Auditoriums?

There is no distinctive church architecture today.   These days churches can’t be identified by the stained glass, steeples, altars, etc. that have been characteristic of “traditional” protestant church buildings. 

Part of the reason for that, of course, is that there are fewer and fewer folks sitting in pews on Sunday.  As church attendance plummets it seems that only the “megachurches” and “seeker-friendly” churches are hanging on.  Those churches do not typically occupy traditional structures.  Today’s megachurches are more likely to be in large non-descript buildings (on what will be often referred to as their “campus”).  Seeker-friendly churches are more likely to be in coffee shops or old movie theaters.

Whatever characteristic church architecture history records for these times,it isn’t likely to look like the churches folks of my generation grew up in.

This seems like something new, but, at least among Methodists, it isn’t. 

Reading Ted Campbell’s book on Wesleyan beliefs I discovered this:

In this period (the late 19th Century), Methodists began to adopt a variety of architectural forms, and the variety of forms displays the ecclesiological tensions examined previously in this chapter….One form that Methodists began to embrace in the later nineteenth century was that of the public auditorium, a building that looked more like a theater or music hall than a sacred space and in fact was intended to attract persons who might feel uncomfortable in more traditional church architectures….The auditorium became so popular among Methodists by the end of the nineteenth century many had come to use the term “auditorium” to refer to their worship space.

I’d never known that.  A hundred years ago Methodists were building the 19th century equivalent of today’s “seeker sensitive” churches and were calling their churches “auditoriums.”

But here’s what especially got my attention.  Campbell identfies as an example of one such building the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Of course I knew the Ryman as the Mother Church of Country Music, the location of the Grand Ole Opry at its peak, but I had no idea it had once been a Methodist “church.” 

The Grand Ole Opry was broadcast from the Ryman for over 30 years.  The most famous performance there was probably Hank Williams’ debut in 1949 at age 25.  He was a literal show-stopper and was called out for six encores of “Lovesick Blues.”  Because of his heavy drinking Hank was fired by the Opry three years later and his membership was revoked.  A few months later he was dead.  Of course all the country greats played the Opry and millions of families huddled around their radios every Saturday night to listen to their heroes.  I now know that those who sat in the Ryman to see those shows were literally sitting in pews. 

I wonder what church architecture will be like 100 years from now. 

Whatever direction the church takes, history suggests that it is unlikely that the megachurch model will endure.  Some believe house churches are the future.  Some anticipate some sort of rise in neo-orthodoxy. 

It’s anybody’s guess.

Maybe someday folks will be surprised to discover that some well-known building in their world was originally constructed as a church.

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