Church Buildings and the Disciplining of the Mind: Bringing an Un-Churched Generation into Sacred Spaces

With beautiful historic church buildings crumbling, and Catholic demographics shifting, how do we share the rich heritage of sacred architecture with an un-churched generation?

Several years ago, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) launched its ingenious “I Look Up” campaign, an attempt to raise public literacy about the art of building by encouraging people of all stripes to lift their gaze from hand-held electronic devices to the architectural environments that surround them. The program has proven especially popular with young people throughout the country enrolled in schools of art, digital media, filmmaking and the like, who’ve used social media to distribute both still and moving images of architectural structures of interest to them. Though photographs, video and film, as two-dimensional media, can never completely capture the all-important spatial quality of a building, they do at least record for posterity something of its site, size, shape and significance. In fact, as I discovered early in my teaching career through assignments of my own designed to foster appreciation of architecture on the part of students in both my fines arts and theology courses, consigning a building to film or any digital medium turns out to be a valuable way of disciplining both the eye and the mind. Composing a photograph is a kind of “Occam’s Razor” affair requiring its user to make a series of evaluative decisions that determine what will and will not appear in the final image. Producing a digital trace of something as large as an edifice involves an act of evaluation requiring the eye and mind to pare away for the sake of expression what is of least consequence to the subject at hand, that is, to take a stab at a kind of poetry composed of the fewest words. Beyond this, when students enrolled, say, in one of my Theology of Worship courses were once asked to photograph or film a local example of sacred architecture, they could not only “look up” in the manner of the AIA campaign but were required to peer deeply inward to determine whether the structures Christians regard as sacred have any effect on their souls. More important to me than having them capture the surface appearance of one or another church building was that they absorb its deeper and subtler qualities, those they could only be experience by actually walking through its spaces, touching its walls, taking in the quality of its light, its aromas, and the affective power of its acoustics. This was especially true with regards to buildings erected by Christian communities whose mode of worship was to any degree “sacramental.” Inviting students to enter a Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian or Orthodox Church building, for example wasn’t solely to have them ruminate with their minds on the fundamental “sacramentality” of what opens before them. Instead, they had to enlist their senses in hopes of determining firsthand how such metaphysical realities as grace, divine mercy, sanctification and the communion with Christ might be embodied in the physicality of stone and wood, metal and glass, light and sound. For them, I hoped, theologizing in response to an architectural environment would be a bodily affair.

Entering a Sacred Space

For my purposes, then, a church building was a much better setting in which to engage the theological imaginations of undergraduate students than any classroom on campus. It engaged them in a way that even the flashiest of today’s instructional technologies couldn’t, limited as the latter were to the effects of sight and sound and to a flatness no different from the effect of TV-watching. The olfactory experience alone that awaited them in churches of any age, stemming from the accumulated scents of beeswax, incense, wood varnish, plaster dust and other materials discovered there, had a way of triggering deep-seated memories and responses useful to speculating on the intentions of a God who, in assuming human flesh, would have smelled the great breadth of fragrances, smells and aromas the world has to offer just as they were able to.

… a church building is a much better setting in which to engage the theological imaginations of undergraduate students than any classroom on campus. It engages them in a way that even the flashiest of today’s instructional technologies can’t…

A church building stands not only as an artistic response to the mystery of the Incarnation but mimics it through its very materiality. Christian creeds and concepts harden into construction materials. Divinity discloses itself through common skin and bone. Most of my students, I hoped, got the point.

In a more basic way, of course, I knew that the art of building would appeal to my students’ fondness for practicality; they fully appreciated that architecture — put to a religious purpose or some other — exists at a basic level to shelter, warm and protect its users. The numerous Christian churches I would lead my classes through in the course of a semester likewise offered them relief from discussions heavy on theological speculation some considered too ethereal to comprehend. They were happy when abstractions gave way to the concreteness of place—or maybe just when they could leave our campus behind for an hour spent in buildings so vastly different from the ones they’d ordinarily inhabit. Except to participate in the occasional wedding or funeral, after all, many had little reason for entering a Christian place of worship. The Christian sanctuary had become unfamiliar territory to them, its beauty and grandeur qualities they admitted to finding as intimidating as they were inspiring. In most cases, there was the hierarchically arranged and compartmentalized layout of the place, not to mention the air of solemnity that lingered about it that made them feel a little like trespassers into realm for which they were somehow unfit. They recognized in an instant that the prevailing informality of their own culture, its looseness with words, gestures and appearances, would not work there, despite the best efforts of the resident clergy and others who greeted them at such sites to make them feel, “completely at home.” Men in my classes registered surprise, for example, when instructed to remove their hats upon entering any of the buildings included in our church tours. Keyboards of pianos and organs, I discovered, were magnets to the hands of undergraduate church-tourists, along with candle stands, episcopal crosiers, devotional statues and anything connected with open flame or water. They were forever touching sacred things out of natural curiosity, precisely because they perceived them as off-limits.

My own comportment as chief tour guide likely confused them, in part because of the relaxed style and straightforwardness with which I’d treat the sights and sounds that ensconced us. Never one to confuse sanctimony or the excesses of pietism for honest piety, I hoped to come off less like a museum guard concerned with the safekeeping of rarified artifacts than like a simple, Catholic educator willing to entrust the splendor of God’s house to the basic goodness of people, God’s people — which is, of course, all people. What a great opportunity it was for me to evangelize and teach at the same time, when I’d invite non-Christian students or any number of self-described, “Nones” to gather respectfully with the rest of their classmates around a Catholic altar, ambo, baptismal font or tabernacle, unafraid that some overzealous sacristan or parish office staffer would hasten them away from these appointments. In my mind, the God to whom every Christian church building is dedicated acknowledged and welcomed their presence in God’s dwelling place with open arms. All of heaven smiles, I imagined, on the rag-tag teams of would-be theologians I so enjoyed ushering into places of worship and revealed itself to them in ways far beyond anything I could have anticipated through the most detailed lesson plan. It was their unscripted encounters with the specialness of Christian churches, in fact, that students on end-of-the-semester course evaluations described as so “eye-opening.” At least one noted somewhat humorously, “The best part of theology was the architecture.” Another claimed to have left a course of mine with the impression that “God loves Gothic” — though I’d hoped that by exposing his class to the whole range of church architecture, including examples of the most modern and “mega” of church facilities in the vicinity of our campus, I’d convinced him that God appears to show little preference for style when inspiring followers to build on God’s behalf.

I have no qualms with such sentiments and believe that just as the fabricators of buildings commonly speak today of the, “embodied energy” represented by a truck-load of brick, a wall frame of two-by-fours or a length of steel, so the serious student of Christian thought can talk of the theological content to be found in architectural materials and nod their heads in recognition of what it’s meant for observers of the medieval scene to describe the era’s great cathedrals as bibliae pauperum—“bibles for the [illiterate] poor.” A Christian church building is a book that can be read like any other, a great book in some circumstances, as in the case of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris or the Duomo in Florence that belong in its own way to the canon of so-called “Great Books” Western educators still consider essential to liberal learning. The student of Christian theology or sacred scripture should rightly see it as a monumental and permanent-seeming surrogate for the “Good Book,” too, the bible itself, whose lessons have been depicted by glazers and painters for centuries on the ascending mural levels of structures we persist in calling “stories” (ME. “storeys” — L. historiae). A church building is not an object or expressive thing, like a work of sculpture, so much as sacred locus, an admittedly tiny but delimited sliver of the all-enveloping Ground of Being in which we find ourselves by the graciousness of God. Certainly for Catholics, who conceive of the tabernacles in their churches as places of safekeeping for the Christ who manifests in sacrament, the sacred setting is literally a house of God, a dwelling place, too, for God’s “ecclesial presence,” and not a colossal stand-post or totem intended merely to coax God from heaven the way, in popular mythology, a lightning rod attracts electricity from the sky.

A Student Pilgrimage

It’s not overstatement, then, to suggest that the church tours to which I devoted roughly a quarter of my theology course were more like mini pilgrimages tailored to the needs of my students and they required a map for it to be most profitable. In my case, the guiding tool was a rather lengthy workbook I’d assembled over time that systematized students’ analyses of buildings. In fact, the document consisted of several dozen questions they could only answer by embarking on “an ecclesiastical scavenger hunt” that took them through the entirety of a sacred setting and its surroundings. “Does the church building exhibit a discernable threshold; can you tell where the sacred space begins and ends?” read one of the workbook’s questions, appropriating concepts with which any designer of sacred spaces or liturgist today would be familiar. “Does it have any clearly defined pathways through which users might process?” asked another, and “Does it offer spatial provision for singers or other musicians?” yet another.

The Christian sanctuary has become unfamiliar territory to college students, it’s beauty and grandeur qualities they admit to finding as intimidating as they are inspiring.

Over the years, of course, the church communities who’d so generously opened the doors of their sanctuaries to us had gotten into the act and retained copies of my teaching materials for their own files. The tours had become opportunities for ecumenical collaboration and the expression of goodwill between the Catholic university I represented and the business offices of churches from a variety of denominations. Often their pastoral staffs were eager not only to receive my students at the doors of their facilities but to spend considerable time explaining both the strengths and the shortcomings of their sanctuaries in light of the increased diversity of liturgical preferences each was detecting within their congregations.

The urban location of my university’s campus proved to be a tremendous asset to the work, ringed as it was by historic churches of all kinds and only steps away from the respective cathedral buildings for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Erie and the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. A visit to the tomb of the namesake of my university in the episcopal crypt of the former was a highlight of the tours, just as touching a fragment of Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry’s 18th century flagship, USS Lawrence, preserved in a wooden reredos, came to be at the latter. At each of the venues we visited, in fact, there was some feature that left a lasting impression with my classes—a pair of Tiffany Glass windows here, a ceiling beam half-charred in a fire and left exposed there—set within buildings whose floors creaked, whose narthexes and naves carried the distinct whiff of old age, and whose well-worn furnishings signified a history of use by people of deep and abiding faith. Often, it was the organists at these sites who most enjoyed having large groups of young people wander through their worship spaces, many of whom were eager to demonstrate the characteristics of their instruments through impromptu recitals. In other cases, it was the resident sacristan or custodian who seemed to know the most about the history and functional aspects of a particular church and jumped at the chance of turning on an extra bank of lights or two for our benefit or leading students into some belfry to try their hand at ringing its bells. I hoped that such encounters would convince students that a place of worship is peopled by persons of all kinds and in various positions of authority, all of whom bear an affection for its physical fabric and history they normally reserve for their own homes.

It was their unscripted encounters with the specialness of Christian churches that students on end-of-the-semester course evaluations described as so “eye-opening.” At least one noted somewhat humorously, “The best part of theology was the architecture.”

Just having students make contact with the busy streets of the urban environment in which these sites are found was important, I feel, if only because the experience offered them a view of so-called “downtown” churches in context and a chance to ponder how their basic cultural and sociological functions might differ from those of Christian facilities erected more recently in the city’s suburban fringes. Most were suburbanites by birth with little inclination to dine, shop or recreate in the heart of a city, let alone to seek God there. They admitted to enjoying the mobility their cars afforded them and the ease with which they could move through the landscaped expanses to be found outside the nation’s older cities, not at their cores. What big box stores or drive-thru restaurants couldn’t offer them, they could always find online—and what wasn’t available there probably wasn’t important. Still, they marveled at the beauty preserved in street-corner churches offset by old-fashioned sidewalks they’d visited and weren’t sure what to make of the questions I directed their way at the conclusion of every church tour: “What should become of the things you’ve encountered in this place? Should your generation, which shows every sign of turning its back on traditional religion, simply clear buildings like this away for the sake of making parking lots? Should they be turned into condos or conference halls as we’ve seen in some cities—possibly into performance spaces? What will become of this legacy of Christian architecture and thus of the theological concepts we’ve examined in the classroom that seem so much more ephemeral?”

My students would squirm in their seats, as usual, and look down at their feet. The brightest caught the seriousness of my questions and what is truly at stake going forward. Christianity’s way with architecture may well be worth preserving for more than only those who follow Christ, and its long tradition of ruminating on the nature of God and the world may well save us from the short and self-sightedness of our time.


About Michael E. DeSanctis

Michael E. DeSanctis is Professor of Fine Arts and Theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, as well as the director of its honors program. He serves as a design consultant to Catholic parishes involved in the construction or renovation of places of worship and has written for a number of publications, including Emmanuel.