The church I pastor, the First Baptist Church in the City of New York, meets in a 120-year-old building on the corner of 79th and Broadway in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Facing the corner of this busy intersection, it boasts an imposing façade with powerful biblical (especially Christological) images in its architecture. For years our congregation had the joy of sharing our space with Redeemer Presbyterian Church, who rented the building for two worship services each week. This month, however, has been noticeably quieter. Although we now enjoy a new renting relationship with All Souls Christian Church, pastored by TGC editor John Starke, Redeemer no longer meets in our building. Beginning March 5, for the first time in its history, Redeemer has its own place.
I recently walked through Redeemer’s new space, the W83 Ministry Center, located about five blocks from our building. Their structure is wedged into the middle of a block, across the street from a fire station and a post office, next door to a gym and a restaurant where you can get an organic grilled cheese sandwich.
The building is not what you might expect. It’s beautiful but not extravagant, spacious but limited, sufficient but not excessive. The fan-shaped, two-tiered auditorium is filled with beautiful, rounded, wood-constructed pews, offering a little less than a thousand seats. The silhouette of a two-story cross stands over the chancel. The upper three levels of the building include children’s space, classrooms, and a fellowship hall that seats a few hundred people. It’s a great space that I’m certain will serve their purposes well.
Behind a structure like theirs (or an old cathedral like ours) lies a philosophy for the project. Should churches build? If so, should our buildings be extravagant, like European cathedrals? Or should they be as minimal as possible, like a YMCA gym? How should churches think about buildings?
This is a very good question that congregations—especially church plants—need to think through. Here are four thoughts.
- The church is a people, not a building. Thus building people must be more important philosophically than building buildings.
- Because the church is a people, the church needs a place to meet. That place could be the catacombs, a park, or a public school (except here). But at minimum the meeting place should be (a) accessible to its members and the community at large, (b) large enough to house its members and some guests from the community, (c) compliant with the laws of the land for such meeting places, and (d) sufficient for the purposes of the church’s gathering (e.g., the proclamation of the Word, corporate worship, evangelizing, and discipling).
- Because the church is often people with children, the church likely needs a place for them, too. Churches will differ as to how much space is needed; perhaps a room for nursing moms will suffice. But to some degree just about everyone agrees that some space for children is necessary.
- Because the church as a people reflects the glory of God, the church’s meeting place ought to reflect well on his character. There is a wider variety of opinions on this point than the last. But at minimum, this means there are sufficient and clean restrooms, relatively fresh paint on the walls, and sturdy flooring. Our Roman Catholic friends may reason that this point justifies massive, extravagant cathedrals. I don’t entirely disagree. There is certainly room for churches to decide to what extent they should do things to demonstrate the beauty of God in their building. But I would argue that utilitarianism is not the path of spirituality. God created beauty for us to enjoy. We can’t sacrifice everything on the altar of beauty, but if the finished product is not beautiful, then we’ve failed to reflect his glory. For example, I had a part in the last building project with my former church. It was a 14,000-square-foot rectangular box. Inside it is a very beautiful box: lots of windows and thus lots of natural light, beautiful carpeting and colors, a modicum of detail to keep the walls from looking bare, moveable partitions that configure any number of classrooms up to 18. But externally it was nothing more than a box. So the architect proposed building a tower at one corner, a landmark that would identify to guests where the (new) entrances would be located. There was, however, a bit of opposition because of the cost of the tower. It wasn’t functional but was included for its aesthetic value. Some thought the expense was too much, but after deliberation we went forward with it nonetheless. Without that tower the building would have been a ugly box.
Issues like this are certainly matters for church elders to consider. After all, there are a thousand good items—and a dozen or so necessary ones—that the church may spend its money on. But we must not mistake utilitarianism for spirituality. I think we’re far more susceptible to under-spend on our buildings out of an ungodly utilitarianism rather than over-spend out of an excessive spirit.