Thursday, January 8, 2015

The future of religious spaces

Grace Episcopal Church in Carthage, Missouri, pictured above (from its website), has a small, lovely sanctuary that dates from 1890. It's small, dark and cozy, with well-crafted woodwork and stained glass windows. When I visited there last fall, I felt immediately that I was in a sacred place. But that's the perspective of a late-middle-aged, lifelong church-goer, who admires the Episcopal liturgy (though I'm not sure I could do it every week). As times and expectations change, sacred places across America face change as well.

The quarterly publication Faith and Form is out with their 2014 religious art and architecture awards, which is as good an occasion as any to take stock of sacred space in America. Religion, mainly Christianity, has been part of the American landscape since the earliest permanent settlements of Europeans in the 16th century. Most towns of any size have a number of churches, and perhaps a temple or mosque, in prominent locations in their downtown areas. They are typically, in my unsystematic observation, buildings of beauty--sometimes simple, sometimes ornate--that are compatible with their surroundings.

John Kenneth White (Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, Oxford University Press, 1964) states that houses of worship have two basic functions: (1) to provide a location for group religious expression; and (2) to inspire individuals with a sense of the presence of God. The first could be fulfilled by any physical space, though White argues at length the structure of that space says a lot about hierarchies as well as expectations of individual participation. What makes for a sense of sacred place varies with the individual, but often involves features like apart-ness from the everyday world, peace and quiet, beauty and majesty. The common element of sacred space is, to quote Roger W. Stump (The Geography of Religion, Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), a "manifestation of the cosmos defined in [believers'] world views" (p. 301).

There might be other functions White doesn't highlight: the prominent physical presence of churches states a claim of social importance. Think of Fourth Presbyterian Church on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, or century-old First Lutheran and Immaculate Conception Churches planted opposite each other on one of Cedar Rapids's busiest intersections.

These days churches face a number of challenges that would have been unthinkable to my parents and grandparents, not to mention the 19th century founders of my town.
  • Worship attendance is decreasingly a social norm. It has decreased so much, in fact, that one could argue the norm is not to attend worship. This is not the world in which my grandfather preached. Church members who might pride themselves on welcoming visitors and new members are nonetheless ambivalent about actively recruiting new adherents.
  • As members age and the economy putters along, many religiously-active people have fewer resources on which to draw for donations to churches, synagogues and mosques. Giving USA reported last summer that religious donations have been unusually slow to bounce back from the Great Recession. It would be interesting to compare religious donations as a percentage of GDP over time (currently it's 1.9 percent); does anyone know if such data exist?
  • Concurrent with these revenue challenges, religious houses confront some rather imposing cost burdens: energy costs fluctuate wildly, maintenance costs probably accelerate with age of building, and in prosperous areas opportunity costs undoubtedly beckon. As a result of all these factors, two lovely and historic downtown Cedar Rapids churches have fallen to the wrecking ball in the last five years. Other churches have moved in order to accommodate actual or anticipated growth, leaving buildings in urban neighborhoods for campuses on the edge of town with gigantic buildings and parking lots.
  • In some areas, religion is seen as a regressive force. From the inside, a doctrine on birth control or homosexuality that has long since passed its expiry date can be seen as something we hope to see change. From the outside it's just ugly. It's not my tradition or culture, but the public face of Islam today can hardly be attractive.
  • Social needs may take priorities over institutional needs, even for loyal members, and surely do for outsiders. "Jon," a commenter on the Religious News Service article I linked to above, argues: Giving to religious houses of worship is not charitable giving. We’ve seen time and again that a tiny fraction of that money goes to actual charities, while nearly all of it goes to the house of worship itself – salaries to paid employees, the building, etc. Without knowing Jon's perspective, it seems fair to argue he'd rather donate to food banks, schools and environmental groups instead of maintaining an awe-inspiring sanctuary. But places that evoke a sense of sacred immanence aren't free.
The upshot is that the qualities of sacred space that are highly valued by core members are likely to be irrelevant, or even off-putting, to the unchurched. Moreover, in many cases they may not be affordable.

In the face of all this, the Faith and Form report indicates considerable vitality. Their 2014 contest received 134 submissions, and made 32 awards in nine categories: new facilities, restoration, renovation (I'm enough of an amateur not to know the difference between those two), liturgical/interior design, liturgical furnishings, visual arts, ceremonial objects, sacred landscape, and student work. Journal editor Michael J. Crosbie noted that religious art and architecture are flourishing throughout the world, and that artists, architects, liturgical designers, students, and others are exploring ways to balance tradition with new demands of religious practice. The landscape of sacred space is changing, along with dramatic shifts in organized religion.

One clear winner in all this is what White years ago called the "church of light," reacting against 100 or so years of dark sanctuaries (which I find cozy, but that's just me). Light, lots of light, usually natural light, literally pours into a lot of these pictures.
Proyecto Clamor de Paz, Honduras, swiped from
Most of the pictures are outdoor shots, so it's hard to gauge the worship atmosphere, but I really like the simple style of this renovated Massachusetts church, as well as how it fits with the surrounding buildings.
Christ Church, Cambridge MA, swiped from
To me that front door screams accessibility, but is that enough to get strangers to enter?

I also love the grandeur of this Colorado sanctuary, which received an award for visual arts. It's clearly among the churches of light, and the pipes at left suggest potential for great liturgical music. (My church, as it happens, has organ pipes that are purely decorative i.e. they're not attached to an actual organ.) But now I'm wondering about their heating bills.
Our Lady of Loreto Catholic Parish, Foxfield CO, swiped from
On the other hand, this church doesn't appeal to me at all. It's showy, conspicuously expensive, and sprawling. I bet it's not within walking distance of anything, and that its parking lot is big enough to land planes.
Watermark Community Church, Dallas TX, swiped from
I am being snarky here, which is hardly called for, but I did just look them up on Bing and I'm right. On the other hand, if they're attracting members in this day and age, who am I to carp at them?

At the same time that this energetic construction and reconstruction is occurring, other religious institutions are dealing with change by retrenching: shrinking congregations are cutting services, merging or just closing down. Maybe the buildings can be re-purposed, but in the process the sacred element of the place is frequently lost. In the same issue, Crosbie reports on a group called Partners for Sacred Places, which has a program to match cash-strapped churches with non-profit groups who need space. I don't know how much revenue those arrangements might generate, but it has the obvious up-side of bringing people into the building who might not otherwise get there. In time they may come to value the space for its sacred qualities as well as for its utility.

Michael J. Crosbie, "Scattered Treasures," Faith and Form 47:4 (2014),

Michael J. Crosbie, "2014 International Awards Program for Religious Art and Architecture," Faith and Form 47:4 (2014),


Timothy W. Martin, "Window Pains: Stained Glass Faces Dark Days," Wall Street Journal, 22 December 2014,


"Homes, Church Homes and Hometowns," 15 September 2014
"Sacred Space," 27 April 2013

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