Thoughts on Church Buildings: Redeemer’s, Ours, and Yours

Monday I walked through the new space for Redeemer Presbyterian Church here in the city. You may know that Redeemer rented space from our congregation for the past eight or nine years. As of this month, they now have their own, permanent Upper West Side location. Their structure (the W83 Ministry Center) is wedged into the middle of a block, across the street from a fire station and a post office, next door to a gym and a restaurant where you can get an organic grilled cheese sandwich.

The building is not what you might expect. It’s beautiful but not extravagant, spacious but limited, sufficient but not excessive. The fan-shaped, two-tiered auditorium is filled with beautiful, rounded, wood-constructed pews, offering just under a thousand seats. The silhouette of a two-story cross stands over the chancel. The upper three levels of the building include children’s space, classrooms, and a fellowship hall that seats a few hundred people. It’s a great space that I’m certain will serve their purposes well.

Behind a structure like theirs (or an old cathedral like our congregation houses) lies a philosophy for the project. Should churches build? If so, should our buildings be extravagant, like European cathedrals? Or should they be as minimal as possible, like a YMCA gym? How should churches think about buildings?

This is a very good question that congregations–especially church plants–need to think through. Here are a few thoughts that I recently shared with a friend.

1. The church is a people, not a building. Thus building people must be more important philosophically than building buildings.

2. Because the church is a people, the church needs a place to meet. That place could be the catacombs, a park, or a public school (except here). But at minimum the meeting place should be (a) accessible to its members and the community at large, (b) large enough to house its members and some guests from the community, (c) compliant with the laws of the land for such meeting places, and (d) sufficient for the purposes of the church’s gathering (e.g., the proclamation of the Word, corporate worship, evangelizing and discipling others).

3. Because the church is often people with their children, the church likely needs a place for them, too. Churches will differ as to how much space is needed; perhaps a room for nursing moms will suffice. But to some degree just about everyone agrees that some space for children is needful.

4. Because the church as a people reflects the glory of God, the church’s meeting place ought to reflect well on his character. There is a wider variety of opinions on this point than the last. But at minimum, this means that there are sufficient and clean restrooms, relatively fresh paint on the walls, and decent flooring. Our Roman Catholic friends may reason that this point justifies massive, extravagant cathedrals. I don’t entirely disagree. But there is certainly room for churches to decide to what extent they should do things to demonstrate the beauty of God in their building. But I would argue that utilitarianism is not the path of spirituality. God created beauty for us to enjoy. We can’t sacrifice everything on the altar of beauty, but if the finished product is not beautiful, then we’ve failed to reflect his glory.

Example: I had a part in the last building project with my former church. It was a 14,000 square foot rectangular box. On the inside it is a very beautiful box: lots of windows and thus lots of natural light, beautiful carpeting and colors, a modicum of detail to keep the walls from looking bare, moveable partitions that create up to 18 different classrooms, and so forth. But externally it was nothing more than a box. So the architect proposed building a tower at one corner, a landmark that would identify to guests where the (new) entrances would be located. There was, however, a bit of opposition because of the cost of the tower. It wasn’t functional, but was included for its aesthetic value. Some thought the expense was too much, but after deliberation we went forward with it nonetheless. Without that tower the building would have been a ugly box.

Issues like this are certainly matters for the elders of a church to consider. After all, there are a thousand good items–and a dozen or so necessary ones–that the church may spend its money on. But we mustn’t mistake utilitarianism for spirituality. In churches like ours, I think we’re far more susceptible to under-spend on our buildings out of an ungodly utilitarianism rather than over-spend out of an excessive spirit.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on Church Buildings: Redeemer’s, Ours, and Yours

  1. Claudia Vargas Morris says:

    This is certainly a difficult subject to address is such financially challenging times. Very well and clearly analyzed, Pastor Matt. Growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, I have a deep appreciation for the beauty and splendor of Cathedrals. I suppose the motive behind the extravaganzas is critical to examine. Is it to exemplify the glory of God or is it to make the congregation feel fancy, for lack of a better word? The latter is fleeting worldly materialism, but the former has everlasting spiritual implications. But doesn’t the Lord’s house deserve to be built and furnished with the best we can offer? Just some of my thoughts on the subject.

    • Claudia, those are the very thoughts we’ve got to hold in mind. Much of contemporary evangelicalism is content to build a warehouse with very little thought beyond function or utility. But beauty is a God-given gift, and pursuing beauty in our architecture to whatever extent we can is an opportunity to display God’s glory as beautiful.

      One of my teachers at BJ used to open her class this way: “Any praises? Any prayer requests? Anything beautiful you’ve seen today?” It was one of the most unusual series of questions I’d ever heard. And yet she was making a point: God is no utilitarian God. “If you need light in a room,” she used to say, “you could simply take a sledgehammer and blow a hole through the wall. Or you could put in a beautiful window that accentuates God’s beautiful creation and allows the light in and allows you to look out with great delight.” It was a great illustration I’ve remembered for, goodness, 16 years. (My, how I’ve aged!) Her lesson: keep your eyes open for beauty, and value it as a gift from God.

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