A faith facility is more than a place for congregational worship. Whether it’s a single room in Virginia or a megachurch in California, religious sanctuaries are an outward expression of a community’s faith, values, and purpose. But how that’s been accomplished throughout history hasn’t always been the same.
When Roman Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity in the fourth century, for example, basilica-style churches were erected in grandiose fashion. Often situated in affluent centers, they exemplified an admiration for the newly adopted religion as it fought to make a name for itself. As Christianity migrated West, Romanesque style churches – famous for their nave and transept floor plan – incorporated more durable materials that could withstand the harsh European climate. By the high middle ages, engineering capabilities had reached new heights, raising stained glass windows into the heavens and forever changing the way we experience churches.
The Protestant Reformation later gave way to pragmatic colonial-style churches that replaced the ornate design of the Romanesque and Baroque architecture with simple, single room floor plans ideal for a puritanical errand into the wilderness. These modest churches were simple to build, required fewer materials, and could withstand the even harsher climate of the American Midwest.
The history of church architecture is vast, and the same may be said for many of the world’s religions as they too planted their faith firmly in new lands. Mosques changed and continue to change, as do synagogues, gurdwaras, and temples. Studying these innovations often tells us something meaningful about cultural, social, and environmental shifts, as well as the values and situations that inspired them.
Since the diverse designs of the twentieth century gave way to literally thousands of styles of churches, mandirs and meeting houses, how will people of faith today leave their mark on the world’s rich history of faith facilities? How will our respective theologies, values, and efforts contribute to these changes?
From the convenience of a repurposed strip mall outlet to ornate cathedrals that transmit a sense of timelessness, the trends occurring have grown increasingly difficult to track. As the architecture of the past incorporated new technologies, engineering marvels and material expressions of theology, modern designs follow a similar and yet altogether unique pattern. Evading standard practices of religious design, facilities now incorporate new and innovative design features while maintaining something entirely special to our era.
St. Mark's Episcopal Church of Little Rock, Arkansas, for example, looks like many churches in the area, but its unique features become apparent only as its roof comes into view. This year, the community installed 10 solar panels that produce 300 kWh per month, reducing 4 tons of carbon emissions per year. Part of Interfaith Power and Light’s (IPL) Cool Congregations program, St. Mark’s became the first church in Little Rock to install solar panels.
Under IPL’s similar program, Cool Harvest, Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina built a fifty-four-acre network of community gardens that display their collective concern for sustainable food and water sources. There are literally hundreds of stories just like this across the U.S.
Just as the changing cathedrals of the Roman Empire adapted to new lands, faith leaders are implementing changes to reflect their theological responsibility to act on a changing climate. Both instances address the values of a community in their own right.
Greenfaith is another organization that assists with these climate-minded changes to faith facilities with their Greenfaith Certification Program. This two-year environmental leadership program not only helps houses of worship save money by lowering energy costs but also contributes to projects that decrease a faith facility’s climate impact through community gardens and solar panel installations.
There are many others who have adopted climate-minded solutions including Bernardsville Church and Florida Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., where Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Earl D. Trent, Jr. explained, “We are a mid-sized church, not a mega-church. If we can do it, anybody can.” And many others are following his lead.
Certainly, our “culture of waste,” as Pope Francis called it, has devalued our era’s place in architectural history with cheaply constructed buildings found in every city. High building costs have forced us to choose between a place in the annals of history and building with God’s creation in mind.
Some, however, accomplish both beauty and sustainability such as Oakland’s Cathedral of Christ the Light that incorporated special design features into their 224,000-square-foot complex. These forward-thinking designs rely on natural light that comes through specially angled windows and openings, flooding the facility with endless sunlight. Rather than pay for costly but efficient technologies that would put the builders over budget, architects designed slots in the cathedral floor to draw cool air up from the crypt below to circulate throughout the building naturally.
Instances of sustainable design come in many forms and vary in degree but all contribute in their own way to a growing design movement that incorporates our moral call to care for creation with aesthetic beauty we love.
What will be your contribution to religious design when the diverse architecture of today evades the categories of tomorrow? As historians now stand in awe of Rome’s majestic basilicas, they may one day marvel at the thoughtfulness of our solar panels, wind turbines, and sustainable gardens. If not for their aesthetic appeal, then for what they meant and the values they inspired.
Learn about the solar "contagion" effect and how faith facilities have contributed to America’s one million solar panels!
Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside.
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