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.

9 comments on “Auditoriums?

  1. Bob Braxton says:

    in NJ 1975-1980 I played guitar and sang with children:
    the church is not a building
    the church is not a steeple
    the church is not a resting-place
    the church is a people
    I am the church
    you are the church
    we are the church together
    all who follow
    all around the world
    we are the church


  2. shoreacres says:

    Of course, it’s entirely possible to flip the coin on this one. On the one hand, churches may be assuming new physical form because of fewer members and a desire to reach out to those “put off” by the traditional churches.

    On the other hand, churches may be losing members because they have lost their distinctive message, and their architecture is beginning to reflect their desire to become “acceptable” in society by changing their message.

    There’s a community church just down the road from me. It’s huge, it’s brick and glass boxy, and its name is prominent along the side: That’s it. No cross, no other sign, nothing. I went once, just because. There was no mention of Jesus in the message for the day, which could be boiled down to, “God wants you to be rich, and here’s how you can make it happen”.

    On the other hand, last Saturday I went with a friend to central Texas, where we did a little self-guided tour of the so-called “painted churches”, traditional German-Czech country churches that are artistic gems inside. We visited a few others, too, including a Lutheran church in Swiss Alp and a very old Methodist chuch in Ammannsville. There were a few other folks visiting, and at one of the painted churches, I saw a fellow standing on the sidewalk, mouth open, just staring at it. I said something innocuous like, “Pretty, isn’t it?” and he said, “It makes me want to pray, and I don’t even go to church.”

    I think it’s worth thinking about.


    • Bill says:

      The painted churches sound lovely. I haven’t heard of them before.
      I completely agree with your comment. I could go on about these things at great length. At least for today I’ll spare you that. 🙂

      The megachurches seem to be thriving while the mainline churches die out, but their “prosperity” may be short-lived. A now well-known study done at Willow Creek showed that while they were doing well at getting people to come to services, they were failing to make disciples.

      As I wrote, some think that house churches or some form of neo-orthodoxy are the future. A surprising number of folks coming out of my Wesleyan seminary lately have become Greek Orthodox. Cherie is a Quaker who says if she weren’t a Quaker she’d probably be Episcopalian. 🙂


  3. Annie B says:

    Our pastor in Nashville, where we lived until a few years ago and worshiped in a warehouse, used to stress that very thing referenced above in the old children’s song: we are the church together, a church without walls. He’s right, of course. That said, now I work among Catholics, whose deep appreciation for tradition and the mystery of God is well captured by the structures within which they worship. There’s a place for that, too! Btw, the Ryman Auditorium still has the old pews. It’s beautiful, inside and out…


    • Bill says:

      I’d love to visit the Ryman someday. So much great history there. Preferably when Emmylou Harris is performing. 🙂

      I grew up in the Methodist Church–traditional architecture, stained glass, steeple, altar and pulpit, liturgies, etc. Then for a few years we attended our small town’s version of a megachurch–services in a refurbished gym, rock music, no liturgies, no church calendar, no lectionary, etc. It was energizing and refreshing. Now we’re affiliated with a missional community/house church. It’s an inner city ministry and we’re country folks, so we’re outside the core group. Those in it are disciples in the true sense of the word. The Sunday worship service is quiet, contemplative, liturgical and takes place in a home. It’s refreshing in an entirely different way.

      I don’t think there is any one “right” way to do church. I think there is great value in preserving our traditions and the witness of 20 centuries, but I also see the risk of letting it go stale.

      It’s a big tent.


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