The Church: People and/or Building?

Interior, York Minster


“Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Look inside and see all the people…” Church is one of those words that, I think, generates a lot of tension with its usage. On one hand, the Church is a group of people. This is made clear in passages such as 1 Peter where the Church is referred to as the ‘living stones’ or in 1 Corinthians as ‘the body of Christ’. Scripture also uses other relational metaphors such as referring to the Church as the Bride of Christ for which Jesus returns in Revelation. The Church is a collection of people who in a variety of ways worship, have faith, and ascribe to the Christian belief system.

However, the church is also a building. The church may or may not have a spire, pews, an altar, or stained glass. The church may be old or new. The church may have been built as a church or started as something else and turned into a church. In addition, the church building may be turned into something else in due course. There is a temporality to the church as a building that does not exist when speaking of the Church as a group of people.  As a result, the former tends to be given precedence and priority over the latter.  By some, there is the conviction that the church building should ultimately serve the Church people.

While I do not think that one should forget that the Church is a body of people, I wonder if sometimes, this has been over-emphasised to the detriment of the building but more significantly to our understanding of the contribution our environment makes to our understanding of who God is, indirectly playing a role in shaping the people of God.

In the time when many of the great cathedrals were built, it was believed that the nature of the building was a key contributor to the worshipping experience.  ‘The fabric of the building and its embellishment become the metaphors for the institution and what it stands for; the building of the church becomes also a glimpse of heaven.’ All aspects of the church were intentionally there to inform the viewer about the church, salvation or heaven. (Martindale 144) For example, the Gothic style emphasized God’s transcendence, lifting the worshippers’ eyes to heaven by their sheer height and lightness.  The building said something about God and then informed the worshipper’s understanding of God–God is great, holy, and wholly Other from humanity.  And yet, in this place of worship, God was there to be met.  The decisions made about the environment were not only aesthetic nor were they only functional or pragmatic. They were theological – demonstrating who they understood God to be.

A couple of questions — What do our modern church buildings tell us about what we believe about who God is, and is this a valid correlation?  How do you think the tension between the church building and the Church body should be managed?

Image Credit This image is under a Creative Commons License.

*Source: Andrew Martindale, “Patrons and Minders: The Intrusion of the Secular into Sacred Spaces in the Late Middle Ages,” in The Church and the Arts: Papers Read at the 1990 Summer Meeting and the 1991 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, ed. Diana Wood (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), 144.


  • Sara Schumacher is the editor and a regular contributor to Transpositions. Prior to life in academia, Sara worked as a graphic designer in Oxford where her experience as an artist and a Christian raised many questions, ultimately leading her to pursue further study in theology and the arts at St Andrews. Sara holds a B.S. in Graphic Design and an A.A. in Cross-Cultural Services from John Brown University and has recently completed an M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD at St Andrews, focusing on church patronage of the arts.

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  1. says: Wes

    Thanks for raising these questions, Sara! To lay my cards out on the table at the outset, I think it is confusing and detrimental to use the same word–church–to describe people and a building. If Christians are the church, which they are, does it really make sense to talk about going to church? In addition, I think it is possible to trace various abuses of what it means to be God’s people to identifying church as either a building or what happens in Sunday morning worship gatherings.

    Having shown my cards, here are a few suggestions and further questions. First, I think it is important to look at how the word church (ekklesia) was used in the New Testament. From my own study, it seems that ekklesia referred to either the universal people of God described in various other metaphors as you have mentioned, or local gatherings of this universal people. Either way, the reference was to people, not the building. This is partly because the early Christian met in homes, and did not have a set apart church building.

    That being said, I totally agree with you that the places we meet for worship are important and formative, so we should not neglect this. But I think what we call these places should be distinguished from the church as God’s people, whether universal or locally gathered. In Spanish, there is a distinction between the iglesia (church) and the templo (temple, building) where the church meets. It probably would not work to call our buildings temples, but why not just call them ‘church buildings’? And in referring to our Sunday worship, why not call this our ‘gathering’ or assembly,’ which is one way ekklesia was used in the New Testament?

    Another advantage of distinguishing ‘church’ from ‘church building’ and ‘gathering’ is that many Christians around the world either do not have a church building, meet in another kind of space, or construct their space every time they gather. The question ‘what church do you go to’ is nonsensical for them, and maybe should be more so for us. Theologically speaking, there is only one church, and that is the church of Jesus Christ.

    I could say more, but I’ll leave it there for now, I look forward to your feedback on these questions and suggestions!

    1. says: Sara

      Thanks, Wes, for offering an alternative to how we identify ourselves as a body of believers from the place in which we express that faith. You’ve given the discussion a good theological basis.

      I’d like to push it more practically though — for the church leaders that I’ve spoken with who are wrestling with this issue, it’s not really down to definition or how to understand themselves. The tension finds itself in something like this — I met a recently-appointed pastor who has inherited a beautiful church building. The building regularly draws people in because of its architectural beauty. This is great for the pastor because he is committed to reaching and impacting the community around the church. However, the maintenance of the building is currently using up a majority of the funds they would prefer to use for mission. What do they do? Do they abandon this beautiful building for the sake of the church’s mission and does he assume then all the consequences of that decision? What do you think?

      1. says: Wes

        I completely agree with your concern to push this issue more practically, but I think our biblical-theological position on what the church is will radically affect our practical action. In other words, we really do need to understand who we are in order to live faithfully!

        So, if the church is God’s people, people who usually gather together in church building for communal worship, we should give thought to how we use buildings, especially to the extent that it builds the body of Christ. In regards to the practical dilemma mentioned, I think a creative solution may be to have a larger portion of the church band together in order to maintain and make use of this church building. This is something we dream about doing in St Andrews as well: having the whole body of Christ in this town (and possibly beyond the town) share the benefits (and the expenses) of the beautiful church buildings we have. In fact, if we understand the church as God’s people, then any given church building does not belong to one group of Christians, it belongs to all of us! I think this would be a wonderful opportunity for Christians to work together in order to enhance both our worship of God and our mission to the world.

  2. says: Sam Adams

    Thanks for an interesting post, Sara. I am generally in agreement with Wes and find it interesting that there is a push to consider church as a building, having been thoroughly indoctrinated growing up that the church is not a building (and that was in a large Methodist congregation with a very beautiful building). One important line of inquiry when thinking of cathedrals, etc., is to question the relationship of the church (community of disciples) to the powers (national, state, other) and what sort of arranhgement makes such establishment and permanence possible. My own Anabaptist tradition will readily point out that the establishment of permanent religious structures has often been achieved directly or indirectly by the violence of the state. Perhaps that sort of history should tell us more theologically about the church than do Gothic arches. By pointing our eyes toward heaven do such arches in fact divert them from the blood that was shed to make such building possible?

    1. says: Sara

      Thanks, Sam, for your comments and drawing attention to the dark side that made the beauty of the cathedrals possible. I have a friend who is an architect — in a recent discussion about church architecture, he told me that the reason we don’t build churches like they did in the past wasn’t because we don’t know how but because there is no longer slave labour and we couldn’t afford to actually build the structure. So I really do appreciate that cathedrals (like much of what we enjoy in the West) is built on the backs of the oppressed. However, does this history negate the potential of the church building to ‘communicate’ something about God?

      1. says: Sam Adams

        Thanks for the reply, Sara. Of course, on one level we can affirm that the buildings churches meet in do ‘communicate’ something about God. Often design elements have theological rationales or relate in some way to the narrative (or drama!) of God’s relationship with us. They are formed by our theological imaginations as much as we are formed by them. But what I want to point out is that the establishment, permanence, size, and artistry in all church buildings form and reflect the way in which we imagine the church itself vis a vis the world. So, if I spend my Sunday mornings worshiping in a glorious and ornate cathedral that has been around for centuries, and my experience of worship forms, in that context, my understanding of who God is, who the people of God are, and what the mission of the church is, then am I prepared to understand and imagine the people of God as an exilic and diasporic people? If I spend my Sundays worshiping in a large box warehouse with theater seating and I experience the powerpoint displays and electronic sounds of worship in that context, am I able to understand and imagine the people of God as a broken and restored people, sent on mission to the marginal and oppressed? Whether or not these are obvious examples, the point is that the ethical dimension of the church that Jim rightly points out is intimately bound up with the spaces in which the church gathers. They may indeed say something about God, but ultimately what they say theologically must necessarily be considered wholistically as part of the moral imagination of the church–both reflective and formative. That is, the spaces in which we worship reflect to us our moral assumptions and the history that has formed us, and they form us to see the world and our relationship with it in very real and definite ways. What they ‘communicate’ about God cannot be disconnected from this moral dimension precisely because God does not separate who he is from what he does.

  3. says: Jim

    I think it probably is confusing to use the word ‘church’ both for people and a building (or worship service), but it seems to me that what Sara has said could very well be in agreement with the kind of distinction that Wes has offered. (by the way, has anyone actually talked to someone who was sincerely confused about the difference between church people and church building?) That issue aside, it seems to me that Sara’s post points the important connection between the place where Christians worship, and the Christians who are worshipping (as Wes also points out). But I wonder if Sara’s use of the word church to refer to both a building and people doesn’t actually point to a problem with overemphasizing the distinction between church as people and church as building. If we separate too much the people from all the the material things that make their worship possible, then I wonder what ‘people’ actually refers to. To what extant is my identity as a person bound up with place? Is church primarily an ontological category, or is it also an ethical category? In other words, does being the church also imply living a certain way, or performing certain actions, because if it does then one cannot imagine these actions (these people who perform these actions) without space and time. It seems to me that being the body of Christ serves as a ground for ethical action because the members of the body of Christ are invited to take on the mind of Christ. So, while I can see that understanding church as a building can lead to overemphasis on the maintenance of a building at the neglect of the people inside it, I wonder if it is not also important to realize that the body of Christ requires spaces and times in which to perform actions (such as worship). And without these actions, would we still have a church, or would we only have a dead church?

    1. says: Sara

      Thanks, Jim, for the response and the thoughtful questions! While I haven’t met anyone who confuses the two, I have met a lot of people who struggle with the building and/or people issue. For example, should we take out the pews and remove the pulpit in a 19th century Neo-Gothic church (pews and pulpit that are original to the design and point to theological conviction that all should be able to see and thus have access to the preaching of the Word) in order to make our church more ‘multi-use’ so that we can bring the community in? As I’ve engaged with people who are wrestling with this (mostly church leaders who have inherited an old church building), the relationship is very polemic – an either/or situation – rather than considering how the church building serves, informs, and can play a part in the church’s mission or goal.

  4. says: Janice H

    What do our modern church buildings tell us about what we believe about who God is, and is this a valid correlation?

    While I think we have tried since the 60’s to get across the point that the church is not the building I have felt like churches went in such a direction that we have given the point that God doesn’t care about beauty. I teach at a Christian classical tutorial and the high schoolers often are at churches in gyms, plain stone buildings that don’t reflect the beauty and glory that we read when God gave the instructions to Moses about His tabernacle or to Solomon in the building of the temple.

    I think we have done this generation a disservice. Edith Schaeffer wrote about the things we could do to make our home aesthetically pleasing, a home whether it was a small apartment or a grand castle. A simple centerpiece on the table, whether fresh flowers or a collection of the children’s stuff animals helped and also was a conversational builder. We need to build that concept of the aesthetics in our children.

    I wonder what concept we do give of God when the building we call “church” is stark, functional, yes, but not beautiful, not inviting, not conversational building. Interesting that Christians in that same community, build homes that are functional, cost effective and yet beautiful.

    1. says: Sara

      Thanks, Janice, for your comments and sharing your experience. Mine is quite similar as I grew up in a church that met in a gym as well. What it did for me was serve to reinforce the idea that God doesn’t care about beauty and art — and more personally, that my talents as an artist were irrelevant (or even ungodly) when it came to church life.

      It’s interesting that you bring up the economic side of it – that people who would resist ‘beautiful’ buildings would invest in ‘beautiful’ homes. This is actually part of a historical shift that happened after the Reformation, and in the States, when the Puritans came over. Some see the reason for this shift is because the Reformers believed that God was available to be met anywhere, not just in the church. Therefore, making one’s home beautiful was just as much an act of worship as making the church beautiful – God could be worshiped and experienced in both places. While that was the original intent behind the shift, I’m not sure that same sentiment is still there. (If you want to read more about this, try Reformed Theology and Visual Culture by William Dyrness for a good survey).

      Thanks again for your comments!

  5. says: Dave

    I’m torn. I resonate with the comments about the necessity of beauty in our worship of God…an aesthetic of ecclesiology, if you will. Experientially, I appreciate the ability that a physical structure provides for a performance during worship, from a theo-dramatic perspective. Living in the U.S., I am also more than burned out on the institutionalized mindset of the “local church,” which (like everything else in America) is operated within a business model that desperately seeks to quantify the results of organizational vision statements by measuring attendance and cash-flow. The so-called “Church Growth Movement” has been the natural result of Western Christ-followers forgetting that the Church is who we are, not where we go. Believers are asked to maintain “memberships” to certain communities that evoke a patriotism to that institution that eclipses a commitment to God. Soon, it is almost as if the institution is what is being worshipped.

    I don’t know the extent of this problem in the European Church, but I know it exists there as well at some level. The assistance in corporate worship that a beautiful cathedral provides us has also haunted us with dispicable divisions in our fallen natures. Those divisions are tragic and harmful to the health of the Church, the one Church to which all those who follow Christ belong, and what was once a cathedral evoking majesty is now frequently a utlitatarian structure with no sense of poetry or symbolism.

    I can’t help but think that God is not pleased in what He sees.

    Thanks for speaking on this important debate.

    1. says: Sara

      Thanks, Dave, for your comments and raising really interesting points. I think that you are right to challenge the way in which buildings are ‘used’ to further an institution and is something that needs to be considered within the West.

      I’m intrigued by your latter comments about the European Church and your last statement — ‘what was once a cathedral evoking majesty is now frequently a utilitarian structure with no sense of poetry or symbolism.’ I would challenge that a bit and say that while it can be that for some people, the cathedrals still evoke majesty for others — and in a way that a gym never will. I was recently at York Minster and walking into that sort of space literally takes your breath away. Because of my own faith, I’m reminded of God’s majesty. For those who are tourists, perhaps the response is merely one of aesthetic appreciation but I would be surprised if ‘utilitarian’ would ever be a word used as a description, especially since the space overflows with ‘decoration’ – stained glass, carvings, stone works, statues, artwork, etc. Perhaps the inverse is a problem – that people either don’t see past the beauty to the one it is meant to point to or they find it too far beyond their own life experience that it becomes isolating and exclusive.

      Thanks again for your comments!

      1. says: Dave

        I wasn’t quite clear as to what I mean, Sara. Apologies. I was trying to reference the lack of ornate and aesthetitcally stimulating structures in the U.S., which are frequently replaced by simple, utilitarian structures. The theological motivation behind the simple brick-facade box with faux pillars that typically marks churches in the U.S. is that everything here is temporary, and so the Church should spend as little time and energy as possible constructing its buildings. This is done so that all energy (an energy that Peterson refers to as “Messianically pretentious”) can be focused on “evangelism,” but it nearly excludes worship. As you said in reply to Janice, it also communicates that art is unimportant. Tragically, the Western church leaves beauty by the wayside in the interest of the quantifiable results of the business model I referenced earlier.

  6. says: Sara

    Thanks, Wes and Sam, for describing so well your positions.

    Wes, I think that you are absolutely right and I’d love to see something of what you’re describing happen in St Andrews. The potential for that kind of partnership would be really staggering. I’m especially intrigued because the building takes on a unifying role for the people — something which starts to move the building (esp the cathedral) back to how it was originally envisioned to be – as a place for the community used by the community.

    Sam, thanks for the clarification. I’m reminded of Viladesau’s assertion that art can be a text of and a text for theology.

    (sorry I wasn’t able to reply to your posts directly!)

  7. says: Tim Allen

    Thank you, Sara, for your thoughtful comments! You mentioned how, “The fabric of the building and its embellishment become metaphors for the institution and what it stands for.” Not only might there be a valid correlation for the community of faith, but also for the larger cultural context. More specifically, I am thinking about how the particular surroundings of the church building, such as the immediate neighborhood and those in consistent visual distance of the church facilities interpret the church building. How do those in the neighborhood understand the message of the people from viewing where the people gather to worship? Take for example, a local church (people and building) that are several years old, having transitioned through a few leaders, along with staff, all holding different perspectives on ministry and building development (of course, taking into consideration local regulations for building development codes). In some cases, over a period of time, dilapidation can also become a debilitating metaphor for a community. The Old Testament is rich in biblical imagery that can stir the imagination of a people who are in need of revitalization where dilapidation has settled into the spiritual formation of the people and the development (or lack thereof) of the building and grounds. Nehemiah is a strong representative for providing a church community with a building metaphor that takes structural formation, as well as the building and identity of a people just as serious. A renewed emphasis upon pruning the grounds, weeding the surroundings, planting new trees, adding gardens; as well as painting facilities, securing structures, adding aesthetic value with new light fixtures, and updating audio/visual equipment can all lend themselves to encourage and help strengthen a community’s identity (Not simply nationalistic identities, but as the people of God – although many have argued that in Israel’s case, national identity is very much involved historically, as well). The people of God proclaim good news, in fact the best news in the world, along with carrying a mandate to share that news with neighbor. Redevelopment and structural improvement to church buildings can serve as symbols for restoration and healing, not simply as momentum strategies for attraction sake, as some skeptics might suggest.

    Your second question concerning the management of this tension between building and church may open more discussion for a theology of stewardship. Not in the sense that people are projects or buildings are eternal monuments. On the contrary, we shouldn’t think Nehemiah was disillusioned by the fact that walls and structures will one day decay or be destroyed, or that a people’s identity will once again be challenged, redefined, or renewed; but rather, the stewardship of the community, including structure and facilities serves as important metaphors, as you have stated, for the people of God. In this way, church leaders can think theologically, addressing all aspects; from those holding a teaching ministry in the church, to others serving in administrative roles. A theology of stewardship can help, not eliminate the tension, but to theologically take into account the different elements in the community’s life together. An article you may find interesting is found in the October 2010 issue of Christianity Today, titled, “The Art of Glory” where David Neff interviewed a Community of Jesus (referring to Cape Cod’s newly, completed Church of the Transfiguration) spokesperson. Thank you, again, for your article.

    1. says: Sara

      Thank so much, Tim, for such insightful comments and contributing to the conversation! I had not widened my thinking to include the environment beyond the church building – it’s a fascinating consideration. To add to your point, I’m reminded of a church in Edinburgh that I analyzed for an essay during my Masters degree. When it was built in the area, the land chosen was an awkward, triangular piece of land that sat right at the point of where all the roads in the area converged. The church has one of the highest spires in Edinburgh so what it means for the community is that regardless of where you’re walking from, the church building is in your line of sight — a constant visual reminder of God’s presence in the community. The leadership now fears that the building is seen as oppressive and imposing over the community but I wonder of the potential if they viewed it in the way that you suggest.

      Thanks for the suggestion of the CT article! I look forward to reading it.

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