What Does Adventist Architecture Say?

THE SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST CHURCH speaks. It speaks of the seventh day, Saturday, as the Sabbath. It speaks in its community by the open door of the church, the groups in the entry or court yard; it speaks through sound, color, and movement; it speaks when others are busy shopping, conducting business, or the like. . .

-an architect in Ohio and the author of two books on church architecture, Christ and Architecture and When Faith Takes Form.

THE SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST CHURCH speaks. It speaks of the seventh day, Saturday, as the Sabbath. It speaks in its community by the open door of the church, the groups in the entry or court yard; it speaks through sound, color, and movement; it speaks when others are busy shopping, conducting business, or the like. It speaks in nonverbal language that might be called church English because it is similar to body English in expressing what the church believes. How carefully this nonverbal language is nurtured and sustained by the church in the face of difficulties created by a world that does not recognize this day.

How strange then that Seventh-day Adventists do not speak nonverbally of the Advent. Is it not also in the name of the church? The words Seventh-day are incomplete without the word Adventist. Is the Advent of lesser importance than the seventh day? Surely this is not the case. If the Advent is of importance, then why is it not proclaimed? Maybe the seventh day is a very visible thing and therefore easy to communicate to others. The people are set apart and therefore record the day with every act, meeting, greeting, and contact they make. Such is not the case with the Advent.

This event needs careful thought and the contribution of many in order to articulate this concept in physical form. However, the expectation, the watching and waiting, the direction of the lives of the people, should give nonverbal form to this miraculous event. The Advent is an important event in the lives of Adventists and therefore should be an important event in their buildings and architecture.

Physical expression of the Advent in the church building should proclaim this event to the community in clear and vigorous nonverbal language. What an opportunity to bring such a message in three-dimensional words! The words suddenly become physical, a sermon in wood, metal, or masonry, speaking consistently and persistently to the adherent and the passer-by. Whether the pedestrian or motorist goes into the church building or not, he is told of the Advent and reminded of its promise by the mere recognition of the form. Like the seventh day, the Advent has become part of the understanding of both the adherent and the passer-by.

Nonverbal Communication

Sometimes speech is thought of as the only form of communication. However, consider the thoughts and reactions to the sight of various materials, items, and colors. Here are some examples: Does the uncomfortable pew or folding chair speak of the length of the sermon or the ability of the teacher? Does the tile floor say, "Do not lie down, I'm cold," whereas the carpeted and wood floor say the opposite? Does the wood paneling say, "Do not touch," whereas the unpainted block wall says "This is a place for roughhouse"? Does the tackboard say, "Thumbtack me," as opposed to the plasterboard that says, "No holes please"? Does a dull gray color discourage the viewer, whereas a bright, sunny red or golden color lifts the spirits?

Yes, inanimate objects speak in a very real way; they speak in nonverbal language. Now if brick appears on the front of a church building, and block appears on the sides and back, what does this church building say? It clearly states that this church has placed a veneer or mask on the front of its building a thin veneer to hide a so-called lesser material and to hide its inner being. How much better to use either brick or block for the wall and accept the material just as it is, an expression of the ingredients from which it was made. An honest brick wall speaks correctly, just as an honest block wall speaks correctly. They are both sincere materials without masks, false faces, outer shells, or veneers.

A Seventh-day Adventist said in jest, "If you want to find the Adventist church in a community, look for the poorest, shabbiest church building and you will have found it." However, there is a grain of truth in the statement. There is nothing wrong in having an economical building, since an inexpensive building can speak just as truthfully as an expensive building. Certainly an adobe or concrete block building can speak of the very best efforts of the congregation. Adobe can be an hon est architectural statement of the money spent for the purpose, and the adobe building will do it just as well as the stone building. A shabby building says something else, however. It speaks of indifference, lack of concern, and like an unkempt building it speaks of other interests.

A church building of another denomination has a great chimney mass punching through the roof of the church. At the other end of the church building is seen a tiny cross vainly trying to compete with the massive chimney. It seems that this church is clearly saying that creature comforts come before salvation. The church building with a series of noncompatible additions reads of growth, but it also tells of a lack of direction. Buildings do speak; they speak without the use of words. How very important then that they speak the same message as that heard inside the church building.

Where Is the Basin?

Consider one of the mighty acts that the Adventists have participated in foot washing. The idea is so great that the person looking for the utensils that express this mighty act might miss the Sabbath message. A search in the sanctuary for this great expression of love and humility is usually fruit less. Someone no doubt removes these items. Questions concerning these utensils finally produce answers. It seems many adherents are reluctant to speak of this wonderful act, this wonderful act of foot washing.

Basins and towels are closeted in some back cupboard. They are not permitted to speak of the act of Christ, nor permitted to tell the people of their churches of that act. But they could speak symbolically and nonverbally every day. True, foot washing and its placement needs careful consideration, but an appropriate place can be found for its placement.

Adventists have an opportunity to make a strong statement at the entries of their churches why not a great basin and towel in the foyer of each of their churches, visible from the outside, that would speak of the love and humility of her members? What an impact! The greatest become the least, and the least become great in this act. The basin with lively water spilling out, and the gathering of the people to touch one an other, to simply say by touch that there is concern for the other person, and that his presence is acknowledged. The person is equal, the person is humble, the person is loved. The greatest of insults is to ignore the other person, to avoid the outstretched hand, to pass in silence without touching.

People show the greatest compassion at death when they reach out and comfort the bereaved by holding the hand or placing the arm around the shoulder or around the person. The pat on the back is an approval and encouragement to others. The stroke of the child's head is approval, for a child without love, touch, and approval becomes sick. Touch can break through the outer shell (veneer) of indifference. The greatest thing the church can give is love, concern, and caring. This is the basis of roots and identity.

Roots and identity may be related to a town or house, but they are really an outgrowth of warmth and concern of the people of the town, the family in the home, the individuals in the church. The task of the church member therefore is to establish identity and roots with love and concern. It is more than just that essential handshake on a Sabbath morning. It is the specific inquiry about the sickness, the kind of problem, the kind of operation; the specific notice of needs and requirements that make identity and roots in the church and always have. Being there, "rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep." So why not touch? Why not touch, and at the same time use the cleansing power of water to reunite in love?

Look at the Baptists

The very mention of water makes the Christian relate to baptism. And, of course, the word baptist immediately suggests a denomination that has taken that name, just as the Seventh-day Adventists have taken their name. The name specifies an act. Since it is easier to look at another denomination and evaluate them, take a look at the Baptists. Certainly the name indicates a strong position that this denomination has taken.

There is no doubt that Baptists believe in baptism. Verbally they can defend their position with great eloquence and facts. There is no doubt about the need for immersion. However, does a walk along the street past a Baptist church ever communicate non verbally about baptism? Is the Baptist church recognized as being any different from any other church on the street, in the city, or even the whole world? True, the sign declares in nonverbal symbols that it is a Baptist church, but to the nonmember this means nothing, to the motorist doing 55 m.p.h. it seldom can be read. How much better to declare non verbally the statement of baptism. Here is a sacrament worth pro claiming, worth visualizing to the community.

What about the Adventist Church? Does the Seventh-day Adventist Church believe in baptism? The physical evidence is lacking or often hard to see. Nonverbally the church is not speaking. A search of the sanctuary reveals that the Adventists believe in pews, walls, ceilings, maybe a balcony, and some sort of lectern at one end of the building. Believe in pews? How absurd. They may be necessary, but certainly no belief is attached to them.

However, church buildings do speak on the inside and on the outside of the beliefs of the people, and what is seen speaks to the understanding. If baptism is a part of that belief, then the statement should be made physically, and as a continuing message throughout the year. Is baptism in the midst of the congregation, at the entry, or off to the side? In some churches it is set aside and immediately the baptistry becomes nonverbal. It is clear from the name and placement that the baptistry is where baptism takes place. Adventists need to be clearer in their nonverbal statement on baptism.

The church does educate the mind, but it should also educate the senses as well. The eye, nose, ear, and hand have received less education than the mind from the church. The eye sees veneer but does not understand the conflict involved. The hand does not reach out to make contact and the great est of opportunities is lost. The nose smells the stale and musty odor of the church closed through out the week and does not sense vitality. The ear does not hear the sound of water and is not reminded of baptism. The mind has been taught exactly, the senses very carelessly. Conflict is created in the individual for the mind re cords one thing, but the senses see, hear, smell, and touch, and in so doing record another.


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-an architect in Ohio and the author of two books on church architecture, Christ and Architecture and When Faith Takes Form.

July 1975

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