Monday, January 28, 2019

A Waste of Money. . .

Everyone knows the famous Churchill quote about how we shape their buildings and then are shaped by them, for good or ill.  Across the landscape of America there are tons of church buildings imagined by architects who did not have much of an idea about how to design a church building and what really counts.  In many cases, these were buildings built by well-meaning people, usually as the first structure, and financed by faithful gifts seeking to go as far as possible.  The architects usually tried (and still try) to do too much, tried to be too creative, and tried to imagine something new and different for a church building that was meant to do what churches have done since the beginning.  Church architecture does not have the same goals as secular architecture and the building is not nearly as important as what takes place within it.  Whether it impresses is less important than whether or not it serves its purpose as the place with the faithful gather around the Word, font, and Table of the Lord for the creation, nourishment, and direction of the faithful.

This is one area in which congregational autonomy is not helpful.  If the architect proposes something which is simply not useful for the holy task of being where the faithful gather around the means of grace, there is no one to tell them this will not work.  Yes, we have some structures in place for those congregations using Lutheran Church Extension Fund dollars to fund the place, but even then the consultation is optional and has no real power to stop a disaster.  Secondly, disaster is usually seen more in terms of construction techniques than its design ability to handle its holy purpose.

To be sure, earthly temples made with hands do not try to make a comfortable home for God but they do exist to house the holy and essential things of the Church -- the Word preached, baptism celebrated, and the table set for Christ's meal.  It is not simply a matter of aiding and assisting this holy purpose but, practically, not working against it.  The tragedy is that too many buildings actually work against and hinder the gathering of God's people.  It is not merely a matter of merely being ugly but of failing to provide fitting space for the holy calling of worship.  When that happens, it is no wonder that such a building can work and will work against the mission of that congregation.  Some congregations are compromised by their facilities -- again, not simply a matter of too little space or ugly space but of space that fails in its most important and essential purpose.

Perhaps there should be fewer church architects, perhaps it should be a specialty only of those who take the time to learn what it is that the church building exists for and how that is different from other public spaces that are not focused upon the Word and work of the Lord.  Art can help to cover mistakes and fix some surface issues but the decor cannot repair a poorly conceived building that works against its primary purpose.  Maybe I am asking too much but I have seen too many first structures that cost a great deal of money and yet failed to do what they were supposed to do and too many buildings that have structural flaws that hamper the future of the congregations that invested their hopes in these structures.  It is time to see that a good building is not costly but the most economical first step for the mission and next phase for the flourishing congregation.  Mistakes are far more costly than well thought out and well designed structures.

In a few congregations I know well, a well meaning building committee trusting their architect has left them with a building that does not serve its purpose well, is costly to maintain, and actually works to hinder their purpose.  The problem is that they are caught in the inability to redo what they have or sell it and have enough recovered investment for a do over.  So be careful.  Low ceilings, strange roof configurations, tiny chancels, no place for musical instruments or musicians, too many steps for people and too few to raise the altar and pulpit for clear visibility and prominence -- these are just a few of the obvious errors that congregations live with.  Buildings should free us for mission and become our mission.

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