Grand Designs

I’ve been thinking a lot about architecture recently. This is strange, because I resolved at the end of 2004 that I would never again be subjected to an assignment that required me to consider the built form (or fibonacci numbers, for that matter). A year of sleepless nights consumed by balsa wood models and two-point perspective drawings well and truly extinguished any lingering gusto I initially had when I started my architecture degree as a fresh-faced high school graduate. Or at least I so thought.

Earlier this year, I had the absolute privilege of travelling to Israel for three and a half weeks to take part in a biblical studies field trip with Alphacrucis. Of the countless things that stand out retrospectively, I can’t help but find myself still overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of the Greco-Roman architecture found in places like Beit She’an (otherwise known as Scythopolis) in the north of the country, where to this day you can sit in a column-flanked amphitheatre and walk within metres of exquisite mosaics encrusting the shop floors of antiquity.

In understanding that these ridiculously grandiose structures were strategically placed to symbolically impose the values of the Roman Empire in regions resistant to imperial maxims, I’ve found myself reflecting on the potential influence of architecture and space design in conveying and reinforcing power structures – and how this is subconsciously carried out in the church building as it is formatted to connect in relevance to its community. I don’t have any answers, but I think there are serious questions we ought to consider, because we too often overlook the implicit theological messages we send out when we design our church spaces.

When we organise the individual seats of our church auditoriums to be focused on a colour-lit stage where the same few regularly tread, what does this imply about our understanding of the priesthood of all believers? We want to be relevant by engaging people in a familiar environment – but can our church buildings encourage a phenomenon whereby some become more powerful simply because they are in this colour-lit position more frequently than others and gain greater esteem?

When we have individual seats, all facing in one direction towards this stage, with the screens up the front drawing our individual attention, do we have any need to interact with the person sitting next to us in church? In our organisation of space, do we encourage an experience of faith that is in the presence of others, yet almost entirely individualised – that is only pseudo-communal?

I guess what I’m asking boils down to one question: if we had the chance to go back to the drawing board and reorganise the space of our churches so they would reflect and reinforce more fully an understanding of God’s kingdom as truly communal, equitable and inclusive… what would they look like?

6 thoughts on “Grand Designs

  1. Nice post Gretski! What would such a church look like?! It is true that our modern church service (Pentecostal) remains strikingly similar to its Roman predecessor in terms of oratory function and layout, so what then does this say to visitors or unchurched people? I’m no historian but I think that if the Romans gave us anything, they gave us structure and intelligent design. If modern culture builds on the ash-heap of the previous revolution, then present-day society is built on Roman ash. We hold a business meeting to address issues and set people loose with new tasks, we take notes and book appointments on our Blackberry’s and so on. In terms of church function, I’d argue that the common denominators are:

    – an oratory function: a platform from which to address people on mass and preach the gospel
    – active worship: not limited to but including music (art is cool)
    – fellowship: hang time for people to catch up/pray together

    These common denominators are necessary to facilitate a healthy and vibrant faith community. Together, they are blended into a 1 & 1/2 hour service every Sunday and I think this is this point in need of review. Can true biblical community happen in 1 & 1/2 hours? The answer is no. The service or meeting (modeled on the Romans) is simply meant to FACILITATE the growth and development of a healthy Christian community.

    Add to the church mix: relevant testimonies and stories about real-life people who came into contact with a real God and His people, small groups with leaders who truly know God and love his sheep, biblical teaching (inspirational, empowerment and truth), philanthropic projects – local and global and more!

    In saying this, I believe the current church worship service structure works – but needs to be nuanced if it is to be effective. John Maxwell says “Everything rises and falls on leadership”. The tools work fine, it’s the tradesperson who needs to know what they are doing!

    1. Dan, I definitely agree that there is good to be taken from all models of society, but I think it is also good to continually question them – not for the sake of being critical, but because society is always changing and we need to be aware of the context we are operating in.
      While we might have some of our roots in Roman structures built around oratory functions, its imperative to remember that while these structures allowed the individual to come and hear a speech for their own benefit, one’s understanding of themselves was not as an individual, but inherently seen in light of the community to which they were seen to belong to. Also, we have to remember that Roman society very much operated on this notion of hierarchy, which you can see in the design of an amphitheatre (the space is designed to give one person more authority over others). We need to remember that much of the New Testament is written as a result of the early church trying to wrestle with living in a Christian community that sits in opposition to this hierarchy (where your position was seen as assigned by the gods and formed your identity – once a slave, always a slave! Compare this to Galatians 3:28!).
      I understand to an extent why we hold to these structures – because pragmatically, they work well. However, in designing our church buildings around these structures, we need to be aware of what they were originally designed to do (to reinforce the hierarchical values necessary for the Roman Empire to survive), to ask whether they do the same for us and to question whether this is reflective of what the Christian community was designed to be. In addition, we also need to realise that we live after the Enlightenment, which has resulted in a massive shift towards the self-determinism of the individual – so people sitting in our congregations aren’t conditioned to automatically understand themselves in line with a particular group.
      What are your thoughts?

  2. I am concerned that we think of “church” as being the building and not the people!

    Do we only do church when we go to church? Do we only do church when we go to, or get involved with one of the programs of the church?
    I have no problems with the building structure of our current churches if the foundation behind it is to help fulfil the 5 fold ministry order to equip and train the saints to take the work of the ministry into their area of influence.

    When I walk down the road and talk to another person I am an extension of the church. When I make a phone call, when I’m at work or play I am always an extension of the church.

    1. Craig, I do affirm the very real concern that the church is often perceived as the building, rather than the people. I should probably clarify that in this post I was not trying to insinuate that the focus should ever be the building. Instead, what I am trying to argue is that the things we use to facilitate Christian community (architecture, different media forms, etc.) are never ‘neutral tools’, but actually have real power embedded in them, because they have the potential to benefit some more than others in organising people and thus causing them to act (or react) a certain way. A classic example would be designing buildings that are not wheelchair accessible – this disempowers people in wheelchairs by excluding them from certain spaces.
      The reason I have focused on the church auditorium in this instance is due to the simple fact that the vast majority of congregations have a building that is the central location for their operations – a place where members (generally) meet together in their totality (usually) on a Sunday. While this is absolutely not the totality of Christian community for most churches, the building still represents what is important to that church – if you walk into a church and see that the band plays to the side, out of sight and there is a fancy pulpit up the front, you can pretty well assume that this church probably values pastoral teaching over music.
      Likewise, consider how we set up our churches with many individual seats, all facing towards the stage in one direction – this arrangement makes it so easy for someone to attend a church without actually participating in the church (the body of believers) itself – just think about how many people would prefer to attend Sunday night over participating in a small group. If the church is a body of people, not only in the process of becoming more like Christ, but also growing in their reflection of the true community found within the Godhead, why don’t our church auditoriums facilitate this better? I know it’s often a pragmatic thing (seats in a row = we can fit more seats/people in) – but I honestly think we can think more broadly and creatively on this.
      As an example to close, my pastor will often ask us to take a minute or two to discuss a question with our row – the linear arrangement makes this really hard to do! People at one end can’t hear the other end and we find ourselves often craning our necks to see who’s talking, which inevitably leaves people out.

  3. Thanks for your clarification Greta.

    In the past much of our church structural designs were designed to bring glory to God, to bring about a personal reflective change and a slower balance into the rythem of life.

    Part of what you have said is the reason I prefer to fellowship with smaller congregations then I do with large ones. I think in our drive for perfection / professionalism we loose much sense of community and allowance for humanity.

    Also in regards to our structures, what consideration do we give to communual gathering areas that facilitate a sense of community? Perhaps this is a downfall with our larger gatherings that run to tight seating schedules. Get em in, get em out so that we can get ready to get the next lot in again.

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