Faith building

Throughout the past two thousand years or so, Christians have gathered in a remarkably vast array of buildings, and always for the same purpose – to experience fellowship with God and each other. From humble beginnings in home churches to the great cathedrals of Europe and even to less ornate contemporary buildings, Christian churches have sought to convey a message about the experience within. The continuing re-definition of the church building over time would seem at first to contradict the very constancy of God’s nature. But perhaps it is more a reflection of our own inability to fully express the divine in any medium. This inability is likely what has led to the prevailing notion that a church’s architecture is inconsequential. Our understanding is that God is not housed by these buildings – as other traditions would suggest – but that he dwells within our very selves. Nevertheless, our environment, including our built environment, will inevitably impact our lives whether we realize it or not.

This impact is not about determining the ideal style of architecture but about embracing and experiencing the artistry in front of you, and letting that point you to the Artist whose work is as varied as an evening sunset and a rugged mountain range. This has always been the purpose of religious architecture – to weave function and meaning together to create something symbolic that draws people’s minds to God, even without them knowing quite why.

Melding functionality with spiritual significance
Many of the elements we have come to associate with church architecture over the centuries have in fact grown out of functional necessity. The flying buttresses that flank the grand gothic cathedrals of Europe were initially designed to disperse the sheer weight of the stone façade that stretched ever higher into the sky. Similarly, the lancet (or pointed arch) which has since had much symbolic meaning attached to it because its shape naturally points toward the heavens, was an innovation that more efficiently distributed loads around wall openings than a traditional round arch did. This functionality does not take away from the spiritual significance of such features, but can cause us to appreciate the melding of the spiritual and the physical into something beautiful – an echo of something that our great Creator did in a garden a very long time ago.

When it comes to church design, the vertical axis is the most valuable tool at the architect’s disposal. In addition to the pointed arch, designers have included elements like vaulted ceilings and steeples to evoke that same sense that this structure is meant to point to something higher. Steeples often serve the dual purpose of directing the eye upwards and providing a convenient location for a belfry, due to the obvious acoustical advantages. Some Christian traditions use domes to accomplish a similar goal. The interior of the dome is commonly used to represent heaven above the worshippers, and is often ornately painted to underscore the effect.

 All Saints Anglican Church, Whitby, Ont. Traditional design that makes
use of the vertical axis with narrow windows with pointed arches, steep
roof pitches and towering steeple.

Shaping stories
If you are fortunate enough to worship in a building that features stained glass windows, be sure to appreciate not only the absolute beauty of the art form, but also the historical significance. In a time when the vast majority of congregants were illiterate, images in stained glass windows were used to tell the gospel story pictorially. Some churches used carvings in various locations to accomplish the same goal. With increased literacy, the emphasis has (rightly) shifted to personal reading of the scriptures themselves. But stained glass still serves the purpose of being a beautiful reminder of the God we gather to worship. A variety of window shapes have been employed over time to accomplish the same purpose. Many, like the trefoil shape, are symbolic of the Trinity.

Even the layout of a church can speak to a deeper meaning. Classic churches often had a preference for a cruciform layout (a cross-shaped floor plan), and this layout even shaped the format of the services in some traditions. More contemporary churches tend toward a more open sanctuary, which has the look and feel of a communal space.

Many of these traditional design elements have been shed as trends in church architecture have evolved. Mark Hicks, partner at Dickinson and Hicks Architects Inc., an Ontario-based architecture firm that specializes in church design, notes that currently “there is less demand for a specific type of church architecture. There is no building type that defines the contemporary church today.” Instead, Hicks has noticed that most churches are looking for “flexible building space, although some like some traditional building elements that can still be identified with ‘church,’” while noting that “other clients have preferred to use traditional church iconography in more subtle ways.”

Portico Community Church, Streetsville, Ont. A contemporary church design,
achieved through a mix of traditional and modern materials, and flat roofs.

Although one may be tempted to miss the more traditional elements that strike a clear and resonant chord with our perception of church architecture, the movement away from these forms affords the opportunity to embrace the varied nature of God. Since we recognize that he is far too vast to be defined by any one medium, art form or place, it is especially appropriate – and perhaps important – that we continue to experience new expressions of church architecture. And Hicks has been doing just that. “We have redefined empty warehouse buildings, converted schools, commercial and retail buildings and theatres for church clients. In fact, some churches even prefer non-traditional church forms.”

Even in a less traditional church setting, the building’s architecture still offers a unique opportunity to compliment our worship experience. The next time you walk into a church, take the time to consider the building – just for a moment. Consider the meaning behind the form. If the meaning is elusive, try attaching your own to the architecture. This practice is essentially how we come to associate emotion with any aspect of our built environment. A physical building that is unlikely to change over time provides the opportunity for us to anchor a certain mindset in it. This can serve as a cue to prepare our minds for the worship experience within.


  • Michael Saunders is an architectural designer and home accessibility consultant. He enjoys exploring the many ways our built environment impacts our lives, and helping people adapt their homes to meet their changing needs. Michael lives in Courtice, Ont. with his wife and three kids.

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