Volume 11, Issue 3: Presbyterion
In ancient Israel, when the people drifted away from faithfulness to God, this was regularly manifested through their worship on the "high places." It was unbelief that drove them from the place God had assigned to establish His name-but at least they knew that religious worship required height, groves, blood, and a cultivated sense of the numinous. They sought out their false religions, but at least, damning them with faint praise, they were religions.
We are just as disobedient in our worship as they were, but are too lazy even to create a false religion. So we just make up something that fits in with the zoning regulations, and call it good.
Because modernity is also driven by unbelief, just like the ancient apostasies, an alternative to the right worship of God must be found. But because we are modern, that alternative ends up being about as numinous as the parking lot at Safeway. In short, for modern evangelicals, worship must be boring and grubby, just like us. And after a time, the vestigial forms of our worship trickle down to join the puddle made by our sorry little secular lives, not distinguished from those lives in any significant way.
Not surprisingly, our architecture, like the rest of our lives, will reflect the gods we worship. If we worship the living God in truth, that will of course be reflected, as we discuss elsewhere in this issue. But if we worship the local baals, then our houses of assembly will soon resemble them in all their splendor. Splendor, aye.
We build temples to the gods of commerce, and this is why the modern church looks like a shopping mall, sprawling and flat, plenty of parking, Visa and MasterCard accepted. In one city, a church mailed out hundreds of thousands of brochures hawking their wares. Come to our church, they said, and we'll give you higher job satisfaction and a better sex life. Just like Alice's restaurant, you can get anything you want. Churches now have weight rooms, they have food courts, they have Christian book stores. In the old days, this last item would not have been a matter of shame, but in the old days, Christian book stores had Christian books in them. (I have not heard of any church that has a Victoria's Secret outlet, but this is probably because I don't get around much.)
We hustle and sell because we think we need the customers. We market the church because we think the gospel is a product. Because we think the gospel is a product, we measure our success by counting the dollars that flow in. If the stream slows down, we do what all enterprising entrepeneurs do-modify the product until it is more to the customers' liking. The customer, as the fellow said, is always right. But Jesus said that you cannot serve God and mammon. And because the modern evangelical church is clearly hot in the pursuit of mammon, it cannot be serving God. Christ cleansed the Temple because the avaricious had made it into a den of thieves. We have thought to do them one better, and have tried to turn a den of thieves into a Temple. We build structures that make people think they are expected to buy something, again, just like they do at the mall. And this is why our churches look the way they do.
Another American baal is the god of pragmatism. This ugly little god is why modern Christians gravitate to the multipurpose building. Over the years I have been in many conversations with many Christians about the prospect of building church facilities, and one thing that comes up with metranome-like regularity is the strong desire that the building be "used more than just one day a week." The strange thing is that these comments are never made as a request for divine services on a daily basis. The desire expressed is not for a daily exposition of the Word, or for more opportunities to sing psalms.
The assumption is always that the facility has to be usable by us for the majority of the week. The thing is like a time-share condominium for God, where He gets the use of the place for a couple hours on Sunday morning. The rest of the time, all that square footage needs to be available for our little occupations-basketball games and concerts, just to mention a few. And thus it comes about that the sermon is preached underneath a backboard and hoop, not as a temporary and regrettable necessity, but as a monument to pragmatic efficiency.
The third compromise we make has to do with our willingness for our worship to be captured by gravity. Our contemporary gods, like us, are earthbound. So we worship in long, low, flat rooms, with the acoustic tile ceiling shutting us in tight. What is above our heads doesn't really matter to us, because we are far more concerned with relationships down here. Our religion is no longer vertical. Besides, in all those old drafty churches, the empty space up in the vault was not very heat-efficient, and God wants us to be good stewards. And so we make our worship centers (gakkk!) very much like a living room, with carpet, padded chairs, curtains, and cushions. Our worship (of one another, apparently) must be cozy.
We have a lot of thinking to do, and after that, a lot of work. Our English word church descends from the Greek kuriakos-house of the Lord. It would be nice to be able to invite one another, as each week drew to a close, to come, worship the Lord in such places. But first we have to build a few.