My Theology and Architecture

By Mel McGowan

I used to believe that, at any moment, Jesus would whisk us out and that since “it’s all gonna burn,” church funds should be spent only on “emergency shelters” just to keep the rain off of our heads—not expensive, attractive church buildings. Beauty was irrelevant, since we’re all on an emergency rescue mission, selling fire insurance to whoever would listen.

Then I had the opportunity to meet storytellers who helped me see the arc in the metanarrative of his story, from the garden to the city, from creation to brokenness to restoration. He introduces himself as an artist and an architect when the Bible says, “In the beginning God created.” As an image-bearer, I now realize our collective calling to join him in the act of ongoing co-creation.

The “Master’s Plan”

To me, this is architecture! From the beginning of time, God created space that facilitated horizontal connection (Adam and Eve) and vertical connection (God and creation). God was in the details of the tabernacle, where everything meant everything, and everything told a story. Paul describes God’s will as “that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, New American Standard Bible).

02_Life8_McGowan_JNTo me, architecture isn’t about expressing my ego in an elegant master plan, but about prayerfully and humbly seeking the “Master’s plan.” That starts with discovering what God is already up to in the unique story of his people, his place, and the unique passion he has embedded in leaders.

Through this lens, bad architecture is sin. Good architecture is our responsibility and calling.

Bad architecture, like sin, severs connections. Good architecture restores relationship, beauty, and shalom.

The way of the world does not encourage good architecture. In residential architecture, there is a standard operating procedure. An American family buys as many square feet of house and land as it can afford, slaving and saving up to sacrifice a down payment on the altar of the American dream of suburban, single-family home ownership. This dream is about putting as much space as one can possibly afford between my neighbor and me.

The resultant “garagescape” sprawl that replaces creation is monotonous, isolated, and ugly. Developers’ efforts to dress up the “real estate products” are shallow vinyl, foam, and stucco attempts at evoking “real” places, such as New England and Southwest missions.

Millennials and aging boomers are increasingly looking to trade in this “standard operating procedure” for those “real” places, places that have history, walkability, diversity, and beauty. They long for connection outside of the traditional nuclear family, and they are beginning to realize we have a genetic code that wires us for community.

We are a herd species. As our technology allows us to cocoon with information and entertainment in our hands, our hunger for connection grows even more. In “real” places, architecture tends to relate to the story of the people and the place of the city. It tends to be flexible enough to accommodate different uses over time, or even at the same time. It tends to be compact enough to allow people to have access (connection) to open space (either creation or recreation).

Divide or Connect

Leaving residential architecture aside, church architecture can either divide or connect. I’m convinced that church walls are some of the biggest barriers to the lost and the found, Christ and community, words of eternal life, and those who are so hungry for living water.

Historically, there seem to have been two theological choices in church architecture Many young church planters believe as I once did, that spending money on facilities and mortgages should be avoided. On the other hand, the traditional view of church buildings held by church architects and mainline denominations is that no expense should be spared in creating “sacred space,” or contemporary versions of the temple where God’s presence is believed to be.

Jesus didn’t seem impressed with the temple architecture. God’s people are the church, after all, and not a building. At Visioneering Studios, we believe our calling is more humble than being a temple designer or builder. We feel we are called to dig wells.

The Samaritan woman would not have ventured to Jerusalem or the temple mount. Even if she had gotten to the temple’s outer court, she would not have been allowed to enter the Holy Place, much less the Most Holy Place, where God’s presence was said to dwell.

That did not stop the God of the universe from busting through space and time to connect with her where she was—Jacob’s well. To me, good church architecture facilitates connections between the lost and the found. Our latest Worship Facilities Solomon Awards “Best Church Design” project—Red Rocks Church, a converted Vietnamese grocery store outside of Denver—creates these kinds of connections in a space that tells the story of a unique tribe of people in a unique place.

Mel McGowan serves as president and chief creative officer with Visioneering Studios Inc., Irvine, California.

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