This week the renovation on our church building in the city of Perth will be completed. It is a major renovation; the false ceiling was removed to expose the grand old ceiling of the hall. The hall itself is old, and the ceiling is curved with beautiful plasterwork and moulding. The original ceiling has been patched up and repainted, new lighting has been installed to fit the feel of the building, and the air-conditioning redesign will be completed this week. (Once it is fully completed, there will be some photos posted to our Facebook page so you can see what I mean).
It is a project that has been anticipated ever since we purchased the building about 10 years ago. But at first we could not afford it, then our financial priority was employing a second pastor, and now finally the time was right to do it. And it has been a very popular decision with the congregation overall. On Sunday, when we met in the hall for the first time (even though it was not 100% complete), it seemed like everyone was just looking upwards. The songs sound so much fuller and richer, and the sound quality in general is much better. It does feel more like you would imagine a church would feel like rather than a nondescript large space.
But in considering all of this I wanted to put a few thoughts down in a blog post; some random thoughts about church buildings, beauty and the gospel.
- I remember once during a question time with Philip Jensen that someone mentioned the beautiful building where his ministry is based, the cathedral in Sydney. Philip replied shortly to the comment by labelling stained glass windows “two dimensional idolatry”. Probably not the response the commenter was looking for!
But there is truth in that. Idolatry is when we worship a created thing rather than the creator (a la Romans 1). Yes, in beauty and art we do get reminded of the beauty of the world we live in. But really, it’s just a building. It has a function to be used for the kingdom of God. It is used to meet in for corporate worship, it is used for English classes and evangelism and Bible studies of different types. The beauty is in the fact that the gospel is presented in this place and that the Spirit is pleased to use this to change people, not in the fact that the building itself is so majestic.
I made the throw-away line in a congregational meeting some years ago when someone raised the idea of removing the false ceiling that our priority was gospel ministry that improving the building would come a distant second. I remember pointing out the sad fact that two of the most beautiful church buildings in Perth, the two cathedrals in the city, no longer are places people go to hear the Bible preached and the gospel of the risen Jesus proclaimed. What use is a nice building if we miss the point? What does it benefit anyone to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul?
- So having said all of that, is there a place for beauty in church buildings? Historically the church has built some of the most beautiful buildings ever built; as I plan a visit to Europe next year every city has a cathedral (or 10) you can visit. The novel ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follett (which is a great read by the way) imagines the drama behind the building of a cathedral and the faith and commitment many good and godly people put into it. The aim was to try to make something worthy of the great God being worshipped there. The intent was often so good.
People often point to the tabernacle and temple in the Old Testament at this point. They were indeed beautiful places, using expensive materials and great craftsmanship. You would have a sense of wonder and place entering such places. But when we try to apply this to the modern church building, our Biblical Theology should reveal some issues. The tabernacle and temple were where God dwelt among his people; this points to Jesus where God actually did dwell among his people (John 1:14). Jesus is the temple God would tear down and rebuild in 3 days (John 2). It is Jesus these beautiful structures pointed to, not to modern church buildings. In fact, the early church seemed to meet wherever it made sense to: in private homes was common, in lecture halls where reasonable, in temple courts among the people. Function mattered, and you won’t find Paul telling the early church to build a great cathedral. It was not really that important. Spreading the gospel and building up the church mattered far more.
So is the new church hall a good thing? Oh yes, it is nice. It improves the function of the church building especially in terms of acoustics and powerpoint presentations. And perhaps people will come to see the building and will end up hearing the gospel! But really, the same wonderful yet sinful group of people meet there as a testimony to the grace of God. What we have, however great it is, is a poor reflection of where true beauty is found: in Jesus alone.