Who Wants to Worship in a Warehouse?

A few weeks ago, I attended an evening service at a southern California church that shall remain nameless. Its name doesn’t matter, because churches like this are a dime a dozen around here. The worship service convened in a mammoth rectangular building that was some sort of converted warehouse or light-industrial complex. It was like one long, ugly wedding banquet hall, jazzed up with stage lighting, several huge jumbo-tron screens, and, well, not much else that I can remember.

Don’t get me wrong. The service itself was great, and the band was great. God was there; it was a church.

But I found myself extremely distracted by the enormity and bland ugliness of the building I was supposed to be reverent and pious in. It was like trying to have a moment with God in CostCo or the huge storage section of IKEA. It was not impossible in this environment to get into the reverential mode; but it was certainly not easy.

I wondered: am I alone in feeling like we are missing something here? Why are evangelicals so unconcerned with a church building that is aesthetically pleasing? What happened to the Christian commitment to build beautiful cathedrals and sacred spaces that architects 1000 years from now will look back upon for inspiration?

Meanwhile, I had just read this article on Out of Ur blog, describing the results of a poll that asked non-Christians what sort of church architecture was most appealing to them. The results found that most unchurched adults preferred the gothic look, with the white-steeple-and-pillar exterior coming in second. In last place was the more contemporary office/warehouse aesthetic.

And yet, how many churches are bothering with gothic arches anymore? Or steeples? Or anything architecturally daring? Answer: next to none. Pastors today seem to think that money spent on “extravagant” building design is money wasted. It’s the old protestant thrift rearing it’s head again: the notion (unBibical, I would say) that “superfluity” or “needless adornment” is somehow a sin.

Don’t we serve a God of abundance? Isn’t he the God who gave the Israelites some pretty elaborate—some might say superfluous—instruction on building the tabernacle? (Even while they were wandering the desert, scared and hungry.) I mean, just look at his instructions for how he wanted them to build the lampstand:

“Make a lampstand of pure gold and hammer it out, base and shaft; its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms shall be of one piece with it. Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand—three on one side and three on the other. Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand.And on the lampstand there are to be four cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms. One bud shall be under the first pair of branches extending from the lampstand, a second bud under the second pair, and a third bud under the third pair—six branches in all. The buds and branches shall all be of one piece with the lampstand, hammered out of pure gold. (Exodus 25: 31-36).

Can you imagine the reaction of a pastor today who would get that instruction? They’d be like, “can’t we just buy a lampstand at Kohl’s?”

The point is, we serve a God who does not seem to be offended when we are a tad superfluous in our resources—IF it is in worship of him. He didn’t seem to mind when the sinful woman washed his feet with expensive perfume, after all.

So why don’t we take the money we have and make some beautiful buildings again? Why don’t we hire Richard Meier to design a church like this for our next building project?

Yeah, it’s a risky proposition; yes, it’s too much money. But everything we spend money on is a risk. Why not invest in beauty for a change?

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19 responses to “Who Wants to Worship in a Warehouse?

  1. My gut feeling is that it’s akin to something you touched on: big steeples, gothic architecture, and stained glass windows may look nice, but they’re gaudy and unnecessary. Maybe it’s John Calvin’s legacy, too — if I’m not mistaken, he held that churches should be as plain and simple as possible, so as not to distract from the worship, teaching, etc.

    Then again, the cynical side of me thinks that Protestants simply don’t want to look too “Catholic”.

  2. I’ve always felt comfortable in barns and old abandoned structures. There’s something about big, old spaces that causes and helps me to focus on the ginormous context of God. Perhaps because warehouses are newish…? Even a gorgeous new building, like Jubilee, would be slightly uncomfortable for me. Ultimately though, I think I’d prefer church on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

  3. I think there’s a tight balance that needs to be walked here. On one hand, you’re right in that aesthetics matter to God. There are long passages about constructing the tabernacle and temple. Environments can subtly shape our worship and communicate the values of the church (for instance, the warehouse church probably isn’t very liturgical).

    On the other hand, focusing too heavily on buildings can become a form of idolatry if the building becomes more important than the people gathering in the building. For instance, dropping $15 million on an elaborate building when people in your community are in financial crisis or starving might not be the best decision.

    Maybe there’s something in between an abandoned warehouse and the Crystal Cathedral that’s both beautiful and practical.

  4. I want to say that something about the much-vaunted Protestant Work Ethic combined with the pronounced anti-intellectualism rampant in Evangelicalism (c.f. Noll) makes for an Evangelical subculture that values labor but not work. ‘Getting the job done’ vs. ‘doing a good job’ (I’m simplifying)— a big ugly aluminum barn is functional, because it keeps the rain off, and God knows what’s in our hearts. That’s another bit of it, I’m sure, mixed in: The semi-gnosticism of Evangelicalism, in which outward manifestations of inward states are afterthoughts, i.e. the total rejection of service and works for fear of being a works-based religion. See also:

  5. I certainly get that you aren’t saying that God can’t be present in this type of church and I really think that it comes down to the community that the church is reaching out to. There isn’t one size (or type of building) that fits all. We have this same type of discussion about how we dress when we come to church. I rub elbows with people that would never come to church if it means a suit and tie and an intimidating, gothic looking structure. I also rub elbows with people that would never worship, dressed in shorts, in a warehouse. The church leaders have to determine where the need is and create the type of environment where people will not be distracted, and can focus on worship. I think that’s what God had in mind when he gave the Israelites the specifications for the temple, given the culture of the people.
    Thanks for a great blog where we can openly discuss issues like this.

  6. My church is in the interesting position of having a sanctuary on the historic registry (very gothic in style) and having a warehouse-esque building (albeit, it is brick, not aluminum) as worship centers. About 300 yards from each other, actually.
    It may have to do with worship music styles, but we have tons of people in the warehouse style and many fewer in the sanctuary.
    As we’ve looked to modify services there to make them appeal stylistically to the masses, we’ve found transitioning that space for multimedia and bands (other than hymnals and organs) would be very expensive.
    Maybe it is just too hard/expensive to integrate gothic architecture with modern worship technique…

  7. On the question of integrating modern worship techniques with an older-style church sanctuary, I think Jacob’s Well church in Kansas City offers a good example. When I’ve been there, it feels like I’m in a sacred space, but it also feels totally current and not outdated. The hordes of hipsters who worship there like the combination, I think.

  8. I went to Rock Island to cover their Act One seminar weekend, and I was startled by the blandness of the”discipleship center” where it was held. How was I going to write a colorful lede with all the off-white going on? The main church was a little brighter, but still no windows in the “sanctuary.”

  9. It’s not that I think it is impossible, in fact there are a few good examples in St. Louis of the same type of integration at Jacob’s Well. But most gothic churches are home to pre-existing congregations that do not appeal to hipsters for other reasons.
    I think part of the infatuation with gothic style churches has little to do with the actual aesthetic and more to do with the historicity of the place. I’m finding in my work with young people that young Americans grow up away from their families, away from their roots, disconnected from a deeper family history, something outside of themselves. Historical buildings, music, art, worship expressions appeal to them for this reason. It connects them to something more meaningful, more profound, larger than themselves. Building something “new gothic” might feel like imitation crab tastes. It makes you ask, why bother?

  10. To answer your post’s question: I don’t. My family attends a small, but beautiful, church in Old Town Manassas, VA. I’m mesmerized by the stained glass windows every week…and totally happy in a church that doesn’t resemble the Mall of America in size.

    However, I appreciate the other side’s arguments as well…after all, God can be anywhere.

    http://www.trinityepiscopalchurch.org/

  11. It is nice having a building that immediately designates itself as a place where God is worshipped. With the amount of Catholic properties sold off at sub-value over the last decade in America, this isn’t hard to find in most urban areas. (The Journey in St. Louis is a perfect example.) The benefit of such spaces is that they have been part of a community for a long time, people are used to what they mean. This makes them all the more effective when bought, cleaned up, and inhabited by an active community of community-minded believers.

    But as far as facilities are concerned, I would rather skimp on interior design and direct all that extra cash to artists in the church. Let them fill the walls up. Once people get a sense of how valuable our local artists can be in creating spaces of worship and reflection, they tend to be a bit more “superfluous” in their support.

  12. I completely agree with your point. My dad was an Architect, which ingrained in me this love of design and beauty. It’s not to be found in churches today; we are far too utilitarian.

    The church I attend now in Nashville, TN meets in an old ballroom of a converted Catholic Academy. It has 30 foot ceilings with gold painting adornments and hard wood floors and 15 foot high windows along the sides; I’ve never found an atmosphere that helped me immediately gain a sense of transcendence and reverence in worship.

  13. Some people in Africa and India worship God in buildings with dirt floors. Maybe we should give some of that steeple money to them so they can have things like fresh water and food for church events.

  14. “we serve a God who does not seem to be offended when we are a tad superfluous in our resources—IF it is in worship of him”

    Spot on, Brett.

  15. I tried to write something but got the message back “discarded”.. testing to see if this work? Brett?

    Phil.

  16. Tim Coe is spot on in ‘labor’ vs ‘work’, I hadn’t thought it that way before. ‘Semi-Gnosticism’ I would be less kind, Evangelicalism of the sort that worships in a warehouse self-consciously eschewing attention to its architecture is gnostic in all but name.

    As for ‘Gothic’ I don’t think it’s Gothic for its own sake that people are drawn to, it is everything that Gothic represents: primary, indigenous, playful, evolved, crafted architecture, that had defference for its elders, submission to its material and delight in its natural locality.

    That churches should built as an act of worship is obvious, the question is not of money, money can be squeezed from most every mega-congregation, but it is one of time and inconvenience. Worship by sacrificing our freedom to move house every three years, worship by coming out of the academy an engaging in the indignity of brick, mortar, stone and sweat. But these are but some of the problems that face architecture generally in post-modernity, which bear the fruit of banal church architecture.

    As we view buildings today, there are three notable disconnects:
    1. of architecture/art from daily life to a professional sphere of its own. 2. the loss of responsibility for the physical environment at all by its inhabitants. 3. a loss of story, of meaningful interaction with the narrative of built history in which our chapter falls.

    So, this is to say that architecture and the various individuals and forces that bring it into being are disconnected from the people it belongs to, the ground it stands on and the time it is occurs in. Christians are apt to be those most acutely complicit in these disconnects, if they hold a glibly fatalistic theology of the fall, that somehow these disconnects are to be assumed, to be expected, to be tolerated and coping mechanisms devised for surviving within them, and coping mechanisms largely drawn from the individualistic self-help philosophies that constitute the atmosphere of counsel they breathe from a secular culture.. And this rather than going for the jugular.

    If anyone wants to explore these issues further do drop me a line. Brett, I’m so glad I found your blog, its fascinating. Phil.

  17. Brett, I’ve just discovered your blog this evening, and quite by accident. You are writing lucidly on vital topics, I love it. I am commenting months too late to be in this conversation, but the question you are asking here I want most to study: the relationship between emerging church architecture and their/our theology, if anyone will sponsor me for a phd

    Other people are asking similar questions on the blogs:
    http://kester.typepad.com/signs/2007/09/signs-of-life-i.html

    (..”discarded” message again?..)

  18. My little venture in answer to some of those is:
    http://phil-blogs.blogspot.com/2007/12/church-architecture.html

    .. anyways, a little confused by the filtering method on this.. If these notes interested anyone, otherwise apologies that I’ve cluttered this space.

    Phil. :-)

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