The world is full of amazing architectural creations and the most impressive stuff takes the longest to pull off. Barcelona, Spain’s famous Sagrada Familia church began construction in 1882—they hope to finish the job around 2026! It’ll be due for some renovations by then, I’m sure, not to mention the changes the congregation will have gone through over the span of that gargantuan building project.
A piece of architecture that lasts becomes a community icon. It stands as a memorial to what was, is, or is hoped to be. City skylines become famous for towers, skyscrapers, domes and spires and eventually some such spaces receive heritage markers while others get a wrecking ball.
Architects see their task as greater than mere bricks and mortar. Moshe Safdie—the architect of Vancouver’s library square which looks like a Roman Coliseum redux—said: “As architects, we are responsible for shaping not only a project’s program, but also its larger civic role of enabling and enriching the community.” Bing Thom—a Canadian architect and moving force behind a new urban movement known as Vancouverism that seeks to make the most of limited space through mixed use of the retail and residential and heavy reliance on public transit and pedestrian traffic—has now been commissioned to redesign Washington D.C.’s Southwest area. Southwest was shaped in the post-World War II era—institutional, concrete, blocky, and not people centered—of which Thom pronounced, “This can’t be the way to build cities.” Many are saying the same things these days about the church structures and methods we have shaped over the last number of decades too.
In the architectural arena Thom is rethinking things. He says, “The developer will always look after the private space. Who looks after the public space? It’s the difference between a good city and a bad city . . . My client is more than the person who pays me. My client is society and the public” (Washington City Paper, Aug. 24, 2012). That’s pretty idealistic to be sure, but I would argue that Thom’s vision for the civic architect, to look after the public space, is a window into the call of the church and just may be what keeps our churches from growing tired, stale, and redundant in our communities.
The New Testament, beginning with Jesus in Matthew 16:18, chose a rather peculiar word to describe their identity: ekklesia. In the culture of the first century that word was applied to a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public space for the purpose of deliberating. They understood themselves as having been called out by God through Jesus Christ who died for the forgiveness of sins and reigned as Lord of all to deliberate and be about the work of the Kingdom of God in the midst of whatever locale they inhabited. They were, as Paul reminds the Corinthians, “God’s temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16). They were God’s architecture, built by the Spirit of God, for the glory of God and the good of the place and space in which they live.
So, what would it look like to be this type of ekklesia in the place you live? And how should the public space and its challenges become more core to your deliberations as those called-out ones who are being formed as God’s building in your community?
Phil Wagler lives in Surrey, BC where he is one brick in a building of people learning what it means to be with and for the place they live. He is a contributor on Mennonite Media’s Shaping Families.