A Theology of Church Architecture

Architecture has long been a subject of great fascination for me. Questions like “what does a building mean?” and “what is that building saying?” send a thrill through my little INFJ heart.

Meeting in a rented space for church throughout all of my teen years has also cultivated in me a deeper appreciation for what achurch building means. When I walk into a church building–a building that’s sole purpose is to be a church, not a gymnasium or a community center–I’m always a little awed. The vaulted ceilings, the heavy wooden pews, the decades-old carpet. It all smells of permanence. Of commitment. It says, “we have laid down roots here. We are invested in this community for the long-term. Come rain, come hail, we’re not going anywhere. The faces in this building will change over time, the city around us will change, but the church of Jesus Christ is eternal, what happens beneath this steeple will outlive every storm.”

But a deeper question that has arisen in my mind in the past decade since becoming a Reformed Baptist is, “what does a Reformed Baptist Church look like?” So many of us little Reformed Baptist Churches have second-hand buildings. We meet in church buildings that were built by Southern Baptists, Methodists, Church of Christ, and so on. Others of us, such as my own church, meet in a rented facility. We started out meeting in the gym of a Seventh Day Adventist Church, spent a month in a community center, and now rent the sanctuary of a Church of God in the afternoon. Each RB church makes small changes to make a second-hand building more compatible with our theology. Pictures of Jesus and the American Flag come down. Sometimes a baptistery must be built. But as much as we change, we cannot fundamentally change the building. We cannot, without tremendous labor and expense, change the shape of the sanctuary, or move the fellowship hall, or change the materials used to make the exterior.

So the question has remained in my mind, “what does a Reformed Baptist Church look like?” If we started from the ground up, and had free reign to choose everything, what would we choose and why?

My dad brought home a little pamphlet from this year’s ARBCA General Assembly that strives to answer just that. The pamphlet is entitled “A Theology of Church Architecture,” and is written by the elders of Community Baptist Church of Fargo, North Dakota, the church that hosted the 2018 GA.

Community Baptist Church is a rare original Reformed Baptist construction begun in the late 70’s. Fifty years ago, the congregation of the newly constituted RB church had a vision for what their church building should look like, what it should communicate, what it should mean. My parents, along with other first-time visitors greatly admired the beauty and intentionality of the church’s design.

In the 15-page pamphlet available for visitors, “A Theology of Church Architecture,” the reasons behind every construction and aesthetic choice is explained. From acoustics, to the size of the pulpit, to the location of the baptistery, everything has a purpose and a message springing from the doctrines we hold so dear.

As I scrolled through the pictures my dad took of the building I was struck by how it was closest in design to a Presbyterian Church (which would make sense given that Reformed Presbyterians are the closest kin of Reformed Baptists) and yet distinct. One major distinction was the existence and prominence of the baptistery. This alone sets it apart from Presbyterian churches.

At CBC, Word and Sacrament are the focal point of the sanctuary. As Reformed Baptists, these Means of Grace are the center-point of every worship service.

“As 16th Century Reformed congregations redesigned their inherited church buildings, the pulpit was moved to a place of prominence in order to maximize the hearing of the Word. But there is more to preaching than just hearing. Additionally, the pulpit should express the fixedness and eternality of the Word of God. The prophet Isaiah writes in chapter 40:8, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” Therefore pulpits, historically, were large, fixed and not easily moved. Their size was also to express in part the smallness of the man preaching. The Apostle Paul teaches us in 2nd Corinthians 4:1-7 that, in the right preaching of the gospel, the surpassing greatness of the power is not from the preacher but from God alone.” -pg. 9

Making the building beautiful and timeless were other important considerations.

“Far from being extraneous to the gospel, beauty has an important role in the right worship of God and the promise of the gospel.” -pg. 7

“The design of our building has a classic Basilica-like feel to it, but it is constructed with modern materials. It gives it a classic feel to connect to previous generations while being fixed to the present in a way that embraces the future.” —pg. 9

Lighting at CBC moved beyond the practical to become an art form.

“We obviously wanted to use light for its practical benefits but also to help support the message of the gospel. For example, the lighting for the narthex leading into the sanctuary is designed to subtly express our movement from “darkness” into the “light.” We use shadows to accentuate the triglyphs and other artistic features in the sanctuary. We also used light to help communicate God’s transcendence, by putting a window in the ceiling of the area behind the pulpit known as the “apse.” While visitors do not actually see the window, its light create a visual impression that the worship service is tied to something higher than the ceiling. It also brings a beauty to the room in the interplay of light and shadows from the movement of the sun.” —pg. 10

If you ever happen to be in Fargo, North Dakota, take the time to visit Community Baptist Church and be sure to pick up this wonderful pamphlet off the visitor table. And the next time you step into any church, take a moment to consider the architecture and what it communicates.

“…while there are no sacred spaces or buildings at this point in redemptive-history, church buildings are places where some of the most sacred experiences in our lives occur. For example, the local church building may be the scene of our conversion to Christ, seeing our children profess saving faith, experiencing baptism and partaking of communion, as well as entering into holy matrimony and witnessing marriages of family and friends. Also, we may say our last farewell to friends and loved ones at church funeral services. It is the place of seasons of prayer, where we give our tithes and offerings, exercise our spiritual gifts, and enjoy weekly fellowship.

When you stop and consider just how many of our life experiences are tied to the local church building, it is really quite amazing. Shouldn’t a place of such meaningful experiences in our journey to the Celestial City be worthy of the meaning of these events?” —pg. 4

The local church is the visible expression of Christ’s Bride, the focal point of history. Shouldn’t a place of such meaningful purpose impress something of its glorious purpose upon its visitors?

One thought on “A Theology of Church Architecture

  1. Fascinating! My church (Reformed Presbyterian) is in the early process designing and eventual building (we’ve been renting to since inception too). This issue is quintessential to the building committee and Session.

    One other distinctive between RB and RP architecture is the pulpit. RP—though some Baptists used them too—employ elevated pulpit, at least the one from which the preaching is conducted.

    Fascinating nonetheless all the similarities between our two denominational camps are!

    Liked by 1 person

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