Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Churches of Beauty and Permanence

Building with beauty and permanence in mind.

This is the topic of our talk together today. The more that I travel, the more I realize that it is beauty and permanence that ultimately win in the fight of the ravages of time and cultural shift. I am speaking today, not on a spirtual topic, but on a practical topic with spiritual implications.

Let's ask ourselves this question: If Solomon's Temple still existed today, would you like to go and see it even though you are not a practicing Jew? Would you like to understand some of the history, religion, and people behind its magnificent beauty? If you could, would you tear down Solomon's temple in order to replace it with something more ulilitarian and functional?

Okay, with the obvious answers to those questions in our minds, let us turn our attention to how we build today. (I speak as someone whose primary interest is church buildings, but the concept does apply in other areas of construction.)

When building church buildings the focus always seems to be time (how soon can we get it done), cost (how cheaply can we get it built), and functionality (will it suit our purpose and programs). If those three elements can be satisfied, we believe that we have a church building of which we can be proud. And, given the right heart attitude and motivations there is a measure of truth to that thinking.

The question really is: Should our buildings say something about who our God is? Should they be beautiful; not because we want to show off, but because He is beautiful? Should they give the impression of permanence; not because we want to build with the best of materials, but because He is eternal?

Some of these thoughts have been rolling around in my head because of the travel that I have done in the past years. Whether it is the Myan pyramids of Mexico or the great cathedrals of Europe, an air of beauty and permanence surrounds them giving them a majesty that is absent from the utilitarian buildings of our day. Even the humble, one room stone church of the Scottish hills and the colonial timber framed church held together with wooden pegs, mortise, and tenon have these qualities.

It is not that we cannot build with beauty and permanence today. We can...but usually we don't.

It is partially because we are in a hurry. God is not. It is partially because we are cheap. God is not. It is partially because, in our utilitarian day we do not care about beauty. God does. It is partially because we do not think in terms of centuries. At best we think about a building in which our kids and grandkids can worship. God's heart and mind spans eternity.

There is no Bible verse applicable to New Testament church buildings that I can point to in order to backstop these arguments, of this I am aware. However, I ask this question. If there comes a time when there is no longer a functioning congregation in your town, does your building and property have such qualities of beauty and permanence that the townspeople would insist on some dignified role for it that would honor the history of a worshipping people, or would it be sold to the highest bidder and turned into whatever commercial enterprise that buyer deems fit?

Now, I realize that because of the shifting values of culture and other factors even buildings of beauty and permanence are sometimes bulldozed in the name of progress. This is a shame, and thankfully it is relatively rare.

So then, what can we do to improve the beauty and permanence of existing church facilities today? Here are some rough thoughts that you no doubt can expand and improve upon.

1. Begin to invest in, collect, display, and permanently integrate into the building art that tells God's story and depicts His beautiful creation. Artists are an untapped potential in our churches today.

2. Graveyards: If your church has the property, get the appropriate permits and establish a beautiful cemetery.

3. Monuments: Find something that you can put on granite that will  be preserved even if one day your building is bulldozed. Preferrably something that ties God, the church, history, and the community into one memorable story.

4. When you renovate, take the time to do it well and beautifully. There is no hurry. Some of the cathedrals took over five hundred years to build. You can wait another five months to raise the money to do it right.

5. Keep some stuff. If you don't care about your church's history you cannot  expect your children or your community to care about it's historic place in their town. Although we are loathe to give up space in our buildings we must change our minds to realize that rooms dedicated to telling the story of God's working in our congregation over the years are not wasted rooms. It is stories that change and shape culture. If your church's story is told well in these mini museums it will inspire those who come behind you.

6. Well marked and publicized time capsules: Towns love these things and will honor this tradition.

7. Statues: Although the evangelical churches are not historically fans of statues, there could be a good argument made for the statue of a historical christian figure that either lived in, did siginificant work in, or was born in your town.

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