IN HIS prefatory remarks to the award-winning television series "Civilization," Kenneth Clark noted that what a person, institution, or society builds or creates is a far better index of real beliefs, attitudes, and aspirations than their utterances in speech or print. For this reason we ought to be very careful about what our buildings reveal to others about us.
We are all constantly building or creating something, even if it is only the direction in which lines grow on our face. How wonderful it is to see those lines on another human being that show joy, openness, compassion, mercy, unconditional love and acceptance the characteristics that attracted the disinherited, the outcast, the rejected, to Jesus. The architect is most fortunate when he can work with a building committee that has these attributes plus vision rather than a committee politically chosen only for certain technical abilities that merely duplicate the architect's functions.
There really is no such thing as a "religious" architecture but there certainly is and should be architecture in the service of the church. No formula can tell the architect how to design a structure that will encourage the awareness in people of the mystery in which we live, and move, and have our being. This requires a poetic, beautiful space with the unique quality of wonder the experience we get when we are in the presence of a good work of art, or music, or poetry.
Too often nostalgia and sentimentality become primary criteria for the design of a church. We are in danger of producing a cosmetic Christianity that fails because it lacks content and substance. Before we produce a work of architecture there must be a re-examination of what we believe and then an attempt to make the building a visible expression of these beliefs.
Seventh-day Adventists teach from Holy Scripture that "in the beginning God created . . ."and "God created man in his image." Do we preach godliness and then deny man the opportunity to be creative?
God looked on everything He created and He not only saw that it was good, "God saw that it was very good" (beautiful). God produces some of His most beautiful, fanciful, elaborate, colorful, and fantastic designs for the home of the simple slug the seashell! The visual environment we create is not to be just good but very good. Doesn't "very good" mean very beautiful? Many great theologians think that man's primary duty is to create beauty. In the words of Phil Ochs, "Beauty is the only true form of protest." Let's be "Protestants."
Every time we repeat the prayer that Jesus taught us we make a commitment, "in earth, as it is in heaven." Heaven represents everything that is beautiful. Hell represents everything that is ugly. Every Christian building, whether it be a school, store, or factory, but even more so a house for God to dwell among men, must be beautiful "as it is in heaven" and "very good" to the best of our ability.
God created us all different for a purpose. Yet so often the church seems to make conformity a virtue. But God doesn't even make two snowflakes alike!
God wants to teach us a "new song," make us a new heaven and a new earth, new beings. NEW! NEW! NEW! A wonderful attribute! But in this age of stock plans, repetition, and copying other people's work, everything new seems to be immediately suspect.
The use of stock plans for any building, but in particular for a church, seems to me to be a denial of faith, for God loves us in our striving and in our falling, as well as in such poor progress as we make. Do our stock plans represent these attributes of human reality? Are they valid symbols of divine transcendence?
Cod does not want us to give up our identity and individuality. The Christian life is a journey. The Christian cannot stand still. Going backward is ridiculous. Aren't we supposed to be a "movement"? Repetition, staleness, sameness, monotony, imitation, and parasitism are not life-giving attributes. Jesus says that He came that we might have life and that more abundantly!
This is why true worship is the "celebration of life." Do our concepts of worship represent attributes of life or death? Some of the attributes we find in life are change, movement, action, flexibility, elasticity, fluidity, yielding, giving and response to, cooperation, innovation, spontaneity, surprises, warmth, imagination, excitement, adventure, bright colors, natural earthy colors, forming, work to do, development, process, transience, dynamics, grace, controlled emotion, acceptance, embracing, caring, freedom. This partial list of adjectives makes an excellent check list for the design of a place for worship.
In the death category I would include a check list of things to avoid, such as rigidity (sitting still in one place), inflexibility, immovability (opera seats), silence and absolute quiet (overcarpeting, overpadding, acoustic tile), limiting, structuring, predictability, subdued emotion, monotony, dullness, repetition, drab colors (pale green, ivory, beige), formed, finished, everything visible, permanent, cold, formal, static, authoritarian, closed, regimented, exclusive, keeping, distant, thing-oriented, confined, restricted, heavy, inhibited.
Man was created in God's image; therefore, the closest we come to seeing Him is in man. In the usual standard "churchy" church plan only the backs of people's heads are seen. We should prefer eye contact with one an other as much as possible, for God says that we (not a building) are the temple of the living God. "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I" the gathering community. Seating should be arranged as much as possible to give this feeling as opposed to that of prison style or military regimentation.
Ideally, there should be but one space for worship because God is our real audience. We have unfortunately come to the place where the congregation becomes the passive observer, or, worse yet, worship becomes nothing more than the transmission of information. Most of our churches are built in such a configuration that it is difficult for the congregation to actively worship.
A unique attribute of God is "innocence." That is why I feel that no material should be used in the construction of a church building that is not authentic. Plastic plants, imitation wood, in fact everything that is false or a substitute for the real thing has no place here. Honesty can best be expressed in the honest use of materials.
The church originally meant God's family—not a building. Perhaps the name should be returned to its original usage and our houses for worship become "Jesus-buildings" warm, hu mane, and earthy. How many of our religious structures, even in a limited way, express any of Jesus' attributes?
The message of the Incarnation is that God is with us here and now, in our time, in our place. The churches many people build give the impression that God can only meet with them in a structure out of synchronization with the present. Doesn't He want to enter our lives in its everydayness and present subjectivity? Why shouldn't the building reflect this? Putting an imitation Colonial or Gothic structure next to a Texico gas station or McDonald's hamburger stand certainly produces a schizophrenic view of God to the world.
Ostentation and pretense also do not reveal a servant church. Creating a church that represents "Christ in future glory" requires such an expenditure of funds that it defeats the purpose of the gospel. It shows love for God but leaves no funds to express our love to man. We can never hope to express this concept in a building because "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard." The gospel includes both love for God and man. A church building should reveal that God is willing to accept us in our contemporary situation, regardless of our financial re sources, that He can come to us as we are.
Many people say that they "wouldn't be caught dead in a church" because they feel out of place and uncomfortable there. A church building that expresses the message of "the Incarnation," "God with us," will not transplant us into unfamiliar surroundings. Being "churchy" (homilectic twang, stained-glass tones, religious cliches) also contributes to the problem. Too many people have a "magic view" of religion fostered by a worship environment where things instead of people become holy and sacred.
The concept of "grace" (graceful) is better portrayed by the use of curved lines than straight lines. Unfortunately, curved lines cost more to build. However, we ought to find some way to at least soften some of the hard edges. Search for a "compassion-aesthetic" a space that heals. A space that says that it cares a redemptive space. We have a God whom we worship because He took us out of "the house of bondage." Worship space must emphasize this by removing barriers and boundaries. Take the ends off the pews, remove railings, let the light in. The eye should be given the opportunity to see spaces beyond infinity. Create transcendence. Create light. Give freedom.
Such church buildings as I have described herein are being built today by congregations of every denominational background as a silent visual witness of the gospel.
Next time you are tempted to buy a stock plan or copy a church that has already been built, pause, and think about your very reason for being. How to save dollars is not as important as making the dollars you spend meaningful! Unless you really think that the assembly-line church glorifies God, don't be afraid to embark on a new adventure. God always has something new to reveal to His children. God set His example by taking the supreme risk.