Houses for Worship: Emerging Trends

Volume 40, Issue 3 :: by Richard S. Vosko, Ph.D.

What factors give architectural and artistic shape to church buildings in the U.S.: tradition, style, response to current events? Do they have anything to do with religion at all? Identifying emerging trends in architecture for worship is not an easy task. The winds that blow the state of religion in the U.S. are very strong and unpredictable. Old religious institutions are struggling to maintain identity, while new ones are not yet firmly established. What are some of the recent shifts in religious attitudes in this country? What internal issues do religious groups struggle with? And what are the emerging trends in church design? For purposes of brevity this article focuses on the Christian tradition, but the transitions are being experienced in both the Jewish and the Muslim faiths as well.

Shift in National Religious Attitudes

We could start by critiquing the latest church designs in the U.S., ranking them on just how well they inspire people or by discussing them in terms of scale, proportion, materials, colors, beauty and how they function. Instead, my intention here is to explore how emerging styles of church buildings, if they can be identified at all, are the results of various non-design-related issues. The factors that contribute to emerging trends in church design are far more complicated.

The gradual migration away from organized religion in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the European Union over the past several decades is now slowly and steadily taking hold in the U.S. It should be noted that although most people claim to be members of a particular religion, producing exaggerated percentiles, the drastic detachment from regular worship and, presumably, other church-related activities, is what is most noticeable. For example, Churchgoing in the UK, a survey taken by Tearfund (, a British Christian charity, found that 53 percent of people in Great Britain call themselves Christian but only one out of ten attends church weekly.

The Barna Research Group is one agency in the U.S. that has been tracking America’s religious behavior and beliefs since 1984. It reports that one out of every three adults (33 percent) is classified as “un-churched”: they have not attended a religious service of any type during the past six months. This exodus did not occur overnight.

In my opinion, the long-term reasons for this measured departure include but are not limited to the following strange bed-fellows: the end of the Cold War, family planning, nation-wide restlessness, a blurred definition of the separation of religion and state, and internal religious conflict. My assumption is that the overarching reason for people’s rejection of mainline religious practice has to do with their wanting to have more control in making decisions about their lives. This rejection is coupled with the inability or unwillingness on the part of some church leaders to respond to daily-life issues in ways that actually make sense. It is amazing that religions that maintain strict rules and regulations about personal moral affairs have managed to coexist as long as they have with citizens who, generally speaking, take pride in “rugged individualism.” Could it be that there is a collective fickle relationship with organized religion because of a capitalistic mentality and its accompanying marketing strategies? In this case religion would be treated as a mere commodity, where it is used until it breaks or is no longer required or applicable. Yet, as we shall see later in this article, some of the fastest growing religions in the U.S. are, in fact, significantly affecting how people make decisions about their personal lives. Here are the factors that, I believe, have caused a slow but certain shift in religious attitudes in the U.S.

End of the Cold War

The end of the Cold War helped reduce the subliminal fears U.S. citizens had of being attacked by the Soviet Union, thus eradicating some underlying tensions in everyday life. One imagines in hindsight that personal prayer offered some consolation during the Cold War, with the hope that God would stop the Russians from using the atomic bomb. Something similar happened after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Places of worship in all faith traditions were packed with standing-room-only crowds during the weeks immediately following the attacks, but no longer today. Does this mean that people seek God and turn to religion only when circumstances warrant divine protection or intervention? Or, does it suggest that most people want their professional religious leaders to offer them consolation in times of national tragedy before they go back to tending to their own lives?

Another factor that might have slowly affected the role of religion in people’s lives began in 1944 when the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (the GI Bill of Rights) made it possible for veterans of war to go to school. Having a high school or college degree would increase the opportunities for better jobs and higher incomes, more lifestyle choices and, in short, enhanced independence. For some, having more money and possessions prompted acts of thanks and praise directed toward God. On the other hand, financial freedom and education along with a craving to be successful in life could also have started to draw people away from the pulpit and the communion table. Their sustenance was no longer found only in the consolation offered in worship, but in material goods, human companionship, and civic security. Some might argue against this observation in view of statistics that show relatively high church attendance figures then as compared with today.

Family Planning

The use of advanced birth control methods (such as the pill, since 1960) provided women and men with greater control over their reproductive lives. This was important in establishing independence from the whims of nature, not to mention from religious instruction. The opportunity to plan the number of children in a family made it possible for women to continue to develop their own identities and careers outside the home. For Catholics, the 1968 Vatican instruction on human life would prove to be too much of a restriction, causing a departure among not only the laity but also the clergy, who could not honestly preach the party line to the faithful.

Nationwide Restlessness

Perhaps the ultimate test of faith among U.S. people occurred during the 1960s when the country was forced to deal with a senseless and unwanted conflict in Southeast Asia at the same time it was mourning the assassinations of public leaders on the home front. The U.S. was collectively restless, confused, divided, and afraid. Anti-authority movements raced through college campuses and into the public arena, challenging anyone who had anything to do with government and big business or with education and religion.

Also in the 1960s, the tireless efforts of reformers were celebrated with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination of all kinds on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. Later, in 1972, women’s rights were upheld as Title IX of the Education Amendment prohibited sex discrimination in all education programs receiving federal support. These laws, however, did not completely eradicate racial and sexist bigotry and discrimination, which continue to exist today.

While the government was being tested by acts of civil disobedience, riots, and protests, major religions struggled to figure out whether their doctrines and catechisms any longer provided a calming effect or even made sense to the faithful. Ironically, whether or not every congregation was sympathetic, many religious leaders were pro-active in rallying their communities against the war, poverty, sexism, and racial prejudice.

Religion and Government

One development now affecting all religions in the U.S. is the way some politicians in the Democratic and the Republican parties have exploited biblical texts and religious doctrine in crafting political rhetoric and party platforms. Politicians are employing faith-based argumentation and initiatives to appeal to voters on contentious issues like abortion, birth control, euthanasia, stem-cell research, same sex marriage, evolution, and global warming. Their rhetoric has divided not only members of major religions but also the general public into camps: left and right, liberal and conservative. Even the national election process has divided the entire electorate into red (conservative) and blue (liberal) states.

The discourse on the place of religion in public affairs is evident in the titles of best-selling books such as: God’s Politics by Jim Wallis, Is Religion Killing Us? Violence in the Bible and the Quran by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Failing America’s Faithful: How Today’s Churches Are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and American Fascism: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges – to name just a few.

The situation on the national scene is aggravated by the intramural struggles in some religious denominations. These factors will contribute to the empty-pew situation being experienced especially in the mainline religions. This flight will eventually affect the architectural design of church buildings.

Religion’s Internal Tensions

At the same time civic unrest held the U.S. captive in the 1960s, Christian religions were embarking on an adventure called ecumenism. For example, prompted by the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the Roman Catholic Church would begin to experience a significant transformation on a global level. I mention it here not because I am Catholic but because this Council was an ecumenical gathering of leaders and scholars, one that would affect the way major religions understood their relationship to each other and to the worldwide community. While the world was turning upside down, looking perilously small and fragile in the eyes of cosmonauts and astronauts, major Christian religions themselves began struggling with their own identities and slow transformations. Thus, the time-honored role of religion to provide a stable and calming effect during troubling and tremulous times was also in jeopardy.

The most notable change prompted by the Council was experienced in the worship practice of the Catholic Church. Plumbing centuries of scriptural, archeological, and liturgical scholarship, the Mass (Liturgy of Eucharist) was completely changed. This reformation would also reach into the worship patterns of some other Christian religions. Shared resources helped to distinguish what different religions historically held in common and what would foster further contemporary collaboration. These efforts would result in a sequence of dialogues between religions that continue to be both fruitful and frustrating. Key worship-related issues centered on doctrines pertaining to baptism and Eucharist as well as to ordination, ministry, the role of women, scripture, language, and ritual studies. These reforms continue and are now being informed by issues such as acculturation, feminism, and the arts. But ecumenical relations between the World Council of Churches and the Catholic religion began long before the Second Vatican Council – at the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910.

One facet of religious life that would be affected by these ecumenical collaborations was the environment for worship. If worship patterns were changing, if new music and ritual books were being written to guide the liturgical practice of a congregation, what would happen to church buildings designed in a different age? Although some of the more doctrinal issues would occupy quiet conversations among scholars, the people in the pews would now begin to notice modifications being made in their own sanctuaries. Some congregants would not be pleased with these physical changes or with the collaborative efforts associated with ecumenism. They would fear a loss of identity.

Over the past 40 years some of the compelling questions pertaining to church buildings have focused on what would have to be done to old and new places of worship in order to accommodate redefined church polity and revised rituals. Would the new environments satisfy the desire of the faithful to be more involved in all aspects of church life, including worship? And how would these “modern” places of worship honor centuries of tradition while implementing change? The struggle for a new religious identity in the modern world continues to be fueled by issues that are dangerously divisive within the religious family.

The search for a spiritual side to life has not been entirely addressed by the emerging liturgical or ecumenical reforms just mentioned. There is indication of a growing ennui with the multitasking lifestyle pace and the materialistic pressures that seem to dominate the U.S. population. Many people appear to want consolation and solidarity in their search for sanity and sanctity rather than the isolation they find in the lonely commutes that shape their workday. They are seeking a sense of security within a community framework that is based on shared fundamental principles, and they want their religious leaders to affirm them and support them in that search.

What people expect from their religion now, if anything, are contemporary answers to perplexing questions about life, success, suffering, and death. What is helpful to these seekers is a religious message that makes sense to them in plain talk. What is not welcomed is rhetoric from the pulpit that treats the congregants as if they were totally incapable of thinking for themselves. During this popular search for spiritual direction little help appears to be coming from many mainstream preachers. For centuries the Christian Church, like other faith traditions, has exerted a strong hold on the way people live. Unambiguous moral and spiritual direction is what people expected and received from religious leaders. Many polls now reveal that although this nation considers itself to have strong religious roots, something divine or supernatural in the hallowed halls of organized religion is difficult to find. Maybe this is why The DaVinci Code by Daniel Brown has captured the imagination of so many people. It is now apparent in the U.S. that science, medicine, education, technology, literature, music, and the arts continue to shape people’s lives at the same time some religions are losing the autonomous power they once had in developing the socio-ethical-cultural environment in which people live. This may be a neo-Enlightenment period of history, where religion is given a back seat in determining priorities in people’s lives.

While most successful global corporations have long eschewed top-down authoritative and hierarchical models, many religious leaders still cling to outdated management systems for fear of losing power and control over their congregants. Tensions between clergy and laity are exacerbated by the recent, much-publicized incidents that have occurred in some religions. For example, the pedophile scandal in the Roman Catholic Church has created a lingering suspicion about anything promulgated by Catholic authorities. Groups like Voices of the Faithful and Call to Action challenge church leaders to honor the principles of collegiality established at the Second Vatican Council by giving lay members more involvement in church governance. These movements are balanced somewhat by other common-ground initiatives that attempt to provide a rationale for bringing religion back into the public arena with a new kind of authority that is not entirely dependent on old-world privilege and status. In other words, in order to be successful, a religion cannot rest on its laurels.

The Episcopal Church in the U.S. is in the midst of an intramural battle over the ordination of gays and lesbians who live with partners, to the rank of bishop. The issue has spilled over into the worldwide Anglican Communion as the more conservative members seek to establish independent parallel churches. Other mainstream denominations, usually stable during times of transition, also seem to be wrestling with similar issues: how to adapt to diverse contemporary situations without forsaking tradition.

In the midst of this religious maelstrom one religious group seems to be gaining some strength: Protestant Evangelicals. These Christians are establishing a moral presence not only on the national political scene but also in the local town hall and…in courtrooms. The leaders in this far-reaching denomination have managed to recognize the issues that are preoccupying the minds and consciences of U.S. citizens, and have found effective ways to address these concerns. The agendas of the Evangelical platform have forged into the halls of Congress and even into the Presidential office, diluting the once treasured separation of religion and state in this nation. This brand of religion has spawned innumerable independent congregations throughout this country. They meet in diverse settings ranging from storefront churches to shopping malls to gigantic, Big Box megachurch buildings. The impact is redefining not only religion but also what a church building looks like.
So far I have attempted to list some of the obvious and the not so apparent causes for changing religious attitudes, which, I maintain, will eventually have an effect on the design of church buildings. Rather than impersonal religious rhetoric people want understanding. Instead of blueprint theology people want relevant direction in their lives. Rather than formality people want a sense of hospitality. “Once-a-week religion” is not enough. People want access to their churches 24/7 for other programs. And, during worship, there is a desire to participate fully, not merely as a spectator at a sporting event. For some, old rituals and worn-out religious symbols have lost their savor and are considered less important than shelter, comfort, and basic amenities. What model of worship or governance is reflected in newer places of worship? And, conversely, how does the design of a sanctuary empower congregants to be pro-active in their religions and in the public arena?
My premise is that the major ingredients for new church designs are found not in the ingenuity of the designer or architect but in the collective narrative of the congregation. How does the design of a church building respond to the stories, the experiences, and the desires of the members who make up the community?

Emerging Trends In Religious Design

In the January 2007 issue of the Church Business Magazine ( RaeAnn Slaybaugh compiled a list of “trends” in the church construction business. She drew on the advice of several planning and building professionals who were identified in the article. Here follow the emerging forces now shaping environments for worship, as identified by Slayburgh.

Facilities for Youths

The common denominator in the successful religions is the concerted effort to design programs and events for all youths. Religious leaders believe that such activities will attract families and will reflect the investment that the religion is making in younger generations, tomorrow’s members.

Structures are being designed not only to house educational settings but also to be places where teens, especially, can “hang out” – snack bars, game rooms, and play areas. There will also be rooms for administrative and counseling ministries. Obviously, not all congregations will be able to afford or sustain structures or staffs dedicated solely to youth ministry. In these places, there will be an emphasis on sharing available space within the facility. In some instances, a congregation may work out an arrangement to share spaces with a neighboring institution.

All-Purpose Centers

Ideally, new places of worship are planned to accommodate a variety of events that can occur simultaneously. Congregations with smaller buildings are planning for total flexibility so they can use the largest room for not only worship but also conferences, education, and even recreation. Nearby commercial kitchens are used to serve suppers in the same area. Designing such an all-purpose facility will require flexibility (in terms of lighting and acoustics) and durability (in terms of materials). Energy conservation has also become a priority, especially in buildings used all day throughout the week. Further, ample storage spaces, often overlooked in planning, are essential.

In some religions the idea of a flexible, all-purpose space is synonymous with a place that is not conducive to the worship of God. On the other hand, many of the newer Christian denominations are less worried about appearances or ambience. For them the high priority is hospitality and how effectively the worship service and other programs address their search for something spiritual in their lives.

Good Neighbors

Building a new place of worship is not as easy as purchasing property and pitching a tent. “Not in my backyard” has become the standard rallying cry of many homeowners in suburban communities who do not want to see a religious building erected nearby. The neighbors, rightly, want to know about the ramifications of a construction project in terms of environmental impact, traffic, and the strain on infrastructure. Increasingly, more local and statewide code and zoning requirements lengthen the building process and add to the cost of the project.
The design of a new building is also an important concern. If the structure’s materials, style, landscaping, and exterior lighting complement the neighborhood they can be significant factors in winning the support of the wider community. Additions to existing buildings can sometimes end up “squeezing” more architecture onto a site designed for less. The presence of religious buildings in a neighborhood can be a good thing, and can add to its market value, if collaboration among all parties involved is established early in the project.

Renewing Existing Places

The condition of the worship space is important in keeping members and attracting new ones. Some newer denominations believe that branching out to other sites will help spread the mission and attract more members. Lately, however, there is some evidence that congregations are deciding to sit still and invest in the property they have by expanding and repairing what they own. Religion is a competitive big business and consumers do shop around looking for the best service. Although it is usually more costly to embark on a renovation project than it is to build new, for some congregations the best solution is to enhance existing buildings. This is especially true in some downtown neighborhoods where real estate is more valuable. A decision to add on to existing facilities will require careful attention to the style of the addition as well as to how much it encroaches on the neighbors.

Something Old, Something New

It is apparent in many new Christian places of worship that little or no emphasis is placed on religious symbolism. Typically, there are no steeples, crosses, or art glass windows, and the interiors are plain. Some places of worship then look more like athletic arenas, auditoriums, concert halls, or convention centers. In brief, the Big Box style of architecture so apparent in the malls and in stand-alone stores like Wal-Mart and Home Depot has influenced the shape of religious buildings. There is an advantage: these buildings are cheaper and quicker to erect. The disadvantage is that they may not last as long as a building designed with durability and longevity in mind. The new Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles was designed “to last 500 years!”

But now there appears to be a new appreciation for some distinguishable style. Of course, this is what postmodern architecture was intended to do – add some classical touches to places that were bland and utilitarian but not so pleasing to the eye. The attachment of decorative elements, however innate to the form, will continue to be just that, veneer. Once again the question must be asked: How well does the architectural statement reflect the narrative of the existing faith community?

Although in some Protestant Evangelical congregations there is no rush to incorporate traditional elements into the design of the church, some mainline religions continue to value the assumption that a church must “look like a church.” Apparently, when it comes to describing what a church is supposed to look like, church architectural styles inherited from Eastern and Western Europe still occupy the imaginations of some second- and third-generation Christians.

According to some building professionals, there also appears to be a longing among some clientele for constructing more intimate settings for worship and fellowship rather than huge stadium-style meeting halls, and that these places should be designed with some of the traditional elements of religious building at the same time they take advantage of modern construction and energy-saving techniques. All in all, the expense of building a place of worship continues to grow.

Rising Costs

No doubt the cost of real estate, building materials, and labor has affected the market. Many congregations are forced to construct in stages. They also require buildings that can be expanded when more revenue becomes available. This cautious approach means that master planning and fundraising must be considered in tandem. What are the compelling reasons for embarking on a project? What is the mission of the congregation? How well do existing facilities aid the congregants in carrying out their mission? What is the long-term vision for the community? Will the current mission or identity of the group change in the near future? What is needed now? And, how much can the congregation afford to construct now?

Designs for Building Community

Probably the most telling trend in the design of places of worship is the incorporation of amenities that will build community. As I have noted before, the traditional elements once found in religious architecture are not now perceived as significant elements in church design. Although the mainstream religions will maintain a strong sense of symbolism, the newer Evangelical churches are concentrating on creating a sense of community. It is not unusual to find a bookstore, a coffee shop, or even a restaurant in some of the larger megachurches.
There are other issues that congregations in the U.S. must be concerned about in the design of future places of worship. That list includes an unpredictable economy, stewardship for the environment, energy conservation, care for historic religious buildings, and support for the arts.

Church buildings in the U.S. are changing because attitudes toward religion and religious practice are changing. Some religions are shifting gears in order to address the demands of a fast-paced and sometimes morally confused society. Others are standing still or, in some cases, retreating to the past in an effort to find a way to survive what is obviously a time of major transition.