I recently read an eight year old article in Christianity Today written by Leonard Sweet talking about the revolutions in church architecture over the centuries.1 As the culture became more literate, and as the newly invented Gutenburg press began producing printed literature in the 16th century, the architecture of churches underwent a reconfiguration geared toward teaching. In the last several decades, churches have been undergoing another revolution in design.
Sweet points out how new designs are using more of the five senses and not limited to just hearing. Being able to look, listen, touch, smell, and taste provides powerful faith strengthening experiences. This is not a concept foreign to Christianity. Jesus himself instituted the Lord's Supper, which uses several of the senses in order to strengthen faith.
The best language in which to engage another person is his or her own language. This, according to Sweet, means we need to come to terms with today's electronic world. The best way to see "screen" in the church building is to see them as modern day versions of stained glass that help to teach stories of faith. Young people are conditioned for interactive technology. Therefore, the church ought to see the great potential it has. It took 40 years to move the overhead projector from the bowling alley and into the church building, which is too long to wait to begin using newer methods that will engage the people of today effectively.
Sweet also points out that the traditional configuration of many churches are designed for sitting and listening and makes interaction difficult. Christianity is not a life of sitting and soaking, but of fellowship and service. Church buildings should be configured to reflect these values. Sweet points out that, "Churches need spaces that inspire casual social meetings and facilitate creativity, synergy, and serendipity. Window seats and round tables, for example, bring people together, whereas long corridors and long rooms keep people apart."
The only other place where people experience buildings with benches, dark wood, and an elevated platform with someone who presides are in courtrooms, known for judgment, and funeral homes, known for death. Sweet goes on to point out that "If churches are to become in architecture what they are in theology—health centers, waystations on the holiness highway—then we must move to more organic, living architecture."
As a result of a renewed understanding of the purpose of the church, many churches are building, designing, and reconfiguring their facilities and resources to serve them in their mission, rather than the other way around.
God is silent about church buildings. He is clear that his tabernacle, his temple, his building is the people of God, not a physical structure. Therefore, God leaves it up to us to obtain, design, build, and configure facilities that serve his mission in whatever way is most effective. The facilities design and configuration should always reflect our theological values and emphasis. This is the reason over the centuries there has been a drastic change in the structural spaces that the church has utilized over the centuries. God gives us the freedom to do so.
1 Leonard Sweet, "Church Architecture for the 21st Century: A Futurist Speculates about Church Buildings that will Embrace New Ways of Learning," Your Church 45 (May/June, 1999), 10. Database online. Available from http://www.christianitytoday.com/yc/9y2/9y2010.html. Accessed June 14, 2007.