|Before Renovation. . .|
Jesus never disdained the Temple or what was supposed to go on within its courts. He did, of course, both lament and critique the stewardship of those who were to keep the Temple as a beacon of faith and light that was to point to Him. He spared no words of condemnation and upturned the tables of those who had forgotten the purpose of the Temple. He honored the synagogue with His presence and never once suggested that the golf course or fishing boat or a darkened bedroom were sufficient substitutes for the place where the Word was preached and the sacrifices offered. Somehow or other we have forgotten this and made Jesus an enemy of beauty or at least no friend to it. We offer the Lord and the Lord's people warehouses devoid of holy things for the holy people who worship therein. We think that we are being good stewards but we tear down the flawed and cheap buildings of our past with the same pace as we level retail and commercial establishments in order to keep pace with current trend or because they cost more to keep than to destroy. Then we wonder why there is so little appreciation for or desire to be in the holy places where the Lord makes His presence in the Word and Sacrament. God does not need eloquent spaces but we do.
Building of beautiful churches makes a significant statement about who we think we are, who we think God is, and how much we value the Lord and His gifts. Within the stone and steel, brick mortar, wood and glass something is said about God and about us -- perhaps something we do not like to admit. We spare few dollars on our comforts (a cool place in summer and a warm one in winter, easy chairs, fine technology, and lots of other things) but we won't waste money on things that testify in art and music what God has done. Sadly, most Lutheran churches do not even have a choir or a building or an organ sufficient for the music of our greatest musician -- Bach. We are not alone. Beauty is not a high priority for us.
Beautiful church buildings are not so much monuments to us as they are places where we experience in the eye the vision of the Revelation of St. John and anticipate the heavenly liturgy. While they need not be overly extravagant in cost, they need to have the integrity that flows from what happens within that space and express in some sort of way the awe of those who regularly receive within these walls the inestimable gifts of God. Beauty and form are not ends but means and the heavenly liturgy of eternity which we anticipate and even rehearse here on earth is, according to Scripture, not devoid of art and music that befits this majestic experience. More importantly, beauty identifies this as sacred space, space defined not by what we do but by what God has done and still does and has promised to do for us, among us, and in us.
Once the church in a given community was both centrally located and was the most prominent building in that community. Imposing, perhaps, but inspiring most of all as it attempted to make fit for the eye what the Word of God says and does. By the the time of Luther, other buildings competed for this prominence and began to draw the eye away from the House of God and to palaces and government buildings that instead testify to mortal greatness. Today we live in a world of huge steel and glass houses and they testify less to the prominence of God in our midst than to the temples of finance, retail and commerce, government, and, most especially, our penchant for leisure and pleasure. Here I think of the great stadiums for the sports teams and their power is revealed by how much people will pay for naming rights and for the privilege of signage on their walls. To those who say buildings do not matter, I challenge them to look at these monuments and say they are silent about our beliefs, priorities, and values!
No, it may be a comfortable lie we tell ourselves but it is still a lie that beauty is too extravagant a thing for churches. God does not need fancy temples, but we surely do.