Waste as worship

RelieveDebtor over at Architecture + Morality posted a thoroughly captivating article today titled Beauty and Waste: More thoughts on space and worship. He starts off by citing the challah. Customarily, Jewish bread bakers would tear off a small portion of their dough as a tithe — the challah — either to throw away or give to the priests. Apparently the tradition continues today, acting as a reminder that God provides all that is needed.

The author then begins talking about such a practice in relationship to our sometimes overly conservative and efficient American culture, a culture typically averse to waste. I often lament the wastefulness of America, as indicated by this blog’s category called “Disposable culture.” But RelieveDebtor has a good point, and the waste he refers to isn’t exactly in the same vein as what I decry on The Aesthetic Elevator.

The blog entry then dives into how this relates to church architecture. The writer asks:

    But how can you convince someone that it might be worth creating a space that’s less than efficient, and that might take years to complete, not months? I could certainly quote scripture, where Jesus defends a woman who cleans his feet with costly nard. Surely this text allows the Church to be “wasteful” when it comes to adoring Christ.

This is a wonderful point with respect to the approach to the arts found in many or most modern Protestant minds. Church buildings are treated as — and I’ve said this numerous times before — purely functional, with white steeples thrown on top for good measure. I commonly liken most new places of worship to the visual marriage of a warehouse and an office building. How does such an aesthetic aid in drawing a visitor into reverent adoration of the one true, Holy God? Should a space designed and built for such a purpose be visually the same as, and therefore elicit the same psychological response as the places we work? Should the buildings in our communities labeled as places where Christ-followers gather and praise look the same as the city hall or a lawyer’s office?

The post goes on to say that “Instead of offering beauty and mystery to its congregants, it replaces those needs with an emotional experience and preaching that promises certainty . . . In other words, the space need not communicate.” Instead, we’ll do all the talking, and lots of talking the writer suggests.

More or less I agree with everything in the text from the Architecture + Morality post, including the conclusion which suggests the best solution is a balance between erecting beautiful buildings and keeping costs at a reasonable level. Lovely buildings, it’s cautioned, do not replace true worship.

The only other thing I can add is a personal anecdote about the church I’ve attended for the past four years now. This church owned land for a new building, but instead opted to purchase a vacant warehouse in town which would offer more space for the money. The warehouse, not surprisingly, looks like a warehouse. Even after the renovation. This probably saved the congregation some cash, but it also did well to further it’s philosophy in how it interacts with the community. And while the author of the Beauty and Waste article bemoans such spaces as places of worship, I would argue that the church actually did the visual environment a favor. How long would the old furniture store sit vacant, an eyesore in the city, if the church hadn’t bought it? The paint would fade in the sun and weeds would take over the empty parking lot. Instead, the building is now used and kept up. (Yes, I would personally prefer a very different space to worship in than a converted furniture warehouse, but life isn’t perfect.)

RelieveDebtor concludes with this:

    Or in other words, there are ways in which we worship beyond our feelings and our words; prayers in stone matter, too. Indeed they stand apart from a world that is looking more and more monolithic, where big box churches, malls and retail stores blend together all too seamlessly. Funny that when the architecture blends together, so too does the music, theology, and driving motivations for even existing.

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

5 Responses to Waste as worship

  1. TAE, thanks very much for the thoughtful response! You were extremely thorough in your reading and response and I appreciate it.

    You make an excellent point about your own church taking less than attractive space and making it usable. I can’t say this isn’t good stewardship and a blessing to the community. It is. And I don’t want to suggest that monlithic gothic buildings are any better than monolothic office buildings used as churches. In D/FW, what I often see is a relatively cheap design that offers no significant appreciation of the sublime or divine. The church has become a business, in operation (pastor as CEO, numbers equal success), in philosophy (think positively and you will be blessed), and now in architecture (any space is as good as another). Of course, a storefront church with no money that worships wherever it can is certainly doing the Lord’s work. But a church with a multi-million dollar budget, the Medici’s of suburban America, tend to shun the opportunity for aesthetic beauty, and I think we are losing something in the process. Even small, or previously used spaces can evoke beauty with a limited budget. And it’s not just the space of course, but the music as well.

    And as you say, waste can be bad as well as good. My own church prints hundreds of bulletins every week, going through thousands of pages. I consider that ridiculous waste, especially as our hymnals go unused. But to horde money on art and beauty, while spending it on theatre seating and charismatic preachers seems dangerous to me.

    Again, you make excellent points and I appreciate your thoughts!

  2. TAE, you’ve stirred my thinking with this post. Budgets are tight and the reality is that technology absorbs a lot more % of church building budgets than it did in a more aesthetically pleasing era of building churches. We’ve wrestled with that reality in our approach to worship space several times. The $$ needed for a good electrical system, sound, video, projection, etc. steals money away from bricks and mortar.

    We have inherited several buildings where we’ve carried out church “restarts”. One of the building was originally built in 1951–a classic baptist church, engineered for Sunday school. Not a lot of character. Functional space–at least functional as viewed by a baptist church board in 1951. Not terribly pretty and the lack of foyer space makes it hard for people to hang out before and after worship but we’ve made it work and we’re grateful for the space at no cost in a crowded urban neighborhood.

    Another building a few miles away was built in 1883–125 years old! It has a lot of architectural beauty and the interior, though previously neglected, has been refreshed to provide a beautiful and at the same time functional space. When we approached this project we tried to keep the character of the building while updating and improving it. We were pretty pleased with the end result–its an attractive chapel.

    I’ll say this–if we had had to build these buildings from the ground up today, they wouldn’t have near the architectural appeal that they do. Cost would have driven us to a much simpler design. We’re grateful that we’ve been able to take the long haul building approach over generations–one generation building the structure and another making it work for the 21st century. Perhaps the passing on of architecturally beautiful church buildings to younger congregations is another way that churches can take a longer approach to building beautiful buildings.

  3. Tim J. says:

    Hey, TAE, with your permission, I’ll link to this in a post tomorrow.

  4. Pingback: Off Topic: Mission trips « The Aesthetic Elevator

  5. Pingback: Short term mission trips « m.Fund

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