Architecture Matters: Old, New, and Everything In-Between
By: Sherri Gragg
From the earliest days of the church, Christians have thoughtfully constructed sacred spaces. When it comes to worship, architecture matters.
In Capernaum, archeologists uncovered a Byzantine era octagonal structure nestled between simple homes constructed of rough basaltic stone. As they carefully dug down through the stratum beneath the structure, they discovered a home similar to its neighbors. Basaltic stone. A central courtyard. Thatch roof woven of twigs and branches.
Archeologists believe it was the home of Peter, disciple of Christ, because in the Byzantine era, octagonal structures were often constructed over sacred sites as places of worship.
Further south, an ancient church stands in Bethlehem. It is the only Christian place of worship to survive the Persian invasion of 614 AD. When the invaders entered the sanctuary to burn it, they found the pillars lining the nave were painted with men in Persian dress. Upon seeing men who were dressed as they were, they decided the place must be good after all and spared the structure.
It was common practice during the time of the church’s construction to paint illustrations of Biblical stories on the walls and pillars of the interior as a teaching tool for illiterate worshippers. When the Persian invaders entered the church marking the birthplace of Christ, they discovered the story of the wise men from the East.
Architecture has always been intimately tied to worship. Soaring Medieval cathedrals were designed to be perfectly symmetrical, symbolizing the order in creation and the perfection of the Creator. Many were built in the shape of the cross of Christ. In the Renaissance period, Michelangelo adorned the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with wonders of the Old Testament narrative.
Architecture continues to influence and reflect our worship even today. The Texas Annual Conference is home to sweet country churches, awe inspiring sanctuaries of stained glass and stone, modern worship spaces held in unconventional structures such as theaters or gymnasiums and occasionally, a space that refuses to fit any mold.
First United Methodist Church Pittsburg
“The design of First UMC Pittsburg’s sanctuary, completed around 1907, is patterned after the Akron style of architecture popular with churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” said the Rev. Hill Johnson. “The style is influenced by the brush arbors that were frequent locations for worship as Methodism spread across the North American Continent when the pioneers moved west.”
The front of the church is graced by three beautiful stained-glass windows, symbolizing the Trinity in both number and subject matter. Two towers flank this section of the building, each topped with a cross finial. Inside the sanctuary, stained-glass windows depict various stories from the Bible. The history of Methodism is represented as well in the windows featuring John and Charles Wesley.
“The pulpit is placed in the center of the chancel conveying the image of the Word in the center of our life and worship,” said Johnson. “This center placement brings worshippers into a closer proximity and connection with the Word.” Johnson goes on to say that the sanctuary’s design creates an “architectural megaphone,” representing the Methodist mission to take the gospel into the world.
First United Methodist Church Orange Chapel
In 1953, Edward W. and Gladys Slade Brown donated the funds to build the FUMC Orange Slade Memorial Chapel in memory of Mrs. Brown’s mother, Mrs. Minnie Robertson Slade. Mrs. Slade was a long-time member of FUMC Orange, and a beloved Sunday School Teacher.
The chapel is an example of Gothic design. The entrance to the church is inset with three beautiful painted windows, with stained-glass windows lining the interior of the space. The chapel is graced with open-beam construction, providing excellent acoustics. Christian symbols are carved into the altar and pews, crafted from blonde mahogany. The sanctuary includes a narthex, a traditional element of church design that served to provide a transition point from the secular to the sacred.
“The Brown family was very generous with our church,” said Music Director Doug Rogers, “and their gift is still blessing our congregation more than 60 years later.”
Central Church Galveston
Central Church Galveston is 130 years old, and the space bears many of the hallmarks of Victorian church design. Soaring ceilings, beautiful stained-glass and lovingly carved pews.
But Central Church also has a modern worship stage, complete with wooden pallet backdrop. Some of the pews have been removed to make way for sofas. The Rev. Michael Gienger has abandoned the pulpit, often choosing to perch on a wooden stool at the front of the congregation while preaching.
Central Church is at once ancient and revolutionary, a beautiful mixture of the old and the new. Gienger says it is intentional.
“We inherited a really old building,” Gienger said. “As a new church plant/revitalization, this obviously created some tension. How would we create something new and vibrant in a space that was so old?
What we discovered was that our unique architecture could be leveraged to reinforce our vision and mission. We've been meeting with architects since we're nearly out of space.” Gienger said. “There was a question as to whether we would attempt to renovate the existing space or move elsewhere. The congregation overwhelmingly pushed to stay at our current location. These folks see their own story in Central's architecture, brokenness being repurposed into something beautiful.”