Here’s the Church, Where’s the Steeple?

By T. M. Moore

Are we losing our vision of the unseen realm or just trading it in?

For nearly 2,000 years, from the time, early in the third century, that churches began to build and maintain their own facilities, ecclesiastical architecture strained to direct the thoughts of worshipers to the unseen realm, where Christ is exalted in glory.

The first “permanent” house churches featured paintings and mosaics designed to draw the worshipers? attention to the great spiritual truths of the resurrection life.

Early Byzantine churches were adorned with elaborate murals and mosaics which led worshipers to focus on Christ as King, over emperor and church alike, and employed icons as “windows” to the unseen realm. The church sanctuary was, in many ways, a type of the physical and spiritual realms, meant to lift worshipers above their mundane settings into the very presence of the eternal God.

Medieval Gothic architecture, as Abbot Suger explained in his commentary on the construction of his new church at St. Denis, endeavored to create an interface between the mundane and spiritual realms by directing light in certain ways and using construction to lift the hearts of worshipers into a realm of majesty and awe. The great cathedrals of the medieval period were “books of stone” to reinforce and enlarge on the teaching of Scripture concerning the majesty and mystery of God.

Baroque Catholic church leaders painted their ceilings so that it seemed as though the heavens themselves were opening to receive the praise and oversee the spiritual exercises of those in attendance. Even the Protestant churches, which sprang up after the Reformation, for all their simplicity, pointed toward the unseen realm with soaring steeples, many of which housed impressive bells to summon the faithful to worship.

Churches were regarded as sanctuaries away from daily life, places of retreat and regrouping, where the faithful could pour out praise to God, humbly offer up their complaints and concerns, and be reminded of the larger, enduring framework within and toward which their everyday lives were unfolding.

The church steeple, in fact, could easily serve as the representative icon of the pre-modern period – much as the automobile is for the modern age and the Internet for our postmodern generation. In every major city in Europe and America, as well as in many other places, steeples rise above the landscape of mundane life, pointing the hearts and minds of all to the unseen realm where Christ rules as King (Col. 3:1-3), and reminding the inhabitants of this world that a greater and better world exists above.

But all that is changing. Writing in the May 2, 2011, issue of USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman reports, “Nationwide, church steeples are taking a beating and the bell tolls for bell towers, too, as these landmarks of faith on the landscape are hard hit by economic, social and religious change.”

Mainly the last, I suspect. “Architects and church planners see today?s new congregations meet in retooled sports arenas or shopping malls or modern buildings designed to appeal to contemporary believers turned off by the look of old-time religion.” I suspect that “the look of old-time religion” that offends many of our contemporaries is the insistence on there being one God and Lord, and only one Way of salvation, and that His Way is the true and eternal Way for all.

One church architect reported, “We have done a lot of church designs, but we haven’t done a steeple design in 15 years.?  This same builder insists that people today want their church to be “more like a mall.”

In more than just architecture, I submit.

Let?s face it: Today we want our Christianity hip, earthy, fun, and relevant to me. We don?t like doctrine. We want lots of choices and all of them geared to my particular interests or needs. We are not much into spiritual disciplines. We want our music electrified and up-beat, and if we must sing an old hymn to keep some of the older sorts happy, then by all means let?s fit it to a contemporary mode and instrumentation.

Bands, not choirs, lead worship. We are convinced that we need to lure the lost rather than seek them, so our place and forms of worship are designed to fit their present experience, lest they feel “out of place.” Kleig lights, not candles, provide the illumination we prefer.

And silence in worship, well, what good is that?

Are we losing our vision of the unseen realm or just trading it in?

I can think of nothing more revealing about the kind of Christianity we prefer these days than the way we structure our facilities, programs, and worship to reflect the spiritus mundi more than the spiritual realm where Christ rules as King. As David Wells, J. I. Packer, and others have observed, we are nurturing a “this-worldly” faith for the sake of happiness here and now and the promise of eternal glory whenever. And even the architecture and décor within which we practice our contemporary version of the faith reinforce the conviction that what matters most about the faith of Jesus Christ is our experience of it, here and now, in forms familiar to our everyday lives.

But this represents a radical departure from a 2,000 year tradition.

Just so we know.

T. M. Moore serves as principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition, and dean of the Centurions Program. He serves as Content Manager for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and as General Editor for The Worldview Church. He is the author or editor of over twenty books; his papers, essays, poems, and reviews have appeared in dozens of journals and numerous websites; and his columns and essays currently appear on six different websites. T. M. Moore has been theological adviser to Prison Fellowship, BreakPoint, and Chuck Colson for 25 years.

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