A Theology of the Built Environment


Redeeming Space

We may have more sophisticated ways of keeping time now but there is something visceral and real about the form and function of the hour glass. It is as if the sand must wait, it must be patient in the passage of time. A lot of sand must become small to become big again.

I think my own ecclesiology has passed through a kind of hour glass. My conception of church started with so much sand. It needed to narrow to its essence; worship, community and mission. But as time has passed the sand is filling again as the non-essential is discovered again, not for their centrality but in their service to the essential.

Because of our own building needs I have been forced to reconsider the place of the built environment in the life of our communities, and I am finding lots of life in the process. Like all things, the process is deepened and enlightened by theological reflection and I am slowly working out a theology of the built environment.

The places we build for ourselves declare our thoughts about God, what we value and what we believe is and isn’t sacred.

Our homes are perhaps the best examples of this. The size, layout, amenities reflect something about our priorities and who can come and go. We express ourselves in the things we build. Whether we are completely conscious of it or not.

There was a news story here in Germany this week about a Catholic bishop who just paid (with church funds I assume) $42 million for a remodel of his house, complete with a $20,000 bath tub. I am quite sure that he put serious time and thought into what he wanted, but maybe not so much thought into what it says about him. Even in a country with little interest in Christianity, and even less awareness of the character and virtue of Jesus, everyone knows that this remodel is a luminous hypocrisy.

Building something that is expensive is not the issue, it is the singular nature of the building that is. The problem is that he built it for himself. A private chapel, an ornate bathroom, these are things meant for him. The built environment of his imagination anchors him as the center of his universe and that is perhaps the most egregious blasphemy.

If, for instance, he would have designed and built a $42 million orphanage he might have been applauded.

What we build for ourselves then, might need to be simple and a ustere. That is the way of the kingdom. But what we build for others can (and at times should) be a thoughtful gift, and it is less important how much is spent then what can be accomplished in and through it. Even our homes, if they are built for others, could arguably be more remarkable. I don’t object to Christians with nice houses, I object to Christians with closed houses. If you have ever wondered if your house was too big or too nice, my advice is not to dismantle it but to open it up to others. Make it an asset and resource for the kingdom and the game is changed.

Space for the Small

Still, I find myself torn by these considerations. I am on record as having argued against the place and use of buildings in the mission of the church. Too often buildings have been one of our great limitations. Not only do they not deliver the security that we hope for (often burdening communities with extreme expenses) but they actually block our growth and development. 

David defeated Goliath because God was with him - but he also defeated Goliath because he was not like Goliath. Because he was a small target. Because he was fast, mobile and deadly with a sling. Because he refused to enter into hand to hand combat with that monster. If he would have fought proverbial fire with fire, he would have lost. We don’t go toe to toe with this world on it's own terms. We are kingdom people and we don’t even need a building (armor and sword) to be effective. We are at our best when we are small, fast, spontaneous, flexible and deadly with otherworldly weapons like love, intercession and the words of God. I am sure that new church buildings have never caused hell to tremble. But a movement of committed Christians that need neither building nor budget to love and lead is the devil's nightmare. 

So, as the hour glass fills for me again, I know what is most important and I want to build something that serves the small. Something that keeps us fast and flexible. Having a place is always necessary, but buildings burden small ministries. This is part of the genius of the UNDERGROUND. We pay the bills and bear the burden so that small ministries have the place they need without the liability of ownership. As we have empowered and released the church, we have simultaneously created an entity whose sole purpose is to provide the necessary tools that might otherwise threaten the strength and mobility of the smaller ministry. 

And so it falls to me to design and build a place fit for David, and not Goliath. We will need buildings - they are not the problem, but they are also not the solution. They are tools, weapons in the hands our warriors. Therefore, our buildings should not be built with the same specifications of a secular office building, school, club, theater or anything else. Our space should be different because we are different. 

It should fit us and say something about who we are and what we care about. 

Our values must manifest themselves in the tangible world, or they are not real. One cannot eat an idea or spend a value. There is a realness to the built environment, and something even eternal if it expresses and materializes the abstract sentiment of the heart. 

Architectural historian John Archer put it this way, "Ideologies are only of consequence when they impinge upon the material domain of everyday life... in the shaping of space." 

For a thousand years our churches were ornate and distinctly religious, and that said something. It expressed that some space is sacred and should be clearly delineated as such. We built churches that were meant to stand for 200 years, communicating the static nature of the church and the communities they serve. It did not allow for growth or change or movement because these concepts were not present in the ecclesial architects consciousness - but they are in ours. And when our parents’ generation grew tired of the incense and the stained glass, when those sacred spaces became equated with hypocrisy and disingenuous worship, they were abandoned. In the wake of the exodus from high church forms we then built churches that looked like the business complex. Gone were the sacred symbols, iconography, color and religious life. These reactionary building were indistinguishable from any other buildings - and that was the point. Still, they cost us a lot of money. The kid’s areas became like Disney World, the auditoriums like Carnegie hall. Stained glass was replaced by the $100,000 sound board and concert quality lighting system. The narthex and vestibule replaced by the lobbies outfitted with fountains, flat screens and our very own Starbucks, the message was clear. Don’t be scared, we are just like you.

As different as the message was, the actually theology was the same - and the allocation of space also betrayed the relative value of the community the space serves. The Sunday gatherings were still given the largest space, then education, then fellowship, then the work spaces for those called to ministry, given the smallest space of all.

Always it seemed the built environment was expensive and forgetful of the poor. Why, for instance, are none of our churches of our youth built with showers for the homeless?  

In both cases these building were expensive - and in both cases they betrayed our lack of vision for the church. These buildings limit us because our theology is limited. It is not the building's fault that we can’t grow beyond what we build.

So what about us?

The HUB is not a church. I think we know that, but It has to be said. More than that, it has to be understood to be able to judge its use, value and effectiveness. It is a co-op space for a family of churches to share. I tend to believe that life should be a series of adventures launched from a secure place. Risk is only possible when security is the starting point. We want the HUB to be that place of prayer and planning, a secure environment for all our micro churches to work and gather and pursue their God appointed mission. 

Because we have a theology that includes the poor and because we have a theology of an empowered priesthood of all believers, I have come to some convictions of function which will be expressed in the form of our new place. It will be…

Redemptive. We should take a space that is not used, forgotten or neglected and give it life and hope and vitality again. Our preference is for redemption of an old structure before building a new one.  It is cheaper and makes our project a gift to the community of which we are a part.

Temporary. Because all buildings are (mostly) static, and all missionary work is (mostly) dynamic, we should not make long term commitments to one space. If we do we will invariably live to regret it. We will use this one for 5 years and see where we go from there. We will not be held back by the environment we build. It will serve us and not the other way around. 

Shared. The UNDERGROUD is the steward of a space for all our community. It is not the property of one ministry but belongs to the kingdom. You will see in its completion that very few rooms are fully private or designated to only one ministry. From my square footage calculation, 90% of the building is available for common use. 

Simple (and beautiful). You don’t have to spend a lot of money to find beauty. I want a space that celebrates what wasn’t finished or isn’t there.  I want us to enjoy a minimal environment and to celebrate all the improvements left undone. All the rough features that are left exposed will be accepted and appreciated because of the grace given by our donors and our people to allow some flaws in the building in order to invest in the money on something else. The missing drop down ceiling represents a roof somewhere else. The unfinished floor or a half built wall, representing our love for the global poor. 

Work and worship. Whether we are in full time ministry or volunteers who serve, all of us need to remember that what we do for a living should be worship. I want a space that has a fluidity between a room designated for worship and a room designated for working. The office and the main room will mirror each other, in size and in function. Designated conference rooms, classrooms, and prayer rooms will all be multi-purpose reflecting the false dichotomy of work and worship.  

A table at the center. The centerpiece of our most used area will be a large (200 ft) table. The table in a home is a place of eating, fellowship, hospitality, equality, work, sharing. The table in the church is the place where we remember. We remember what matters and who makes us one. This table is big - big enough for everyone - and there is always room for one more. The table surrounds places of play and rest as a symbol of the joy we have in our work.  I want this table to be a place where anyone in the UNDERGROUND can come to work, study, think, create and collaborate - whether for one hour or every day. 

There will be several other rooms with purpose:

A room for dreaming.

A room for planning. 

A room for learning. 

A room for community. 

A room for prayer. 

A room for children. 

A room for counseling  and healing. 

A room for corporate worship

A room for art. 

A room for theater.

A room for communion. 

A room for eating. 

A room for the poor. 

And the biggest room is a room for work.

Our space is going to be humble. And I don’t pretend to have designed the most godly or biblical space possible - but I know that for now, it is what we most need, and it is designed to reflect our hope for our cities and serve the vision for the kind of community we imagine we can be. It is a space designed by faith. 

It is going to take us a few months to complete the work, so if you consider yourself a part of the UNDERGROUND family, I would encourage you at some point over the next couple of months to stop in while it is in process so that you can see it before it is completed. If you do stop in, as you look around, ask God to pay the space the ultimate compliment by filling it with his presence - and that all we do in it would glorify him.

Brian Sanders