Apologetic Buildings – Introduction

Think about the last time you walked into a church building: not your own church building, but one that was new to you. What did you notice? What information was there for you to read or listen to? What did you learn?

My guess is that you learned something about the significance and history of the building, perhaps how long it has been there and what architectural style it shows. You might have learnt something about significant people who are, or were, associated with the building. Perhaps any important artefacts were described.

This is all lovely, especially if you are interested in history and heritage. I’m not really that interested in the history of buildings, and I tend towards suspicion of anyone with an unquestioning devotion to heritage. Actually, my feelings about history and heritage are more complicated than that, so I’ll come back to this subject another day.

Is communicating history what a church building is really for?

As a priest-in-charge, I am responsible (in partnership with the congregations) for five ancient and beautiful buildings, all situated in a tourist destination, with hundreds of people walking past each day. We try to keep the buildings open, so people can come in and enjoy them. I can’t help thinking that we should be doing more.

Shouldn’t a church building be a place that speaks more of Christianity than of history?

This is the core of my project. Most tourists come into church buildings during the week when they are empty of the regular church community. If they came on a Sunday morning, they would find a group of people at worship. They would find a Church: a gathered community. During the week, they only have the building: the container for the Church. In order to communicate Christianity, the empty church building has to do all the work.

Imagine it is your birthday and you are presented with a box of Lego. Inside the box are all the bricks and instructions you need to complete the kit. You tip them out and get going with the build. At the end, you have your new Lego model and you have an empty box. Look again at the box and you can see that it shows you what was inside, it gives you a vision for how the contents will look, it might offer suggestions for which kit to get next. The box is beautiful and informative, but it is not the Lego.

I don’t think our church buildings do as good a job of show-casing Christianity as a Lego box does show-casing Lego. Could we change this?

Can a church building be apologetic? If so, how?

Apologetics is the branch of theology concerned with defending and articulating the Christian faith. Can a church building, even when there are no people inside it, do some of this work? Can a church building point people towards God, tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth, and offer a glimpse of the presence of the Holy Spirit?

The scope of the project

I’m writing this at the beginning of the project, with only vague ideas of which direction I am going in. Here are a selection of areas I am planning to look into.

  • Theology of place
  • Critical Heritage Theory
  • Pilgrimage
  • Church Tourism
  • Apologetics

I am also planning a few trips to other historic cities in search of places that are already doing this well.

I hope to gather examples of good practice and to develop ideas for churches to use. I will be focussing on low-cost things that can be done without professional expertise, mindful that most churches don’t have much of a budget for this kind of thing.