I listened to a panel discussion recently in which participants were invited to envision the Australian church twenty years into the future. There were some challenging things said, but one comment made several times has replayed in my head since.
It was suggested that the thriving church of tomorrow will have almost nothing to do with buildings, but gatherings of people in homes, pubs and cafes. And where church buildings do come into play, they will look more like multi-purpose spaces with porous edges into the surrounding neighbourhood. The church as a sacred building will fade away, it was predicted, as the organic and integrated community of faith flourishes.
Part of me wholeheartedly agrees, even hopes for something similar. For a long-term supporter of the house-church movement, there is so much about this open, fluid and integrated vision of church that resonates. All space and every aspect of life is sacred. Still, another part of me hesitates.
The city of Melbourne is home to some magnificent religious architecture—churches and cathedrals with sweeping spires and hallowed interiors. As I walk the city, I often wonder to myself what difference it would make to Melbourne if all of these churches were bulldozed and replaced with more commercial office towers, retail centres or even public plazas. How different would the city feel? Would it matter? I think it would, even to those who never venture inside. The fact is, architecture is a powerful expression of history and meaning. The very presence of these churches stands in contrast to the towers of capitalism that surround them, a reminder that there is more. At their best, buildings like these point beyond themselves to a spirit of deeper and higher things.
Granted, I’m more than a bit conflicted in this. Being a minister of one of those churches, I could well be accused of self-interest. But I don’t think it’s that. I have felt this way for too long. The truth is I need my occasional visits to St Paul’s or St Patrick’s. My soul needs them. My sense is that whatever shape the church of the future takes, there will never cease to be a legitimate human need for buildings that speak distinctively to the spirit—places of soul.
While I am all in favour of community centres and multi-purpose spaces that blend faith and community, I wonder sometimes if we are not in danger of losing something of value if this is our only architectural goal. As I walked through our church sanctuary one day last week, there was a man sitting alone in the pews, a visitor from interstate. I stopped to talk with him. As I left him he said to me, ‘this feels like a place where people know God.’ Indeed. While I am not suggesting cathedrals on every corner, perhaps we need to remember that worship and place have a deep and time-honoured connection.