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Building for Memory

How Church Buildings Can Express God's Faithfulness

About once a quarter on a Saturday, it would fall on my plate tolead a new members’ class for those who’d expressed interest in joiningthe church. Most of the teaching took place in the church’s Christianeducation building. At the end of the class, however, I would walk thegroup across the churchyard for a quick tour of the sanctuary. As weapproached the substantial doors of our 1920s Gothic Revival edifice, Iwould turn to my group and proclaim with as much authority as I couldmuster, “This is not First Presbyterian Church of Missoula, Montana.Right now,” I would explain, “First Presbyterian Church is scatteredall around this town, probably spending time with friends and family,and come Monday, they will scatter further to occupy outposts ofresponsibility for the kingdom in homes, offices, stores, schools, andother important places.” I had grown up with the firm conviction thatthe church is not a building but the people of God, and I was simplypassing this conviction on to the newest members of our church family.

But if our being a church really had nothing to do with thiscultural artifact of brick and plaster, why was I drawn to share withthese new members the particularities of our shared life together fromwithin this building? As I considered this internal tension, I began torealize that the issue may be a bit more complex than I had previouslythought. Having been raised and trained in the Reformed tradition, Iwas somewhat uneasy with the notion of sacred space. Drawing on Jesus’words “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither onthis mountain nor in Jerusalem” (John 4:21b) and “For where two orthree are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20), Ihad a firm conviction that God could be worshiped in any conceivableplace. I drew comfort from the fact that there weren’t especiallysacred places where God would be more present than others. So why did Ifind worshiping God in gymnasium-style churches so uninspiring, and whywas I so drawn to churches with substance and durability?

The Role of Memory

The beginnings of an answer to my question came in thinking aboutthe role of memory in salvation history. Repeatedly throughout theBible we are instructed to remember: “Remember this day on which youcame out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lordbrought you out from there by strength of hand” (Ex. 13:3). And Godestablishes his faithfulness by reminding us of his connection to ourhistory: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God ofIsaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex. 3:6). It dawned on me that I valuedcertain kinds of church buildings because they seemed to hold memoriesbetter than others.

Pushing this idea further, I began to see that buildings hold ourmemories in three distinctive ways. Visually, they are the setting formany of our direct memories. We remember the house in which we grew upin through associative memories. I distinctly remember the look of ourkitchen from the perspective of the back door, and it will alwaysrepresent (for me) the notion of home. Buildings can also hold memoriesin a semiotic way—that is, by putting us in contact with symbols thatcan potentially carry meaning for anyone in our culture. A hospital,for example, contains signs and symbols that may evoke memories of ourmother’s death or other significant life events, even if we’ve nevervisited it before. Lastly, buildings can physically hold memories byrecording the collective practices of those who have used the buildingover time. The worn stairs of an elementary school evokes students fromanother era participating in a similar activity.

This quality of holding memory in any of these three ways I amcalling patina. Patina is, literally, the quality silverware takes onover time as the subtle scratches of use cause it to take on a deeperluster. Real silverware exemplifies the idea of patina because it notonly endures but becomes more beautiful with use. Plastic flatware, onthe other hand, does not endure and so never develops patina.

Building for the Short Term

The problem with many modern buildings is that they are built for arelatively short life span, with cheap materials that break rather thanwear, and they often lack the kinds of historical references that weneed to generate significant meanings. There are no shopping cart rutson the floor of Costco reminding me of bygone shoppers of yesteryear,nor will the Wal-Mart where my son got his first swimming suit bearound long enough for him to bring his son to see it. And the CountyCourthouse (circa 1972) I visited for jury duty does not remind me ofanything about the value of the public realm or our deep commitment toimpartial justice because it looks very much like the office buildingacross the street.

By way of contrast, the church in which I was baptized still standstoday as a symbolic witness to God’s presence in the neighborhood. Thebuilding has aged well and communicates that my baptism was more than aspontaneous accident of history. I can take my daughter there to showher that God continues to be active and faithful in the lives of peopletoday. The act of showing the next generation the places that markGod’s faithfulness in our lives is an act of obedient remembering.

I didn’t grow up in First Presbyterian Church of Missoula, but Ithink what compels me to drag my class back outside in sub-freezingweather to take a look around the sanctuary is this notion of patina. Iwant them to see how the church being not only larger but also morecarefully constructed than many of their own homes shows a deeperinvestment in our shared life in Christ than we can muster today. Iwant them to experience the centrality of the cross and the prominenceof the pulpit as we unpack some of the bedrock values that connect usto one another and to those who have gone before us. And I want them tobegin to see that there is more to God’s magnificent plan of salvationhistory than what is happening in our individual lives at this singlepoint in time.

I want them to feel the presence of the saints who have precededthem so that they can resonate viscerally with these words from thebook of Hebrews:

Therefore, since we are surroundedby so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weightand the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverancethe race that is set before us.
—Hebrews 12:1

Patina is certainly not the only value that we should consider whenwe think about church buildings, nor is it a value that is alwayspositive. Memories sometimes can become stifling as well as reassuring.A church that focuses only on its memories and its history can easilybecome a dead museum with no living testimony to God’s faithfulness.There are too many beautiful church corpses throughout Europe and NorthAmerica for us to forget this sobering reality. If I had to choose, I’dpick a Spirit-filled congregation in a cheap disposable building over abeautiful empty church any day. However, there are a number of vibrantchurches that might gain a new appreciation for their “outdated”facility if they could see their building in terms of patina. Andperhaps considerations of patina might inspire congregations who arebuilding churches to build them in a way that will hold memories forgenerations to come.

Excerpt
Suggestions for Considering Your Church’s Patina

1. Use enduring, trans-cultural norms for Christian worship when asking questions of the visual aspects of your space. For example:

  • Is the space dialogic?
    What architectural features of the building show the vertical and horizontal movement depicted in the vertical and horizontal arms of the cross?
  • Is the space covenantal?
    What does your furniture arrangement say about the relationship between God and God’s people?  How do the architectural features of the space enhance this? Is this the message we want to communicate?
  • Is the space communal?
    What does your furniture arrangement say about the relationship between the members of the community? How do the architectural features of the space enhance this? Is this the message we want to communicate?
  • Is the space “in but not of” the world?
    How is the space lit to highlight distinctions between light and dark? How much light best fits a specific service? How do architectural materials and color tones enhance or hinder this?
    Note: These norms are taken from the prologue to The Worship Sourcebook (see p. 20 for ordering information). Read all eight norms and think of visual questions to ask related to your space’s patina.

2. Organize a study group to read the following books and reflect on the patina of the different spaces of your church building. How can this be balanced with the identity of the space for this people, at this time, in this place?

  • Church Architecture: Building and Renovating for Christian Worship by James F. and Susan J. White (OSL Publications, 1998).
  • Re-pitching the Tent: Reordering the Church Building for Worship and Mission by Richard Giles (Liturgical Press, reprinted 2000).

—Elizabeth Steele Halstead, Resource Development Specialist
for the Visual Arts, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship