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Theology, Pragmatism and Story

Church Facilities as Theology:

The building of monumental cathedrals in the middle ages was a reflection of faith and the channel for much of the creative energy of medieval European society. The dominant feeling was one of great enthusiasm, ambition, and a desire to excel in this quest to construct magnificent buildings reflecting God’s glory. Cathedrals were designed literally to be houses of God, to inspire faith, and to reach to Heaven. In a time where the Church was the central point of life for both rich and poor, it was natural for the greatest efforts to be made in designing and building the cathedrals. Plus there was the inevitable competitive nature of humans, with each city hoping to have a better cathedral than the others (somethings never change).

In addition, many people of the day were unable to read, so the designers and constructors introduced ornamentation and stained glass. In an illiterate world, the use of this art was not just decorative, but it allowed the illiterate to visually take in biblical stories, as well as the images of the saints to serve as examples. The designer’s job in building these edifices was to figure out how to represent best the theology of the church.

This practice of using churches and other houses of worship as theological states continued for centuries.  In the 18th century, the incorporation of steeples became very popular with many church designers. For some it was to express a “reaching” to the heavens as a form of praise and drawing peoples eye to God. (I have also read much about other meanings of steeples, that we will not dive into here).

So, is the church to make a theological statement? Is that its main purpose and focus of any facility (church or otherwise)?

Pragmatism [prag-muh-tiz-uhm]:

If you have ever studied philosophy, then you are sure to recognize the name, William James. James is considered by many to be the most insightful and stimulating of American philosophers and  great pragmatists. As a professor of psychology and of philosophy at Harvard University, he became the most famous living American psychologist and later the most famous living American philosopher of his time (late 1800’s).

So what is a pragmatist and pragmatism? Here are a few definitions you can find on the web:

 1. Character or conduct that emphasizes practicality.

2. Action or policy dictated by consideration of the immediate practical consequences rather than by theory or dogma.

3. The doctrine that the contact of concept consists only in it practical application.


In short, it focuses on what works.  If something is beneficial and helps accomplish a goal, then it must be true. Something should satisfactorily work in order to be true.

Many church designers and leaders have adopted this approach to their ministry facilities.  If we have 4 walls, a roof and we can get “x” number of people in the space, then it must be good. If it functionally meets our goals and objectives, then it must be true…thus good and practical (i.e. pragmatic).

In an acrticle by Sam Rainer, we states:

James’ pragmatism has helped change this [of theology of facilities] philosophy. Most modern church buildings are not theological statements. No longer is the starting point theology, but rather how—pragmatically—people will experience worship. Function is elevated over theology.

I believe that this is particularly evident when we look at the utilitarian “multi-purpose” metal building, gymnatorium, cafatorium facilities of the 1980’s and 1990’s. To me, that is the pendulum swinging too far to the opposite end of the spectrum than that of facilities to depict theology.

Story – the best of both words:

Is it too far fetched to think that we can have a facility that functions pragmatically, yet communicates a story?  If the culture of your church, the culture of your congregational makeup and your target market would be “sucked in” by stained glass that tells stories….then by all means, do that.  If your DNA and uniqueness is expressed by a different physical manifestation, then do that.  There is also no reason that a facility whose physical attributes tell a story cannot also be extremely pragmatic in its function, flow, circulation, seating arrangement and the like.  What is boils back down to is being intentional.…and that does not mean more expensive.  The challenge for most pragmatists is that they are just looking for function and are not as likely to take the time to drill down on the vision, mission, values, culture and story in order to appropriately convey them in their facilities. They think that cost effective (i.e. cheap) has to be plain in appearance and lacking creativity.  That is sad to me.

So….why can’t we have our cake and eat it too?