The Importance of Buildings to the Church

But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built.1

How important are buildings to the church? Are they just a shelter for a gathering of people? Are they an irrelevance for the spiritual worship of a God who himself is spirit? Are they blasphemous idolatry or are they an integral part of the worship itself?

While many have written on the subject of church buildings and their architecture, the Bible itself, which must be the primary reference on all matters of doctrine and practice appears to have very little to say. Church buildings as such are not mentioned: the only places of meeting of the early church mentioned in the Bible are synagogues, the temple courts and private houses. This is a change from the Old Testament, where the Temple and its predecessor, the Tabernacle, became central to the worship of God. While the Israelites are wandering through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, God tells Moses:

Have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.2

God shows himself to be not just interested in the creation of a place set apart for worship, but in every detail of the design and construction. The perfection displayed in the simplicity of its proportions, the cube, double-cube and double square and the lavishness of its detailing and use of costly materials shows a requirement for more than simply a functional enclosure. This was the place where the glory of the Lord was going to dwell among his people.3 Although this was where God was to make known his presence in a tangible way this in no way meant that his omnipresence was in some sense limited. Access to God was however limited. No longer could an individual bring to God the sacrifices by which access by sinful man to a holy God was made possible. Instead, a priesthood was set apart for this rôle and even the High Priest could only enter the inner Most Holy Place once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) with the blood from the sacrifice.4

This situation was continued with the building of the temple in Jerusalem by Solomon. In layout and form, the precedent of the tabernacle was continued with a progressive hierarchy of spaces, each having greater and greater restrictions on who could enter. The simple geometry based on cubes and multiples thereof is repeated again on a grander scale. The ten-cubit cube of the Most Holy Place has become a twenty-cubit5 cube and other dimensions have similarly increased. Only the finest of materials were used with lavish amounts of gold used to cover every internal surface and to make many of the fittings and implements for worship. This is not a humble structure but an extravagant physical display of the greatness of the Most High God, the one on whom no one could look and live6. It is a place that should be revered7 and yet it is a place people approach with joy. The fourteen “Psalms of Ascent” written for those making their way up to Jerusalem demonstrate this, for example in Psalm 122:

I rejoiced with those who said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’8

It also is a place where those who were privileged to enter found a deeper understanding of God and of life. Asaph, one of the leaders of the temple music writes, I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood...9

This system however was not set to continue uninterrupted. With the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in around 586 B.C. the temple was destroyed and the people taken into exile. When they returned in c.538 B.C., they rebuilt the temple. It was then rebuilt again under Herod the Great even larger and more lavish. This temple however was finally destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70 and, despite recent plans,10 has never been rebuilt.

Parallel to this physical destruction of the temple there is at the foundation of Christianity an ideological destruction of the concept of the temple. When asked by a Samaritan11 about where the proper place to worship God was, Jesus replied that soon such things would be irrelevant and went on to say that God is spirit and his worshippers must worship him in spirit and in truth. 12

The ultimate demonstration however comes at the crucifixion when Jesus dies.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.13

The curtain formed the division between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place where the presence of God was and it was this division that was supernaturally taken away. There was no longer any restriction on access to God because this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins;14 the hierarchical system and the architectural forms that so eloquently expressed it are no longer needed for there is now one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. 15

This new situation is reflected by a new dwelling of God. Paul writes to the Corinthians:

Don't you know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?16

This indicates that no longer will a physical building be the dwelling of God but rather God will dwell within his people. This idea is developed further by Peter:

You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house17

Here the emphasis is being put on the collective nature of the Church as a living building made up from individual “living stones”.

To reinforce the idea that a physical temple is an irrelevance, Paul in Athens speaks, echoing the words of Solomon:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.18

Is there therefore no need for the Christian Church to have buildings at all? Are they in fact just looking back to a previous age and completely misunderstanding the message of the gospel? In some ways this could be true; certainly when we use such words as “sanctuary” and “House of God” to describe the buildings of the Church we seem to have imbued them with a greater significance than is appropriate. However, it does not seem to be as simple as that. It appears that they have more significance than just being a shelter in which the meeting together of the Church can take place.

To examine this significance it is necessary to become more esoteric and look at the significance that the physical world has in Christianity, and how this relates to the significance of the spiritual world.

The first words of the Bible, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth19 set out the pre-existence of the spiritual world, for God is spirit,20 and the dependence on God of the physical world for its existence. Man is then created from the dust of the ground, from the physical world which surrounds him, and yet God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life21 and created man in his own image.22 Man, therefore, is a compound creature. He is both physical like the world around him and spiritual like the God who created him. Yet, through the Fall, this relationship changed. Our bodies became mortal and at death this bond between physical and spiritual is severed, so that Paul can talk of being away from the body23 and in Revelation, John sees the souls of those who had been slain.24 However, even early on, there is a recognition that this is not an ideal or final state. Job25 can say:

...after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh shall I see God;
I myself will see him with my own eyes - I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me.26

This shows that, while man can exist temporarily in a solely spiritual state, he is not meant for this but for the combined physical-spiritual existence he was created with which will be restored in the new heaven and new earth, after the first heaven and the first earth [have] passed away.27 This is emphasised when Paul writes to the Corinthians We do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.28 He does not want a disembodied existence but rather to be freed from the effects of the fall on this temporal body and be clothed with the perfect eternal resurrection body.

The importance that God places on the physical aspect of man is shown by the means by which he reveals himself to man and which he gives for man to relate to him by.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.29

The desire of God to make himself known through the physical world is most fully expressed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.30 He therefore is not just the flesh-spirit combination of man, but the infinitely more amazing and paradoxical God-man.

This duality is continued in the means by which man is given to approach God. From the earliest times, for instance with Cain and Abel, worship has been associated with physical things: with altars and with sacrifices.

Throughout the Old Testament is the concept of special places and memorials, for example the stone Jacob sets up at Bethel31, which act as physical reminders of spiritual experiences.

...encounters with God bestir in the patriarchs a desire to name and set apart these holy places... Amidst the terrors of the wild and unknown, they carve out places of meaning and particularity where they can commune with the transcendent power of God.32

This concept is reinforced with the institution of the tabernacle and temple, which were discussed above. In the New Testament the concept of sacred space is hardly mentioned. However, there are various cases where physical representations are given for spiritual truths. The most obvious are those acts that are variously called sacraments or ordinances by different denominations.

An example of this is the Lord's Supper which is celebrated by the vast majority of Christian denominations33, although the name, frequency and details of the ritual and understanding of its meaning vary widely. Paul recounts its origin:

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup saying, “This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.34

The emphasis here is on the physical substances and actions which in some way represent profound spiritual truths and which are given to be repeated as a means of remembering.

These examples show that while we must worship in spirit and in truth35 there is a physical aspect to worship. Worship must take place within a physical context - whether helped or hindered by that context.

Despite this, a physical context does not necessarily mean a building, and certainly in many cases does not mean a dedicated church building. At many times through history churches have worshipped outdoors. In some cases this has been due to persecution, like the conventicles of the Covenanters who had to worship in the open in remote locations to escape the authorities. In other cases it has been an active choice. An example of this is the early Celtic Church, which often preferred to worship outdoors, closer to God's creation. Although buildings were not being used, the place was still important. Often former pagan sacred places were taken and turned to Christian use or other sites were chosen specially due to topographical or other factors. Today there are still sometimes outdoor services, particularly early on Easter morning. These again are usually in specially chosen places like hills, parks and piers.

The majority of worship will however take place indoors. Particularly in our climate, it is often necessary to be sheltered from the elements. The early church tended to meet in rooms in private homes and there are many references such as the church that meets in your home.36 Preaching however was often done in public places: in the temple courts, in synagogues, in the market places and civic meeting places, like the Areopagus in Athens.

Through the first centuries of Christianity the Church continued largely to use existing buildings, although sometimes these were altered, for instance by knocking together multiple rooms to make a larger hall.37

The Christian community in this domestic period was content to borrow, to travel light, because of its conviction that the only construction work they were called to do was that of building a community of living stones.38

After the Edict of Milan extending toleration to Christianity by Constantine in 313 A.D., the Church grew in prominence and with this the buildings grew in size, status and grandeur. The concept of the building as a place of meeting faded and was replaced by a largely Old Testament temple concept. The church was now a sanctuary, the House of God. The simple room became hierarchical. The chancel gradually separated from the nave becoming a place where the ordinary man could not enter. Now they watched as a distant priesthood communed with a distant God on their behalf.

While this theologically was problematic, it did produce wonderful architecture. The concepts of God as high and exalted39 and of the similarly exalted position of the church as an institution, a place of mystery and authority, were expressed in the glittering brilliance of Byzantine domes, the powerful solidity of Romanesque arcades and the soaring grandeur of Gothic vaulting. Only a few ascetics would rebel against this until the time of the Reformation. In the countries where the Reformation took hold, the general form of churches changed to that of a ‘preaching box’. The primary focus now was not on ceremony but on preaching and therefore getting as many people as possible positioned to be able to hear, and ideally see, the preacher.40 Burntisland Parish Church for example was designed in the round to emphasise the equality of the entire congregation before God with the focus on the central preaching. Something however was surely lost, as all too often what had been a profound spiritual mystery became a purely cerebral philosophy.

The format and emphasis was to alter many times over the next centuries as Evangelical revivals and ecclesiological movements would swing the focus in different ways. Calvin's own church in Geneva changed back from this type of auditorium layout to its earlier linear layout with a more liturgical focus.41 Methodist ‘meeting houses’ with a gallery and seating arranged round a pulpit centrally placed on the long wall changed to ‘chapels’ with linear benches facing along the long axis to an enlarged pulpit and dais structure.42 The Victorian Ecclesiologists ‘restored’ parish churches which had relatively comfortable box pews, lowered ceilings and heaters back to lofty, cold, ‘medieval’ buildings which were totally unsuited for modern use. This may contribute to their being deserted today.43

The view of the building therefore changes with the changing theological emphasis. However, the opposite is also true. Many documents quote Winston Churchill: We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.44 An example of this is with medieval parish churches and cathedrals. During the Commonwealth period, some of the more radical Puritans recommended demolishing all medieval churches in case the architecture of them caused people to revert to Catholic ‘superstition’.45 It has been suggested that this has indeed been the case as these buildings ‘want to be’ medieval. The statues, candles and other such things that were considered idolatrous by the reformers have crept back and the services have become more ritualised.46

A building therefore is not neutral. Opinions however differ on what effect the building should have. Some would say it should be simple, little more than functional; it should allow the people to be undistracted in their focus on God. The alternative view is that it should be a harmonised canticle of praise.47 When asked whether simple, functional, late 20th century auditorium style buildings are more biblical than previous generations' buildings, Daniel Lee, an American architect and Presbyterian elder responds:

This argument is Gnostic48, not biblical. The God we see in the Bible delights in physical and in the diversity and beauty of creation... To eradicate all traces of artistry and references to the created world from worship is as sinful as idolatrous use of art in worship. Christ came to redeem both men and creation.49

By many, however, the church building is primarily seen as ‘plant’, as something which is there to facilitate the mission of the church. This will probably comprise not only worship but will involve many other social and spiritual activities needing a wide variety of spaces. There may be need for catering facilities, halls, small meeting rooms, offices, libraries and many other types of accommodation. Any of these, while seen as ancillary accommodation, may be as important to the life of the church, as a community of God’s people, as the main worship space itself. In fact, sometimes the worship space will not be single purpose but will also expect to be used as a sports hall, coffee lounge and dance floor among other things.

In this view, special church buildings help to promote a false dichotomy between the sacred and secular which is harmful to both: if they are needed at all, new buildings erected by the church should be “multipurpose” structures, demonstrating the connection between Christianity and our secularised society.50

The building is also seen as being the home of the church community. This view is held across a wide spectrum of writers. The Anglo-Catholic Richard Giles emphasises this by always referring to the church building as the “house of the church” while the non-conformist Robin Kent51 talks of the domestic atmosphere so necessary to the life of the church family. The Church of Scotland, however, contends that a church building is not a home from home saying that:

Church buildings, in addition to practical considerations, ‘speak of another realm and of loftier things’... Re-ordering is not about ‘Changing Rooms’ but expanding spiritual space.52

Whatever view is taken, buildings do still represent a significant investment of money.

Many sensitive Christians now question the disproportionate amount of money invested in church property and facilities. Excessive building debts frequently require money that is needed for vital ministries.53

Some go as far as saying:

...a grass roots vision of the essentials of Christian life, will, for many today, not only exclude the need for a dedicated church building, but see such a building as an obstacle to mission and an economic liability.54

Daniel Lee objects to this argument, claiming that:

We have been commanded to care for the poor and to share the gospel. We have also been commanded to love and honor God with all of our being. Here in the West, we have more than enough resources to do all three.55

It seems unlikely that this assertion is quite accurate in all the churches of the West. As a society, we have considerable wealth, and yet individual churches do not always have access to this. There are many small, aging, dwindling congregations that struggle just to keep the roof over their head. Despite the great vision they may have they do not have the resources, financial or human, to fulfil it.

Yet, sometimes, lavish investment in our buildings does not imply too great an attachment to this world but a looking to what lies beyond.

As my eyes focused more closely on the torus of the column base, I caught the soft glow of gold. It was fresh gold leaf. In the midst of that winter’s stark poverty, inevitable political unrest, and sub-zero freezing temperatures, the monastery monks had hope. And, they were — slowly, faithfully, sacrificially — restoring the gold leaf finish on their column bases. And with the believers of Russia, I wept.56

Buildings are a powerful thing; they can both enhance and inhibit our worship. They can point us to God or they can become idolised themselves. A note of caution comes from the account of the bronze serpent which God told Moses to make.57 At the time it was provided as a symbol of God's saving of his people but later it is recorded the the Israelites had been burning incense to it. The symbol of their salvation had become itself the object of their worship and so Hezekiah has it destroyed.58

To the Church, buildings are at once an irrelevance and a highly significant part of their worship. It is one of what G. K. Chesterton calls the Paradoxes of Christianity59. To allow them to become too important, to become too precious is wrong and yet without them something is being missed out on. Instead, a balance must be negotiated between the two. This must not be a compromise which produces a half-hearted opinion, of holding them as having some, but not too much importance. Instead a dynamic balance must be obtained where they are able to be held in highest esteem and yet with a complete and utter willingness to let go of them.

Next section — The Conflict of Values — to be added soon...

1 - The Holy Bible - New International Version, 1 Kings 8:27

2 - Ibid, Exodus 25:8-9

3 - Ibid., Exodus 40:34-38

4 - Ibid., Leviticus 16

5 - Approximately 4.5 and 9 metres respectively

6 - The Holy Bible, Exodus 33:20

7 - Ibid., Leviticus 19:30

8 - Ibid., Psalm 122:1

9 - Ibid., Psalm 73:17

10 - See, for example,

11 - The Samaritans worshipped God at Mount Gerizim rather than Jerusalem.

12 - The Holy Bible, John 4:24

13 - Ibid., Matthew 27:51

14 - Ibid., Hebrews 10:12

15 - Ibid., 1 Timothy 2:5

16 - Ibid., 1 Corinthians 3:16-17

17 - Ibid., 1 Peter 2:5

18 - Ibid., Acts 17:24-26

19 - Ibid., Genesis 1:1

20 - Ibid., John 4:24

21 - Ibid., Genesis 2:7

22 - Ibid., Genesis 1:27

23 - Ibid., 2 Corinthians 5:8

24 - Ibid., Revelation 6:9 - presumably it is due to this being an account of a vision that John can see the souls.

25 - Job is thought to have been around the time of Abraham, before any of the Bible had been written.

26 - Ibid., Job 19:25-27

27 - Ibid., Revelation 21:1

28 - Ibid., 2 Corinthians 5:4

29 - Ibid., Psalm 19:1-2

30 - Ibid., Colossians 1:19

32 - Ibid., Genesis 28:18

32 - Giles, Richard, Re-pitching the Tent, The Canterbury Press, Norwich, 1999, p12.

33 - The Salvation Army and the Quakers do not celebrate this at all. Others vary from daily (or more frequent) celebrations to quarterly or even less often.

34 - The Holy Bible, 1 Corinthians 11:26

35 - Ibid., John 4:24

36 - Ibid., Philemon 2

37 - Giles, Repitching the Tent, p32.

38 - Ibid., p33.

39 - The Holy Bible, Isaiah 6:1

40 - Committee of Artistic Matters of the Church of Scotland, “Re-Ordering Church Interiors”, available at, p6.

41 - Kent, Robin, personal communication, 23/08/2004

42 - Kent, Robin, “Conservation and Nonconformity: The Conflict of Conservation and Usage in Nonconformist Churches, Chapels and Meeting Houses”, unpublished MA thesis, University of York, 1990, p77.

43 - Kent, Robin, personal communication, 23/08/2004

44 - Churchill, Winston, 28 October 1943 to the House of Commons cited on

45 - Kent, Robin, “Conservation and Nonconformity”, p126.

46 - Kent, Robin, personal communication, 23/08/2004

47 - Frank, Michael Jones, “Liturgical Art and the Artist”, Church Building, Issue 31 cited in Giles, Repitching the Tent, p57.

48 - The Gnostics believed that the physical world was inherently evil.

49 - Lee, Daniel cited in Stroik, Duncan, “Beauty and Truth - Is there a Christian Architecture?”, available from

50 - Melhuish, Nigel, “Conservation and Celebration” in Church Building, Whitsun 1985, pp

51 - Giles, Repitching the Tent, p51.

52 - He has attended Baptist, Messianic, Brethren, Pentecostal, Methodist and Evangelical churches - Kent, Robin, “Conservation and Nonconformity”, p11.

53 - “Re-ordering Church Interiors”, p8.

54 - Cunningham, Richard B., Creative Stewardship, Nashville, 1979, p122. cited in Kulp, Andrew P., “A Biblical Answer to Christian Architecture”, unpublished academic paper, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Auburn, revd. 2000, available from

55 - Hawley, Nigel, “Whose Church is it anyway?...” in Historic Churches, Building Conservation Directory Special Report, 2001, p4.

56 - Stroik, “Beauty and Truth”

57 - Ibid.

58 - The Holy Bible, Numbers 21:9

59 - Ibid., 2 Kings 18:4

60 - Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p81.