The Crisis in the Architecture of the Modern Megachurch and How to Fix It
Cookie-cutter houses and generic shopping centers are peppered across the fantastically unremarkable and uniform American suburbia. An appreciation of truly beautiful architecture has been jettisoned for the functionality demanded by a consumeristic culture.
Alain de Botton, in his book The Architecture of Happiness, explains that “Bad architecture is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design. It is an example expressed through the materials of the same tendencies to not understand who we are and what will satisfy us” (248-49). More concisely, Winston Churchill proclaimed, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” The force which has erased the uniqueness of local communities is a materialism that glorifies commodification. This same carelessness has also been successful at infiltrating the Church, through the revisionist theological ideas that have birthed the modern megachurch.
If the definition of megachurch is merely a church attended by many people, then historically there have been “megachurches” in almost all periods of Christianity. However, the modern, Evangelical megachurch is a historical anomaly. Throughout the life of the Church, Bishops have been the shepherds of their flocks, delegating certain authorities to priests. The multi-site megachurch has made pastors interchangeable and disposable because their new role is to advance the church’s brand. While in the past churches relied on relatively transcendent liturgy which creates its own culture, these megachurches use “cultural relevance” to determine what their worship looks like.
The goal is not to paint with a broad brush. This isn’t true of every megachurch everywhere. Not all of them have the same theological, liturgical, and architectural problems. While the purpose is not to pull a reverse-Andy Stanley and say all megachurches are bad, this is a consistent trend within modern Evangelicalism desperately in need of a critique. It would be wise for leaders of these movements to reflexively reevaluate their aesthetics (among other things).
The architecture of these megachurches draws from the principles of the dominant culture. Many of them are nothing special to look at from the outside. They are very boxy and warehouse-like. They impose on the landscape like a big box store, promising to fulfill the consumeristic needs of their customers. The shift to a neoliberal, retail-like environment is not so subtle. My hometown has a very large church with a café “proudly serving Starbucks” and a bookstore where one can purchase the newest Joel Osteen book or a cheesy Christian t-shirt (“Satan is a poo-poo head” is my personal favorite).
The sanctuaries tend to be a somewhat drab neutral color and may double as a basketball court. The presence of the baptismal font is optional. An empty cross and perhaps a few banners are typically the extent of the symbolism. The altar has been sacrificed so the stage can feel more like a concert venue, complete with sound and lighting systems most bands would be lucky to play with. Just in case church goers have not figured it out, there may even be stadium seating to ensure them they are there just to be passive observers.
Are these features inherently sinful? Probably not. But that question isn’t the point. They may not be sinful but they are unwise. The problem is that architecture has a habit of shaping liturgy. As mentioned previously, many sanctuaries are set up like a concert. I attended a church like this with a friend once. The church was in the middle of a sermon series that was breaking down classic rock songs for spiritual meaning. At the end of the praise and worship time, the band played one more song: “Carry on My Wayward Son” by Kansas. It served as the primary text for the sermon (which was tied to the rebellion of Absalom somehow). Quite literally, the church service was a rock concert.
Definitionally, liturgy is “the work of the people.” These worship settings severely water it down and turn it into a spectator sport. Robert Webber, former professor of worship, observes the problem with this: “Evangelicals face a crisis in worship and theology. Evangelicals, who have a high regard for a theology that is biblical, need to be particularly concerned about their worship. If worship shapes believing, as has been suggested, then evangelicals, of all people, should be committed to a worship that is biblical.”
In order to begin to fix this problem, three aspects need to be infused back into the church service: intentionality, reverence, and rich symbolism. These three things are intricately related. Symbolism in the design of the building and liturgy require intentionally fostering reverential attitudes that are theocentric rather than anthropocentric.
Going to a beautiful, historical cathedral has a way of filling the visitor with awe. The lofty spires reach into the sky like hands reaching towards heaven. The stained glass windows survey salvation history by detailing God’s interventions into space-time. The crucifix celebrates the paradoxical victory of the crucified God, reminding onlookers that they must also pick up their cross and die to self. The scent of incense lingers so worshippers remember their status as “living sacrifices,” a sweet smelling aroma to the Lord. The baptismal font placed at the entrance reminds Christians of the waters of their own baptism. The cruciform floor plan visually displays the centrality of the cross in the Christian religion.
The intentionality, reverence, and symbolism of these churches reflect a deep understanding of the principle that Christianity must permeate everything, especially the very design of the buildings where worship takes place. Instead of buying into a cheap, consumeristic Christianity, those who follow Christ should embrace the robust well-spring of the Christian tradition.