A Sermon in the Form of Architecture

Volume 50, Issue 2 :: Loren Ahles, FAIA, design principal; John Justus, AIA, principal HGA Architects and Engineers

In 1990, a dynamic Methodist associate pastor, Adam Hamilton, was appointed to create a new church in Leawood, Kansas. The bishop who arranged the appointment, excited by the young pastor’s vision for the new Church of the Resurrection (then, fittingly, meeting in a funeral home), predicted the congregation would grow quickly—to 500. Today, the 20,000-member congregation is the largest United Methodist congregation in the United States.

Over the years, the Church of the Resurrection moved to several locations, always with an eye toward one day establishing what Hamilton calls their “permanent sanctuary.” During that time, Hamilton traveled frequently across Europe and the Middle East and thought deeply about what architectural and symbolic characteristics create the most timeless and inspiring sacred architecture.

Hamilton also pored through the Bible for God’s instructions on what a temple should look like and the ways in which buildings mattered to Jesus. All of which, Hamilton says, “led us on our path to designing the new permanent sanctuary.” Hamilton’s vision for the sanctuary was to reinforce the space as a garden, alluding to the three gardens of Creation, Crucifixion/Resurrection and Revelation that are referenced in the Bible.

Moreover, the new sanctuary—which was to be constructed on the church’s existing campus—had to seamlessly merge several contradictory impulses: generate a sense of community, with no individual more than 100 feet from the preaching position, despite its 3,500 seat capacity; incorporate religious iconography and abundant natural light as well as 21st century media and performance technologies; and be grounded in a specific sense of place while conveying what Hamilton calls the “thin space” between heaven and earth, which implicitly connects individual worshippers with God and “proclaims the gospel by its very design.”

In short, Hamilton asked for a sacred space with the breathtaking sense of awe, sense of the holy, religious iconography, and artistic architectural detailing associated with cathedrals, but also with the intimacy associated with small, close-knit communities.

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Entering the Story

Working hand-in-hand and iteratively with Hamilton and the Church’s building committee, HGA Architects and Engineers—who were selected because of their backgrounds in religious architecture and the design of performing arts centers and concert halls—created three designs. In each, the functional diagram was the same: a majestic, elliptically shaped, 44,958-square-foot sanctuary that brought each of the 3,500 seats within 100 feet of the chancel.

The three exteriors were different, but clearly one was the favorite: seven stainless-steel “sails” inspired by the seven days of creation and the seven days of Holy Week, rising 104 feet to cradle the sanctuary and create its magnificent interior volume. As Hamilton explains, “The sails rise up toward the heavens, like worshippers reaching up to God, and also wrap around the sanctuary so that worshippers, on entering, step into the garden, into the story and are enveloped in God’s embrace.”

The dynamic exterior form conveys the church’s welcome and call to gather. The semi-matte finish on the soaring, stainless-steel sails and their rotational shape catch the changing angles of the sun and colors of the sky throughout the day. The sails are separated by slot windows to bring natural diffused light into the sanctuary, while drawing the eye upward for reflection, prayer and adoration.

On the northwest side of the building, the sails also bookend the 93-foot-wide/35-foot-tall stained-glass window, custom designed to incorporate sacred symbols and narrative elements that tell the Bible’s Resurrection story. The sails are grounded in a 35-foot-tall Kansas limestone base to reflect a sense of the “thin space” between heaven and earth in the material contrast between the earth-bound naturally fossilized limestone and the stainless steel sails imbued with an angel-hair finish.

For parishioners, the sense of procession into worship begins at the site. In the parking area, a series of linear, naturally landscaped splines extend—like the branches of a tree—to an arrival plaza and cloistered exterior worship garden that serves as an outdoor anteroom. Precast flatwall panels on the lower part of the building around the sanctuary tie the new building in with the existing campus structures. Inside the front entrance, the exterior limestone base continues in the narthex, to help worshippers transition from the outside secular world to an interior spiritual one.

The limestone also creates a collar of space housing small chapels and utility spaces, while also enclosing the sanctuary. Clerestory windows ring the collar, washing sunlight down the stone walls, which are slightly battered to accentuate the transition from the narthex to the sanctuary. White-oak doors 16-feet-tall and framed with glass open into the sanctuary, with immediate views on the baptismal font and colored glass window, which are on axis. As the processional doors continue opening, and worshippers move forward, the fullness of the sanctuary is revealed.

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Ancient Feeling, Forward Thinking

Inside the elliptical sanctuary, community and intimacy coexist with majesty and awe. Three levels of seating—main floor, parterre and balcony—were organized for flexibility and community, essentially creating three rooms in one beneath the cathedral-like interior volume. As Hamilton said, “If we’re going to reach millennials, who are interested in community and don’t want to worship in a large space, it’s critical the sanctuary has a feeling of closeness. When I’m preaching, I want to look out and see everyone.”

The seats are organized into 44 parishes (each holding groups of about 80 worshippers). Underneath the balcony, motorized translucent shades can be electronically closed, shutting off the parterre section and creating a smaller sanctuary of 1,200 seats for special ceremonies such as marriages, funerals and baptisms. The balcony reflects the Biblical upper room, where 120 believers welcomed the Holy Spirit following Christ’s death. The balcony’s stainless-steel railings include flame imagery that references the Holy Spirit. The balcony can be left dark to create a greater sense of intimacy below.

The seating all faces the thrust chancel, with the 3,260-square-foot Resurrection Window installed above a 15-foot-tall/93-foot-wide video display. Comprised of more than 5,000 pieces of painted, fused, etched and glazed glass, the window tells the Bible’s stories from Genesis 1 to Revelation 2. Both the traditional window and the high-tech media screen are flanked by aluminum panels fabricated with a tangled vine motif that reflect the Resurrection Window’s garden theme and the idea found in John 15 that the church is God’s vineyard, Christ is the vine, and the people are the branches. The use of these panels allows sound from the organ speakers they conceal to flood the sanctuary.

A room-darkening curtain behind the window can be opened and closed for effect. Natural daylight softly enters the room through the colored glass and slot windows. A 10- X 31-foot section of the chancel floor was built on hydraulic lifts, to allow orchestra seating, props for dramatic presentations and other items to be raised into the sanctuary from the lower level of the church. From a booth at the back of the sanctuary, producers control cameras, graphics, hymn lyrics and video material that appear on screen.

The altar, constructed of Kansas limestone with fossils intact, is slightly curved to resemble the triclinium (the u-shaped formal dining tables of Christ’s time), a reminder of the kind of table that was likely used for the Last Supper. The top of the altar is bronze (also used in the baptismal font bowl and pulpit), in remembrance of the altar in the original Tabernacle that Moses was instructed to build, and later in the temple Solomon built. The altar’s three stone legs were inspired by an altar in one of the chapels at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth and represent the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The Kansas limestone baptismal font, in front of the chancel, is patterned after the font in St. Andrew’s Church in Epworth, England, which was built in the 1600s. In 1703, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was baptized by his father Samuel, the rector at St. Andrew’s. John’s brother Charles was also baptized there several years later. Rather than a static bowl, the font uses water that bubbles up, like a spring, a reminder of Jesus’ offer of “living water”.

The speaker system, theatrical lighting with catwalks, and acoustics were carefully calibrated and designed to accommodate a variety of services (including the spoken word of the worship leaders, traditional acoustical music events, large-scale holiday pageant and progressive music concerts). In essence, the new sanctuary creates the scale, theatrical ability and audio-visual opportunities of a performing arts space or auditorium. But at the same time, the space calls on such religious historic precedents as the natural light, symbolism, volume and materiality associated with the world’s great sacred spaces.

Religious Landmark

With the completion of the permanent sanctuary for Church of the Resurrection, the symbolic center of the congregational community is complete. A flagship facility for United Methodists across the country and a new beacon for the community of Leawood, the building is also a landmark destined to impact everyone who passes by.

As Hamilton explained, “We want people to tell others about the meanings embedded in the building, what the building stands for, the stories it tells. Our hope was to create a sanctuary whose architecture is both breathtaking and breath-giving—where people sense God’s presence before word is spoken or a note played on an instrument; A building that, generations from now, people will still enter to find it arrests them, engages them and moves them, a building that stands the test of time.” That, in other words, Hamilton has said, “A sermon in architecture.”