Bricks and mortar, steel and glass, mud and stone: none of these building materials has ever actually constituted the church. The church is made up of men and women—spiritual sisters and brothers—knit together into one family through saving faith in Jesus Christ. But when those sisters and brothers get together for worship, teaching, and fellowship, they usually meet together in places of worship that are often, but not always, buildings.
The architecture of the buildings in which various churches meet may tell us a lot about the beliefs and priorities of the Christian group that gathers there. The magnificence and soaring vertical heights of some cathedrals inspire awe while emphasizing the transcendence of a God who is sovereign—King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. Functional, informal, small church structures tend to draw attention to the immanence of a God who dwelt among us and to the humility of a Savior who carried his own cross. Some minimal modern church architecture even focuses on abstract qualities of God: his holiness or his identity as the light of the world.
Baptists tend to think of church buildings as functional meeting places and downplay the role the aesthetics of the building might play in witness and evangelism. But whether a church building looks foreign or is made in the architectural style common to the area has a tremendous impact on whether local people see Christian churches as their own or as imported into their culture. Just imagine a Greek Revival chapel in a Peruvian village, a Baroque church in a town in Ghana, or a red brick colonial sanctuary on a street corner in Taipei, Taiwan—all would be noticeably out-of-step with the local cultural context.
The Telegraph recently reported that, “around 13 percent of teenagers in the UK said they decided to become a Christian after a visit to a church or cathedral.” The youth interviewed said, “the influence of a church building was more significant than attending a youth group, going to a wedding, or speaking to other Christians about their faith.”
European Cathedrals and megachurches in America facilitate the gathering of thousands for worship. The public assembly of such large groups of believers is unthinkable in cultural contexts where Christians are persecuted or where the state closely monitors and controls religious activities.
In East Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, and in North Africa and the Middle East, church families frequently meet in locations never publicly identified as churches. Most often these groups meet in private homes.
Some of the earliest churches established in Asia originally met in homes. Paul, for instance, sent greetings from Aquila and Priscilla to the church in Corinth, “along with the church that meets in their home” (1 Cor. 16:19). House churches are frequently mentioned in Paul’s letters (Rom. 16:5, Col. 4:15, Phil. 1:2).
The size of private homes may limit the number of people who can be involved in a particular local church. Christianity Today recently reported that many house churches in East Asia that once met in homes to avoid the attention of the police have outgrown their domestic spaces: “Today, at least in the city areas, [former house churches] are larger—between fifty to six hundred attendees—and most often rent space in commercial buildings.”
But whether a church meets in a house, under a tree, or in an established building isn’t the measure of the church.
In Transforming Mission, David Bosch suggests the church is, “God’s experimental garden on earth, a fragment of the reign of God, having ‘the first fruits of the Spirit’ (Rom. 8:23) as a pledge of what is to come. (2 Cor. 1:22)”
Regardless of the architectural style of the building, healthy churches should serve as signs within their local community of the goodness of God’s presence among us while testifying to the hope of the coming kingdom in its fullness.
Eliza Thomas is a writer and media specialist who has served with the IMB for fifteen years. She lives with her family in Central Asia.