On the Sinfulness of Church Buildings

The storm that slammed California last Friday swept some shingles off our church's roof, leaving the women's restroom drenched. The carpet bubbled and the plaster ceiling wept. This, in addition to the usual leakage. Our building has a tower-like structure on the southeast corner, with a neon cross perched uneasily on top. The neon no longer lights. The tower can be relied upon to leak every year -- a tradition spanning eight decades. At some point, church leaders stopped trying to fix it. Someone just put buckets in the attic that catch most of the water, and no one remembers who.

Confession: The foregoing is bait to tempt readers into tired metaphors of churches' pomposity and ineffectiveness -- especially my emergent readers. (Cue crickets.)

Emergents and evangelicals generally have been disgusted with their churches -- the congregations, not necessarily the buildings. They've been disgusted for years, and have been hunting for the cause of all the dysfunction. From several emergent blogs I've seen, many blame the buildings for the sad condition of the people. Apparently the buildings' very existence is heinous.

This issue came up on a great blog I've been following, kingdomgrace. For a week or so, Grace has been writing intelligently about a book by Frank Viola and George Barna called Pagan Christianity, one of many books analyzing the evangelical mess. Their thesis is “that the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to exist.”

The chapter she treated yesterday (here) dealt with "the history of the church building from the first century through modern times."

Viola and Barna are not positive in their overview. Grace quotes them as saying,

"Somehow we have been taught to feel holier when we are in 'the house of God' and have inherited a pathological dependency upon an edifice to carry out our worship of God. The church building has taught us badly about what church is and what it does."

I can't relate to what Viola and Barna have written there. I was never taught "somehow" to feel holier when in a church building. Feeling holier has been impossible because most of the buildings where I've worshiped have been aggressively ugly.

Nor can I relate to their assertion that "we" have "inherited a pathological dependency upon an edifice." I feel sure that they liked how the phrase sounded, but didn't think about it too carefully. "Must . . . have . . . my . . . edifice!"

And I can't get into the ersatz liberal arts thing of saying, "The church building has taught us badly."

Grace gives more nuanced comments. Church buildings do contribute to such problems as "congregants as spectators," "lack of participation," "consumerist mentality," and "isolation." She writes, "The problem isn't necessarily the building, but rather our imagination and understanding of who we are and what we are called to be apart from the building."

I think she's right on. The design of large churches today deadens the acoustics, coerces the sight, blocks the world outside, and isolates the worshipper. It's a barrier to the restoration of community.

But how do we overcome such barriers?

I see two kinds of dialogue among emergents. One kind is epitomized by Grace. She is probing and measured. Her passion seems expressed by depth rather than bombast. Though I sense that she's seen the troubles of church life, she does not allow her experiences to embitter her writing. Many barriers can be overcome with this kind of dialogue.

The other kind is epitomized by Pagan Christianity. The rhetorical neon doesn't glow and the argumentation has continual leaks.