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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Why Don't Christians Build Grand Churches Anymore?

A Facebook friend recently featured the following post:

I replied thus:

I've wondered that too, as I have had the privilege of giving lectures on church art and architecture all around the Med. So here's what's wrong with Cornett's comment: It's mostly wrong.

Christians don't build cathedrals and other grand churches nowadays in North America for at least four reasons, and they're good reasons.

1. Christians of various stripes disagree with the financial and aesthetic decisions that go into a grand place. Calvinists, Mennonites, Quakers, Baptists, Methodists (and by now I've named a lot of North American Christians), and others don't agree that piles of money should go into such piles, nor that the Lord is best worshipped in gorgeous palaces rather than plain, focused meeting rooms. I happen to disagree, but the point is not that. The point is that they have serious theological and ethical reasons for their choices. And, to be fair, in that particular respect Cornett is right—if that's what he meant, as I'm not sure he did.

2. Churches change. If I knew that my investment in the fabric of my local church would be enjoyed by my family and friends and other faithful Christians for generations, I would be inclined to invest in it. If I am aware (as I should be) that a single change of pastor might mean a significant declension of the church from doctrinal or spiritual or missional faithfulness, and that churches can become unpleasant and unfaithful shadows of their former selves in less than a generation, then I won't make such an investment. (I've seen this happen. More than once.)

3. Christians move around. I have lived in three countries. I have lived in three American states and five Canadian provinces, as well as a shire in England. And my story is not remarkable. My sons live on opposite coasts of North America, and none of the three of them is likely to remain in his current city much longer. I serially give to the churches I serially attend. That means that no one church gets the Great Big Donation that enables big building projects.

4. Christian individuals and cities used grand churches to make personal and civic statements. The most egregious example of municipal showing-off in a church is likely the doge's chapel in San Marco, Venice—which literally was aggrandized by the spoils of war and pillage—but there are lots of others. (Check out the church adorned by the exploits of the Knights of St. John in Valletta, Malta, for another fabulous example.) Big shots wanting to justify their rapacity gave to impressive churches. Towns seeking to legitimize their conquests gave glory (ahem) to God in, yes, such grand edifices. Indeed, that sort of pattern is evident in some of America's old cities (think of New York in particular, but also Boston and Philadelphia) and in Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, and even Halifax.

What Cornett is right about is that many of us don't have a grand view of God and don't want to represent that grand view in churches. I agree and I mourn that. But one ought also to face these other facts as well. And one more thing. In many parts of the world, Christians are building grand churches. A colossal structure meant to evoke Solomon's Temple in Brazil. A church even bigger than St. Peter's, Rome, in Ivory Coast. I daresay, however, that the same mix of motives (see point 4) is evident in these projects, so they provoke decidedly mixed feelings in me. And you?


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