The Missional Function of Architecture: New Considerations for a New Era

by Matthew Niermann

It was one of those moments that you look back on in life with great pride. Early morning rain had forced our Saturday family time indoors. As the hours ticked by, we had progressed through our usual downtime activities—dance party, horse rides, wrestling, craft time, and book reading. 

It was one of those moments that you look back on in life with great pride. Early morning rain had forced our Saturday family time indoors. As the hours ticked by, we had progressed through our usual downtime activities—dance party, horse rides, wrestling, craft time, and book reading. 

The rain would not let up. Reaching into my bag of tricks to keep the fun rolling for my 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, I got their attention by placing my hands together, fingers interlocked downward, with my index fingers straight up, and told them to repeat after me:

Here is the Church, Here is the Steeple, 
(Then after flipping the hands so that hidden fingers become visible) 
Open the Doors…and See all the People.

Without pause, my daughter courteously informed me that I had it wrong.

I repeated the rhyme, and again she objected. She then proceeded to inform me that the rhyme should start with fingers interlocked and visible, and should be: 

Here is the Church, Which is a People…
(Then flipping the interlocked fingers down, leaving the index finger straight)
Who happen to meet in a building, Which has a Steeple.

As a father, and as an architectural design scholar who has been theologically and missiologically trained, my pride swelled! My daughter was grasping theologically-laden nuances of the church’s built form! But what she said next was a most astute observation. After thinking about and practicing the hand gestures for a few minutes, she looked up and suggested that perhaps she too had the rhyme wrong—perhaps the right way was:

Here is the Church, Which is a People…
(Then flipping the interlocked fingers down, including the index fingers)
Who happen to meet in a building, 
Which does not have a Steeple.

Then the penetrating question came, “Dad, why don’t churches in our town have a steeple?”  

A History of Missiologicaly-driven Architectural Decisions

Over the next twenty minutes, while my daughter graciously humored me with a bit of prodding from my wife, I told her of the all-too-abbreviated story of the relationship between the Protestant Evangelical missiological drive and architectural form in American history. While the story is too multifaceted and extensive to discuss in a complete way here, there is value in recalling some of the key moments where the missional drive has led to architectural appropriation and adaptations.   

Starting with a classic historical moment, the missional drive led evangelists in America to develop the use of temporary structures such as circus tents to host revival meetings during the Second Great Awakening, later adapting these structures into semi-permanent structures for tabernacle revivals—setting the precedent for valuing large, temporary feeling, inexpensive spaces.

By the early 1800s the missional drive led to intentional physical relocations among the unchurched in American cities through the practice of appropriating secular structures such as schools, rented vacant buildings, and other commercial structures—setting the precedent for some modern-day church-planting approaches.

In the 1830s, the missional drive led to a crossing into and appropriating the generally-distained theater building for revivals and church worship—setting the precedent for auditorium-style seating in churches and the use of dramatic supporting spaces.

During the post-revival periods at the turn of the twentieth century, the missional drive led newly-converted church members to take the success of the theater adaptations and redesign the edifice based on “churchly” neo-classical ideas with the aim of communicating permanence and embeddedness in the urban community. Now with more permanent structures, the missional approach expanded to attend to both religious and social initiatives—setting the precedent for multi-purpose “full-service” spaces within churches.

In the early twentieth century, the missional drive led newly-forming groups of fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and holiness church members to reflect on the challenges the poor and unchurched faced in attending the newly-formed “churchly” and “grandeur” churches, and consequently return to the use of commercial building typologies and the use of temporary structures—setting the precedent for much of contemporary church typologies.

Post World War II, the missional drive led experimentations in reaching the newly-formed suburban lifestyle dependent on the car through the placement of structures along major road arteries, by the development of large regional based campuses, and continued appropriation of commercial typology planning—setting the precedent and foundation for standard practices of contemporary church site planning.

And eventually, the missional drive led church members to embrace technological advancements and to appropriate it into religious structures with the purpose of further supporting dramatic potentialities, as well as extending the reach of the gospel message via broadcast, simulcast, and streaming capabilities—setting the precedent for the necessity of dark, windowless spaces.

I doubt that my abbreviated 20-minute answer to my daughter’s sweet question will be remembered in detail. However, her question revived my appreciation for generational integration of the missiological drive with architectural adaptations.  

As my explanation ended, the sun emerged and we were able to head outside. Although I was excited to head outdoors, I had difficulty removing her question from my mind. I could, with confidence, provide her with the historical developments that have led to current architectural trends. However, I left the conversation questioning the appropriateness of our contemporary missiological architectural decisions for our generation and generations to come.  

I began to ask myself: Are our current missiologically-driven architectural decisions too reliant on and influenced by their historical precedents and the “trends”they have created? Or are we intentionally seeking to integrate our missiological-driven architectural appropriations in relation to the realities of our contemporary situation?   

New Considerations for a New Era     

As I continue to dedicate scholarly research into the relationships between contemporary architectural design decisions in relationship to the church and its mission, I am becoming more fearful that, in fact, our missiological-driven architectural decisions are too reliant on historical precedents and their resulting “trends” and not taking into serious consideration the emerging realities of our present ministry fields.  

Specifically, the research I have undertaken, underscored by additional research by others, suggest to me that several architectural trends need to be seriously questioned for their appropriateness and effectiveness for today’s cultures. These trends include the declining preference for the “corporate” aesthetic by emerging populations, the need to consider spatial preferences for increasing Christian immigrant populations, and the increasing preference for “traditional” spaces have been discussed at some length. However, below I want to discuss two trends which have not been deliberated frequently that we may need to reconsider.  

#1. We need to reconsider the continued appropriation of the commercial/corporate architectural typologies for our site planning. The built environment is generally perceived in four zones: public, semi-public, semi-private, and private. Any generic detached residential house neighborhood demonstrates this. The street and sidewalk make up the public zones, the front lawns create a semi-public zone where temporary access is permitted, the front porch is the semi-private zone where people are welcome without invitation but only with intention, and the house is the private zone requiring invitation.  

Conversely, in commercial typologies—especially in suburban settings—there is an eradication of semi-public space. Commercial planning directly links public spaces with semi-public parking lots which require the intention of shopping to enter. As religious architectures have adopted this typology, there has been a similar eradication of semi-public space. Whereas historic religious site planning in America sought to provide a strong semi-public zone (e.g., church lawn, large-scale open doors, etc.), our site planning most often now reads: street and sidewalk, line of hedges, a church sign near the sidewalk, followed by a large parking lot, with the architecture behind the parking lot. In essence, we have reduced the connection between our spaces and the public and in its stead have placed very large spaces which require perceived intentionality to move into them.  

I fully appreciate the historical argument that commercial and corporate typologies are effective in removing boundaries that “churchly” architecture might create for unchurched. However, there are unintended consequences. It is of no surprise, then, that no matter how trendy we seek to make our “public” café’s within our churches, no one walks off the streets for a cup of coffee. It is of no surprise that personal invitation still ranks the most effective means to make people feel comfortable to attend a ministry event. Our spatially-required intentionality is a strong barrier for the unchurched—and a barrier we must seek to remove. Can we re-envision our parking lots as places of ministry, intentionally transformed into semi-public spaces intended to be the zone of interaction between religion and broader culture? Can we re-envision the basic site planning trends for new projects—seeking a balance of the perceptual zones?

#2. We need to reconsider the emphasis placed on our architecture relative to how it supports technologically-created dramatics. The Evangelical Protestant Church has a long tradition of appropriation of architectures that support the effective use of dramatics and spectacle—from the nineteenth-century adoption of the theater to the contemporary push towards integration of dramatic technologies such as sound systems, stage lighting, video, holographic images, and environmental projection systems. 

However, the evolution of our dramatics has created a very passive architecture—dark, windowless, multi-functional spaces. And this has worked well for its purpose. Yet, I wonder about its integration with the rapid changes in the American cultural context: changes in populations and religious beliefs. I wonder if technologically-driven dramatics is still the most effective means to reach this growing population of unchurched. A few observations and resulting questions:

First, the American culture is now a visually-based, screen-oriented culture. To that end, at what point are technologically-driven dramatics less effective due to the saturation of technology in our lives? If the principle behind dramatics and spectacle is uncommonness, would not dramatics in architectural design be more uncommon, and more impactful in a person’s experience? 

Second, with a visually-based culture, the primary language of culture is visual. Therefore, are plain, intentionally-blank architectures the most effective material means to consistently interact with the societies surrounding our structures? Should we be adapting our architectures to attend to a higher level of visual communication—especially on the exterior?  

Third, recent polling has demonstrated a fundamental change in religious beliefs—often summarized by spiritual, but not religious. Furthermore, polling also shows that the most common place people feel spiritual or feel the presence of God is in natural settings. At what point is our desire to provide dark, windowless spaces that support technologically-driven dramatics working against the basic orientation of spirituality? Can we adapt our architectures to meet individuals where they are and integrate interaction with nature in our spaces?

Fourth, if we understand that evangelism at its core is simply not information transfer about God, but is an encounter with and response to God, and if we understand that the objective truth about the gospel never changes, the process of evangelism is much more about helping people encounter Christ than it is explaining Christ—giving the arts a critical role in evangelism. With that in mind, should we not use the powerful art of architectural design not just as a support for technology, but as a mode of encounter in and of itself?

Intentionality for a New Generation—A Call to Prayer

I often reflect back on that afternoon with my family. Burned into my mind is the image of my daughter’s hands folded—representing the church without a steeple. Yet these little folded hands represent more than a church typology. These young hands signify a necessary oneness between prayer and our missiologically-driven architectural decisions. May we always seek the Lord’s discernment—and not just rely on trends—in the development of the missional function of architecture.  


Matthew Niermann is currently completing a PhD of architecture at the University of Michigan. He holds graduate degrees in apologetics, theology, and missiology. Matthew travels frequently, speaking on the relationship between arts and mission and currently serves Strategic Operations for the Lausanne Movement.  

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 2 pp. 202-207. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

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