The Changing House of Worship

Values have shaped sanctuaries, from the Puritan icon to the new megachurches

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A church in Windham, Vt., reflects its era's simple values.

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Churches have always been at the center of American life. Rigid New England pews played host to town meetings before the Revolution and afterward, and today modern megachurches have become virtual towns unto themselves, complete with swimming pools, cafeterias, and counseling centers.

The form of a sanctuary has traditionally followed the functional needs of the congregation, a fact that has made America's 330,000 churches as diverse and evolving as the religions they serve. "Build the building, but know, for God's sake, what kind of creatures are going to inhabit it," Pastor Robert Schuller told a symposium of religious architects at Yale University School of Architecture last month. "You are creating a sacred space for believers who have their traditions and their liturgy." Schuller should know: He preached from the roof of a snack bar at a drive-in movie theater for some six years before building his own megachurch, the Crystal Cathedral, in Garden Grove, Calif.

The size and shape of a church reveal much about the congregation inside. The Puritans preferred their churches simple, typically basic white with a steeple and a pitched roof to keep off the snow. The church itself was also a reflection of the early settlers' faith and lifestyle—pious, thrifty, and averse to comforts (like pew cushions) that would ill suit "sinners in the hands of an angry God." That simple design has become one of the most enduring representations of houses of worship.

Loosening up. By the mid-19th century, however, evangelical Protestants had abandoned the Puritans' bleak outlook on life. They put cushions on their pews, carpets on the floors, and stadium seating in their sanctuaries. They drew large crowds in the style of tent revivals and built churches to look and feel more like theaters. The arrangement meant the parishioners often looked down on the minister, a remarkable shift from the implicit power structure of the more traditional congregations.

These new congregations also designed buildings and stages to feature musical performances that were central to their lively services. At the same time, churches expanded their activities into more secular community events, building kitchens to help host them. Cooking facilities were considered irreverent and thus "very controversial at the time," says Jeanne Kilde, author of the book When Church Became Theatre. But by the turn of the century, in a precursor of what was to come, some churches even featured bowling alleys.

By the early 1900s, as evangelicals embraced modernity, Roman Catholic and Episcopal parishes were building more traditional churches. In the increasingly affluent suburbs, they were often heavy stone structures reflecting their European predecessors. Art was central, as were the sculptures adorning the walls. These buildings weren't designed for musical acts, although pipe organs became popular. And stained glass filtered the sunlight.

Eventually, the suburbs would also give birth to a uniquely American conception: the megachurch. Pastor Bill Hybels first held nondenominational services in an old movie theater outside Chicago serving fewer than 150 parishioners. In 1981, after an intense marketing effort, he oversaw construction of one of the nation's first megachurches, Willow Creek, in South Barrington, Ill.

Changing nature. Churches like Willow Creek are not only a departure in an architectural sense; they have radically changed the nature of worship. Rather than insulating worshipers from their daily lives by offering a place for solemn reflection, megachurches face those lives head-on, with lights, tv screens, and auditorium seating. De-emphasizing traditional doctrine, they aim to make worship more engaging and entertaining. "They are designed like shopping malls—immediately welcoming," says Michael Crosbie, the editor of Faith and Form, a religious architecture magazine. And like a shopping mall, they can accommodate a day's worth of activity.

The original megachurch, though, is the Catholic cathedral, and in recent years it has experienced a renaissance of its own. There are more than 190 cathedrals in the United States, and more have been built in the past decade—three—than in the past 30 years. Each of these new structures takes a different approach, reflecting the decision of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s to liberalize church design and create a more inclusive atmosphere. Since then, Catholic churches have varied greatly in design, from churches in the round to new floor plans with hemispheric layouts.