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The Architecture of Megachurches — What Do These Buildings Mean?

Architecture critic Witold Rybczynski offers an essay and slide show on modern megachurches at Slate.com. The photography is striking, but Rbyczynski’s definition of megachurch has everything to do with the size of the building — not theology (the new Mormon conference center in Salt Lake City is included, along with the Lakewood Church’s transformation of what had been known as the Compaq Center in Houston).

Rybczynski notes the lack of overt symbolism or traditional form in these large buildings and argues: The desire of congregations to make their place of worship a part of everyday life rather than a place apart is admirable, and one can sympathize with the wish to avoid the traditional ecclesiastical symbols that have been pretty much co-opted by mainstream religions. But having turned their backs on tradition, megachurches need to find appropriate architectural alternatives. Just putting up a sign and a fountain is not enough.

About the new Willow Creek Community Church sanctuary in suburban Chicago: The sprawling complex, on an attractively landscaped 155-acre site, includes not only two sanctuaries but also a gymnasium that serves as an activity center, a bookstore, a food court, and a cappuccino bar. Goss/Pasma Architects of Evanston, Ill., did not include any traditional religious symbols on the exterior: no steeples or spires, no bell towers, no pointed arches, not even a crucifix. It doesn’t look like a place of worship, but what does it look like? A performing-arts center, a community college, a corporate headquarters?

He cites Paul Goldberger’s observation that, “The Gothic cathedral was designed to inspire awe and thoughts of transcendence. Megachurches celebrate comfort, ease and the very idea of contemporary suburban life.” Rybczynski responds: Since many Early American garden suburbs had beautiful Episcopalian churches, I don’t see any contradiction between transcendence and suburban life, but it’s true that most contemporary megachurches are resolutely secular in design. The 4,550-seat sanctuary–it’s actually called the Main Auditorium–of Willow Creek appears to have good sightlines, excellent audiovisual facilities, and comfortably wide aisles for moving around in. But inspiring it’s not. It’s the architectural equivalent of the three-piece business suit that most nondenominational pastors favor.

OK–so when was the last time you saw a megachurch pastor in a three-piece suit? That mistake aside, Rybczynski is on to something. Architecture does signify meaning and intention. There is a vast difference between the soaring nave of a Gothic cathedral and the flat auditorium of many evangelical church buildings. One architectural style speaks of transcendence and majesty, while the other speaks of fellowship, teaching, and immediacy. The Gothic verticality points to awe and wonder, while the fan-shaped auditorium points to a more horizontal perspective.

Jeanne Halgren Kilde offers more profound observations in her 2002 book, When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press). Kilde offers interesting interpretations of the shift to auditorium-style sanctuaries among American evangelicals in the nineteenth century. I do not agree with all of her observations, but she is surely correct in linking this shift to the transformation of evangelical worship that centered on congregational participation in worship through hymn-singing and congregational learning through listening to the sermon. In order to facilitate (literally) these purposes, evangelicals began building sanctuaries that looked like opera houses, with comfortable seats, clear views of the pulpit, and optimum design for sound.

Shifting to the contemporary megachurch, Kilde asserts: “The ampitheatre plan of megachurches caters to the same physical needs and desires in the late twentieth century as it did in the late nineteenth. Hearing and seeing in a comfortable setting remain paramount.”

I do love the beauty of formal architecture. My wife and I have dragged our children into more medieval cathedrals and soaring sanctuaries than they would wish to count. I want them to sense the heaviness, the transcendent wonder, and the awe of standing under tons of rock and stone as pillars, vaults, and arches defy gravity overhead. I want them to look at light filtered through glass made centuries ago by devoted hands and to touch wood carved and polished before Columbus sailed the seas. I want them to know and to appreciate beauty.

But, far above these concerns, I want my children to hear the preaching of the Word of God and to sing and pray among fellow believers. The content of Christian worship is infinitely more important than the architectural context.