Does your church building send the right message?
By Robert C. Foreman

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Have you considered the impact of your church building's architecture? What message are you communicating via your building? Until recently, most church architecture was strongly influenced by the desire for religious buildings to support and enhance the worship experience, to make a good overall impression and thereby to attract visitors who would become new members. Most importantly, church buildings were designed to glorify God. To better understand these purposes of church architecture, we need to understand a significant intention of building design is more than just being functional — it is to convey a "message" and to provide an "experience."


What best describes your church's architectural style?
  • 1. Traditional
  • 2. Plain/utilitarian
  • 3. Hollywood theme park

Many different kinds of buildings are designed to tell a story and provide a unique experience. You can always identify a McDonald's or a Chick-fil-A. Most fast food restaurants are designed with a particular look or style. Their building is their sign. They want you to recognize who they are, and they want your visit to be a great experience so you will want to return. Hopefully, they will make their food as important to your experience as they do their building.

The hospitality and entertainment industries understand a building can deliver a specific experience, and this concept can be seen in the everyday world of restaurants, nightclubs, hotels, retail stores and museums. When architect John Portman began designing hotels with multistory atrium lobbies and glass elevators, it changed the hotel industry overnight.

When Portman's Hyatt Regency Hotel opened in 1967, visitors to Atlanta came to the hotel so they could ride the glass elevators, experience the 22-story atrium and have lunch in the revolving rooftop restaurant. When Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the building architecture became more important than the art on exhibit. Many people still visit the Guggenheim just to experience Wright's architectural masterpiece.

St. Barnabas Anglican Church in Dunwoody, Ga., a traditional liturgical space designed for a specific style of worship.

Religious architecture has been about message and experience since before the time of the Greek and Roman temples. Even across different cultures and historic styles, religious buildings have always had their own special qualities. The architects who designed the great cathedrals or small county churches traditionally attempted to create a special feeling or experience — a special sense of place and symbolism.

More than just a place where certain functions took place, church buildings were designed to convey a simple message: "Here believers worship God." The interior architecture was deliberately designed to contribute to and enhance the worship experience through an emotional response. Church architecture was intended to point people toward God. Until recently, most congregations of all types and sizes wanted their buildings to be beautiful examples of "church architecture." They wanted their building to look and feel like a church.

Today, some churches have abandoned this desire in favor of a very plain, austere or utilitarian look. This trend has apparently taken place for many different reasons, including cost considerations and a sincere desire to be practical and to be "good stewards." Some church congregations simply would rather put their resources into missions and ministries and not into facilities. Others have bought into the idea that more traditional and symbolic buildings may somehow be a "turn-off" to the unchurched.

However, churches that build to not look like a church may be sending an unintended message. If the experience of the building is unclear or just very bland, the message may be interpreted as "We have no message." If a church facility has no symbolic qualities, then what meaning is communicated? To some observers it becomes just a nondescript place. The "food" may be good, but you will never know it by looking at the building. What does your church building say? What do you want it to say?

What happens when the church building no longer contributes a sense of the sacred or does little to provide a feeling of awe or to lift the spirit toward the heavens? A positive answer may be that now the worshiper must experience God from within. If the building does little to convey an emotional experience, then worship must be experienced from the heart.

Northway Baptist Church in Macon, Ga., a contemporary style that still says "church."

It is often the case that churches that place less emphasis on their building architecture may place much more importance on enhancing the worship experience with audio, video and lighting. The video screen has replaced the stained glass window. This focus on a meaningful worship experience may be very good, but some traditional worshipers may miss the important experiential role played by architecture. If they feel like they are worshiping in a warehouse, their worship experience may not be very satisfactory.

Today, a few churches have chosen to have their buildings designed by the equivalent of Hollywood theme park designers. The building is seen as little more than a production stage or movie studio set. It is all about impressions, and nothing is real. Other approaches include designs that are more like sports arenas or performing arts theaters. In each case the emphasis is on putting on a good show. High-tech production and clever lighting effects replace the meaningful and symbolic. I refer to this as the "Disneyfication" of architecture. Fantasyland replaces the authentic. Is this the right message for the church in a postmodern culture starved for a sense of reality? How does this glorify God?

Is this a trend that will last or just a fad? Will church congregations desire architecture designed to convey a clear message (this is a place of worship) and building interiors that provide an uplifting experience (architecture that enhances worship)? After many years in the practice of architecture, I am convinced that well designed, modern church architecture can be as meaningful and symbolic as the historic and traditional forms. It can and should skillfully incorporate technology.

Well designed church buildings should convey a clear message and enhance the worship experience — while on a reasonable budget — without resorting to Hollywood gimmicks. Churches do not need to worship in plain boxes or in contrived studio sets. Good design that is functional, authentic and attractive will convey the right message and will not repel the unbeliever. People will continue to be attracted to church architecture that is honest and intentional in its message, meaningful in its experience and which glorifies God.

Bob Foreman is senior principal at Foreman Seeley Fountain Architecture, an Atlanta firm specializing in the design of church and school facilities. Bob is a member of the American Institute of Architects and is a LEED Accredited Professional.