Do Better Buildings Make Better Churches?

Fellow Christian, how would you feel if you knew that your church would be best remembered, not for its spiritual impact, but for its building?

This is the current state of affairs for the historic church in Europe.  On Saturday, along with a colleague, I visited the eighth most popular tourist site in France (according to Wikipedia) – Mont St. Michel. Occupying a 47-acre land mass, Mont St. Michel houses an abbey, church building, and a surrounding community.  Although it still functions as a religious site, Mont St. Michel is a classic example of the transformation of a building’s predominant purpose from “church” to “museum”.

The general story surrounding the founding of a chapel at Mont St. Michel goes back more than a millennium. Aubert of Avranches was a bishop in the 8th century who was reputed to have received a vision from the Michael the Archangel, instructing him to build the chapel on the tidal island at the mouth of the Couesnon River.

France today is a highly secularized country.  It is reported that only 4-5% of the population attend church services at least weekly (down from 27% in a 1952 survey).  I read of a survey that only 26% of Catholic Christians (accounts for almost all Christians in France) have read a Bible in their home.

Upon reflection, I ask this question: what perception of the Christian faith might one get from a visit to Mont Saint Michel?

I would assert that the perception given would not be in accord with the Scriptures on a a couple key points.

  1. A visitor would get the idea that the most impressive aspect of the Christian faith is its architecture and physical grandeur.  The common understanding of the definition of “church” is “building”.  No two ways about that.  Somewhere along the way, someone decided that we as the “spiritual temple” of God (a New Testament understanding of “church”) still need a authorized physical “temple” in which to worship.  Almost all (if not all) predominant thinking about church building architecture finds no explicit basis in the Scriptures.  While certainly there is a place for aesthetics and environment in places where worship occurs (we want the gathering of God’s people to be pleasant, after all), Mont St. Michel reminds me of two erroneous ways of thinking about church and the building she uses.  I’ll encapsulate them in two statements: (a) “Better buildings make better churches”, and (b) “A church can only grow so much without a better building”.  While statement (a) can pretty obviously be refuted, statement (b) is a more subtle thought that has taken firm root in modern church circles.  So I ask you: whether it be a home, school, or “church building”, what is your church’s theological understanding of the place where she gathers?  My takeway: The physical space where the church gathers does not define the gathering.  The physical space must always receive secondary attention when compared to what the church does when she gathers.  This is the “Caravan Church” ethos at work: the primary church emphasis should be on what the church does in her gathering, not where she gathers.  A church that spends an inordinate amount of money and effort on the physical space where she gathers is missing the mark.

2. A visitor would get the idea that the Christian faith is predominantly something to be practiced by professional clergy who physically separate themselves from the world.  (a) The separation aspect is undeniable, as one travels the 10 minutes by bus from the mainland down the highway constructed through the mud flats (or water, depending on the tide).  The abbey was built on the island as a fortress protected by Michael from all attackers.

However, the separation principle emphasized by the New Testament is a moral separation, not a physical one (2 Corinthians 6:14b, 17: “For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness?…Therefore, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord”).  The church is to be marked by dispersion among the world’s people, not spiritual immersion into the world’s morals. (b) While most would interpret the Bible to permit the financial support of “full-time Christian workers”, the idea of a class known as “clergy” with categorically unique privileges and responsibilities is a post-New Testament development.

My takeaway: The world desperately needs to witness that the Christian faith is for everyone, not just for those who have “religious” tendencies (I am speaking of religion not as “spirituality” historically understood, but as something done by those whom people would call “super-Christians”) .  God in Jesus Christ seeks to meet you where you are.  He will not leave you unchanged, but neither will He call you to “jump through religious hoops” to be accepted by Him.  The world also needs a church that gives the message that all believers have a privilege of unmediated fellowship with Christ – no go-betweens are needed.  All of God is yours in Christ.  So I ask you: are your church leaders separating themselves from contact with the world in the exercise of their duties?  The problem today in the church is that there is too much physical separation from the world, but not enough moral separation from the ways of the world.

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2 thoughts on “Do Better Buildings Make Better Churches?

  1. I give the ancient Christians this…their ‘mega churches’ were beautifully made. Despite all the human pride and flawed theology behind their construction, they are beautiful works of art done for God with loving craftsmanship and a true sense of the of ‘permanence’.

    Constraint this with the voluminous styrofoam and stucco cathedrals of feel-good ism that dot America. In thirty years most will revert to the strip malls they sprang from.

    Too bad good theology and good examples of monumental architecture so rarely intersect.

    1. If the point is artistic taste, no doubt about it – I prefer Gothic architecture to modern-day, stadium-seating theater auditoriums. The whole post was driven more by the thought that the transcendence of Mont St. Michel and other churches is a “detached” transcendence. In other words, to paraphrase, “God is glorious and He is meeting with those other people (clergy) over there, far away from me.” The Christian faith is both transcendence and immanence.

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