covenant God.
But as works of art, they also speak to the larger culture around them. This is
because architecture symbolizes, within the fabric of a community, the social
hierarchy and aspiration - or the actual position - of the institution housed
within it. It reveals, through artistic means, the relationship between larger
transcendent constants and the immanent issues we confront in daily life. And,
it provides a meaningful setting for our daily social and spiritual
In the past, churches were often the most prominent architectural edifices of
a community, and Christians gladly served as patrons of church architecture
because it proclaimed their faith and affirmed their world view. But today
things have changed.
Christian Architecture Today
What I sense and see in my own involvement in the religious community, and in
my reading, is that most Christians cannot begin a conversation on architecture.
Several years ago I met a highly regarded Christian poet, who in response to a
question I posed, answered, "I really don't know, architecture is such an
esoteric art form." Her comments surprised me by illustrating well the
current state of affairs. The architecture that churches are building today is
as confused as the tastes, and faith, of building committee members.
Building committees, or other deciding powers, want inexpensive construction
that solves basic functional needs. As they select their architect, they are
often most concerned with how many churches he has designed, or whether he is
well known. It would be nice if the architect is a believer, but they are
looking, first, for a safe choice. They feel inadequate to assess philosophical
or artistic aspects inherent in their task and simply hope for the best. The
results we are seeing are disappointing, and the church is missing important
opportunities to create significant new architecture.
Why Spend Money on Churches?
Events surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales illustrate my
thoughts on this. To express their grief over her passing, the public spent
over $40 million on flowers alone. She was a living symbol of important
virtues to many people around the world. Could you ever justify on practical
grounds alone such an expense? Of course not. But, this was a spontaneous
expression of affection and sorrow from peoples' hearts toward one they
loved. Should not our expressions of love for our Saviour be of a much greater
kind? Judas Iscariot complained when Mary bathed Christ's feet, just before his
death, in a perfume valued at a year's wages. As we know, Jesus rebuked Judas
for his greed and false economy. We have been commanded to care for the poor and
to share the gospel. We have also been commanded to love and honor God with all
of our being. Here in the West, we have more than enough resources to do all
The Role of the Arts and Symbolism in Church Buildings
Arts and symbolism should help us understand life as it really is, our sin,
and the gospel. In the book of Numbers we read how God's people, when leaving
Egypt, grew tired of manna, the bread from heaven, and became bitter against
God. So God sent deadly serpents among the people and many died. Then the people
came to Moses, confessed their sins, and asked him to pray that God would remove
the serpents. God responded to Moses' prayer by instructing him to cast a
serpent in bronze and raise it high above the people on a staff. Moses obeyed,
and when the people looked upon this work of figurative art, they were healed.
It is important to understand that the bronze serpent did not heal them. The
bronze serpent served as a potent symbol of their grave sin and God's powerful
work of redemption. Later, Jesus noted that it also represented his own day,
when he would be raised up on the cross to redeem his people from their sins for
This was a correct use of a work of art in the life of God's people. It
represented both the law and the gospel and was evangelistic in a most powerful
sense. But, generations later the Israelites began worshipping the bronze
serpent, offering incense before it, leading King Hezekiah to destroy it. Such
use and misuse demonstrates both how valuable as well as how dangerous works of
art can be in the life of the church. The Protestant reformers reacted to
idolatrous [sic] use of art in the church in their day.
I believe we should see the law and the gospel conveyed through works of art
in the Church, and on our church buildings. We should have murals depicting the
history of God's people through the ages; we should have stained glass honoring
the heroes of the faith; we should make use of symbols, provided they are
understood. But if they are worshipped, they should be removed. And our teachers
and elders bear great responsibility in helping us keep this balance.
Daniel Lee is an architect in private practice in Old Town
This essay is based on an interview published originally in
REGENERATION QUARTERLY Winter-Spring 1998