Buildings Matter Because Bodies Matter
Editor's Note: Many church leaders feel the tension of deciding how much money to spend on facilities. Should we aim high and build lasting cathedrals or be minimalists for the sake of our fellow Christians who lack such resources? We opened this series with David Platt explaining that he's "not convinced that large buildings are the best or only way to use God’s resources." Matthew Lee Anderson responds in this post. You can also read David Gobel's "Reforming Church Architecture" and J. D. Greear's "We Want to Stay Light and Mobile, Flexible and Ready."
In the middle of World War II, the chamber of the House of Commons was destroyed. As Britain’s parliamentary body deliberated how and when it would rebuild, Prime Minister Winston Churchill rose to defend reconstructing it in the exact style and layout as the previous version. He opened his speech with what is now a classic statement of the importance of architecture: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.“ Churchill went on to argue that the shape and size of the room were integral to how the House of Commons functioned. Among other reasons, he contended that the small room was necessary for their conversational way of doing business, as the smaller room inevitably made the discussion more intimate.
Churchill’s basic insight is that our physical environments subtly affect how we act in ways we usually don’t consciously attend to or notice. Theologian Jamie Smith puts it in a slightly different context, a building can be an “incubator for the practices that shape [us] into a certain kind of people.” For instance, a medieval cathedral makes certain responses and dispositions more likely than others. Buildings like Westminster Abbey or Notre Dame make it easier to cultivate a sense of quiet reverence (and perhaps makes us less likely to shout in joy), if only because the stone walls and tile floors offer little muting effect to the sound’s reverberations. The place even make certain forms of music more plausible: Palestrina’s masses are built for the soaring heights of St. Peter’s basilica, while a praise band with drums would be an acoustic nightmare.
Buildings (or other forms of technology) don’t determine our behavior, of course. But because they do make certain forms of life more plausible, our architectural judgment needs to be theologically informed, just like our artistic judgment and our technological judgment. (A good Protestant example of this is Princeton Chapel, which my friend Matt Milliner unpacks here.)
However much architecture matters, though, it’s important to note that the evangelical wariness about church buildings has important biblical grounding. Stephen sums up the position in Acts 7 when he reminds the people our God “does not dwell in temples made with human hands.” (This is a better place to turn, I think, than the argument given by Judas, whom we should always be wary of siding with). The indwelling of God’s presence as a result of Pentecost chastens any pretensions that buildings can pass on or preserve the faith on their own.
At the same time, this indwelling life of the Spirit needs external, visible support to flourish. The life of Christ is “poured out in our hearts,” but it gets there by way of the body. Reading the Bible or hearing the proclamation of the Word are just as sensory as walking in a church, which is why we attend to the words differently depending on whether we are saying them out loud, listening to them, or reading them. Cut ourselves off from this practice or the other practices of the church, and the fruit inevitably withers on the vine.
Buildings and other forms of human making shape us, then, because our bodies affect our souls as much as our souls affect our bodies. While evangelicals have rightly focused on the interior life, the interior life has a particular shape based on whether and how we “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice.” While architecture may not be the main thing for evangelicals, the main thing isn’t the only one that matters.