Church architecture is one of the commonly misunderstood elements in the history of the historical and contemporary church. Often lodged is the complaint that a church should not be ornate or expensively decorated, this contradicting Christ’s commission to live simply and care for the poor within the church community and the world.
In the first of what will be a multi-part interview, Kemper Crabb, author of Liberation Front: Resurrecting the Church, addresses this issue with a focus on the current American evangelical church. (NOTE: I did some light editing on Crabb’s comments.)
JERRY WILSON: In the chapter focusing on worship, you mention how the purpose behind ornate churches was an effort to, as best as possible, replicate or at the least represent the heavenly tabernacle. It reminded me of an interview I read several years ago with the late Chuck Smith, pastor of Calvary Chapel Santa Ana. He commented the reason behind his church’s mostly plain design was the belief we are in the last days. Given Christ’s imminent return, it would be a waste of resources to create a richly decorated structure in which to worship. Is this a legitimate reason to strip down, as it were?
KEMPER CRABB: Yes, I realize that utilizing architectural or decorative aspects to represent the fact that the Church worships in Heaven as well as on Earth might seem like sort of a peripheral point, and in some ways, it is. But from another perspective, it is of central importance to do so, if possible (and it’s not always possible, of course), whether Jesus’ return is imminent or not.
Let me say at the outset here that I do have (and have had for most of my adult life) tremendous respect for Chuck Smith and all that he thought, and was used by God to accomplish in his life. That being said, however, I have to say that I disagree with his opinion on this point (a point that is not uncommon amongst many of us Evangelicals today, of course). Let me explain why that is.
In Matthew 24: 36, during a discussion Jesus was having with His disciples concerning His coming in judgment, He said:
“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.”
Respectfully, in regards to those who hold the same opinion Chuck Smith did, many across the Church’s history have believed that the Return of Christ would be imminent in their day and spent a great deal of time and energy orienting their lives around what they expected to be a fairly immediate event, and it was not.
Don’t get me wrong: we are to live our lives in regard to the belief that Christ will return, and that He may return in short order. But Peter, in Acts 2: 16-21, during the sermon he preached just after the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the believers at Pentecost, applied the words of the Prophet Joel from Joel 2: 28, in which Joel prophesied that the events of the Day of Pentecost would occur “in the Last Days,” which Peter taught was happening at the time he was preaching. We’ve been in the Last Days since the birth of the New Testament Church, so I can only draw the conclusion that, in light of the fact that Jesus gave the Church the Great Commission to disciple all the nations in Matthew 28: 18-20 (which has taken a good deal of time so far), the Last Days are a period of time in which the regular pursuits and responsibilities of the Church are to be carried on in light of the fact that, though Christ might, of course, return in His Timing whenever He will, we should persevere in our callings.
No one except the Father knows the actual time of Christ’s Coming (though I have to say an entire industry seems to have arisen, replete with books, teachings, t-shirts, and movies, in a seeming attempt to out-guess the Secret Will of the Father).
Jesus, in telling a parable in Luke 19: 11-27 meant to teach that the fullness of the Kingdom was not yet imminent (as verse 11 tells us), spoke of a master telling his servants, “Do business until I return” (verse 13), which was meant to tell the disciples and those listening that His Return would take a while and that they should occupy themselves doing what He had commissioned them to do. The Greek word for “do business” here is from a root word, pragma, which is the word we get “pragmatic” from in English, and it means “to be occupied,” or “to carry on a business.” Jesus was telling the disciples to not sit around navel-gazing (or Heaven-gazing, as the angels rebuked the disciples for in Acts 1: 10-11), but to get on with their callings on Earth.
[Martin] Luther was once asked what he would do if he knew Christ was returning the next day. He replied that he would plant a tree. When his questioner responded that the tree would never grow but a day older, Luther said that only the Father actually knew the day Jesus would return and that Luther’s job, like all Christians, was to get on with their callings and leave the secret things to God. I paraphrase, of course, but I heartily agree with Luther here. I think the Church is to always live in light of Jesus’ return, but I think that means we’re supposed to get on with our normal callings.
This brings me to the question of Church architecture. Chuck Smith’s concern was to use the Church’s resources effectively in light of the possibility of Christ’s return (which he thought imminent). Even if he had been correct in that assumption, though, I still would have disagreed on this point. I believe that our worship, the place and time when we gather with the redeemed in the Very Presence of God, where we hear the Word read and taught, and eat and drink (or see enacted with water) the Sacraments; [it] is where we are primarily formed and shaped in terms of the vision, expectations, values, and desires of our evangelism, eschatology, relations with one another and with God, and our understanding of our vocations, our corporate and individual callings before the Lord, and basically in what we are to do and how we are to do those things.
Therefore, I believe that what takes place in the context of corporate worship has a great deal to do with revealing and reinforcing what the Church is and does. We aren’t, after all, disembodied souls or spirits but are, as Jesus is, enfleshed, embodied. We’re supposed to offer even our bodies in what Paul in Romans 12: 1 calls “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” Now, many people just see that as a command not to sin with our bodies (no gluttony, fornication, adultery, drunkenness, etc.), and it does mean that, but not only that. As incarnate beings, our worship itself is to involve our physicality, a truth that most churches recognize implicitly or explicitly.
For instance, all Christian churches practice the Sacraments. They baptize folks with water and eat bread and drink wine (or at least the fruit of the grape) together in the Lord’s Supper. They all stand to sing and hear the Scripture read, bow their heads (and fold their hands and kneel in some cases) to pray, utilize their voiceboxes to sing, extend “the right hand of fellowship” (or the kiss of greeting) to each other and visitors, and so forth. We have bodies. We’re supposed to worship with them, since we are to worship God with all we are.
The physicality of who and where we are is intended to remind us that we are to carry what we experience in worship out into the world in evangelism and discipleship, since even our worship simultaneously takes place both in Heaven (where we’re seated in Christ, as Paul teaches in Ephesians 2: 6, and as Hebrews 12: 22-24 shows) and on earth. We utilize physical symbols to remind us of this (or should), which the raised platform or dais does (showing there’s a sense in which we ascend to the Heavenly Courts to worship, as Heb. 12: 22-24 tells us), the particular clothing of the ministers (even if it’s just a suit, though I confess I’m not sure exactly what message wearing the uniform of the business classes sends, beyond calling attention to the fact that ministers are professionals), and so forth.
Properly understood, in light of what the Bible teaches concerning worship, all these symbolic actions and clothes and architectural aspects are meant to physically reinforce and remind worshipers what is actually taking place in worship. Beyond this, these physical aspects of worship are to reinforce and remind worshipers that their callings and the Gospel itself are intended to actually impact the world in which we live, not just call us to only an interior or “spiritual” escapism.
God so loved the world (the Greek word is kosmos there in John 3: 16) that He gave His Only-Begotten Son to save by His Life and Death. In 2 Corinthians 5: 19, we are told that “God was in Christ reconciling the world (again, kosmos) to Himself.” Jesus didn’t come only to save our souls but our whole lives and beings, as well as the world in which He intends for us to be sanctified, and in which we are to do His Will (and which He will deliver on the day of our resurrection, as Romans 8: 19-24 says). Worship that downplays physicality and physical symbol betrays, to some extent, one of its own purposes. We are to “be occupied” until Christ returns to the world He has made and will redeem.
The purpose of church architecture is to physically symbolize the true nature of where our worship takes place and what is happening there. Across the Church’s existence, the architecture of churches has changed over time, as various architectural expressions in various places change (for instance, ancient classical basilicas and Eastern churches differ in many ways from Western Romanesque and Gothic churches architecturally). Still, the basic things to be symbolized are the same, illustrating our Heavenly/Earthly worship and its intended Earthly impact. (This can easily be seen in Abbot Suger’s Medieval treatise on Gothic architecture, On the Abbey Church of St. Denis). Church architecture is massively helpful in reinforcing these fundamental understandings in the worship that shapes everything we are and do.
All this being said, of course it’s not always possible to arrange architecture the way we want. New fellowships (such as the one I co-pastor in Katy with Frank Hart) don’t generally have their own buildings (NewChurch, our fellowship, meets in an athletic facility that one of our members owns; a very nice facility, but not necessarily designed to reinforce worship aspects), which is the case with poorer congregations or churches in predominantly non-Christian regions. In a Fallen world, we all have to deal with the situation we’re given on the ground, and it’s not always possible to accomplish the changes or do the things we want to.
There is an old theological concept that helps to think through the implications of all this. The Latin word esse means, basically, “essence” (see how that might relate etymologically there?), and it’s used to describe the basic theological necessities of the Faith (Biblical/creedal doctrines, regeneration, Sacraments, etc.), the fundamental things required for the Church to be the Church. Then there is the term bene esse, which means “good essence,” and it describes good things that help expand or reinforce the essential things of the Church’s existence and mission. Finally, there’s plene esse, which means “full essence,” describing a maximum potential of a fully-realized expression of the Church and the Faith.
There very likely has never in this Fallen world (except in the Life of Christ Jesus Himself) been a realization of plene esse (though we look for that in the New Heavens and Earth). Though there have been, over a broad spectrum, realizations of bene esse, as the Church in various cultural and historical circumstances, been able to expand on good things that flow from our Faith’s esse. This is true in the case of Church architecture. Some periods of history in the West (the Medieval and Reformation periods, for instance) have seen the rise of church buildings that sought, to the extent that resources of skill, material, time, and money allowed, to instantiate as many as possible of the symbolic principles of the kind of doctrinally-driven Church architecture I mentioned in my book. Which is great, and it opened up before us possibilities and realizations not generally dreamed of before that.
However, most churches across Church history have not had the necessary resources to realize even a fuller bene esse. Resources, after all, must be triaged, and people matter more than buildings, and there are frequently not enough resources even for human needs at hand to do much. This is, regrettably, all true. But it’s rarely a complete either/or situation. Things can be done, even in small ways.
The first thing that must be resisted, however, is an overweening utilitarianism concerning the worship of the Lord. This can be illustrated by one of the Events in Jesus’ Life: His Anointing, recorded in Mark 14: 3-10, which tells us:
And being in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as He sat at the table, a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard. Then she broke the flask and poured it on His head.
But there were some who were indignant among themselves, and said, “Why was this fragrant oil wasted? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they criticized her sharply.
But Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always. She has done what she could. She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”
Now, in some ways, the criticism of the woman’s action was well taken. It was an extremely costly gift. Spikenard was a fragrant perfume-like ointment that was a very expensive (300 denarii was equal to about a year’s work of labor in Jesus’ time) and rare commodity. Jesus undoubtedly knew this, and the gift’s very costliness made it appropriate to be given to Him. Jesus recognized that the money could have been spent on the poor, but He also recognized that sacrificial and expensive gifts are appropriate to be offered to Him, even though “the poor you have with you always.” Interestingly, it was this event of seeming waste that drove Judas to betray Jesus to the chief priests for, of course, money, as verses 10-11 of Mark 14 make clear.
We are to care for the poor and the sick, and to fund missions and such ministries. But, one of the ministries of the Church is to minister to God and His People in worship. We mustn’t draw the same conclusion as Judas, that it is inappropriate to make costly gifts at the right time for the worship of Jesus. Sometimes architecture falls under this rubric, it seems to me.
And here”s the other thing about this: there is always something we can do in most worship settings to reinforce the fact that we worship in Heaven through Christ, and that that worship is to affect the world, not just provide a means of escape. We can utilize tapestries, framed prints, banners, or whatever, as symbols of our true worship situation, so long as we do this in clear explanation of the Biblical truths behind those symbols, to great effect, if we just will.
Theology that denigrates the truth and effect of where we worship and what happens there is, in my opinion, one of the things that have led the Church in the West into perceived irrelevancy and spiritual powerlessness. There is a balance to be realized here by the Church in our time, and we haven’t been succeeding.