What will future houses of worship look like?

Matthew Hoffman and Lisa Pisseri use the garden metaphor to create sacred place for the community, giving the neighborhood green space. A private garden behind the chapel promotes connection with nature, signifying the biblical location of humans’ first encounter with God. Image courtesy of Catholic University of America

(RNS) Over the past few decades the concept of a “church” — in fact, of all kinds of religious buildings — has been shifting, some might even say radically transforming, because of big changes in people’s attitudes about religion.

Surveys by groups such as Pew Research and Trinity College have shown a precipitous drop in people who belong to organized religions, particularly in the Christian and Jewish faiths and among those under 35.

Today the largest single segment of the population in the U.S. describes itself as “nones”: affiliated with no organized religious group. People of all ages are turning away from organized religion but they are not necessarily choosing to be atheists. It seems like they are looking for a more genuine, personal experience of the spiritual in their lives. Many call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

As architects ourselves and as teachers of future architects, we wonder what a house of worship in the future will look like.

Do we even need a building to be religious, to be spiritual, to practice our belief? Is there a future for religious architecture at all?

We put that question to a group of architecture students at the Catholic University of America in Washington. The big transformations in spiritual belief are being led by millennials, people just like our students.

We asked them to reflect upon their own experiences with organized religion, their own beliefs and the “search” for a new kind of church they might be engaged in. We shared demographic info about how religion is changing in America. We then picked a site in Washington for which the students could design a new kind of house of worship.

Students Sina Moayedi, standing right, and Ugochukwu Nnebue, standing center rear, present their project in a final review at Catholic University of America. Photo courtesy of Christopher M. Crosbie

The students revealed a willingness to greatly broaden the definition of what happens inside a house of worship, and why it was important to them.

Students found new opportunities to define a sacred place in such activities as performing music or making art; in moving their bodies through space in the medium of dance; in digitally connecting with people and events around the globe; in sharing with and caring for other human beings through the concept of “giving and receiving”; in creating a safe place for women who are victims of domestic violence; in landscape and nature serving as a setting for contemplation, reflection and celebration; in providing support to those seeking to strengthen their bodies and spirits through nutrition and exercise.

Conventional ideas about houses of worship were pretty sparse.

The new house of worship’s “design program” (the kind of spaces included) evolved from the students’ ideas about where the sacred might be found. The designs reflect some of the elements of contemporary ideas about spirituality, with a combination of places for the spirit, places to share community, places for outreach, places for creation and performance, places for gathering in worship and ritual, places to share meals and fellowship (like pubs or coffeehouses). The program was flexible in the sense that the students could decide how much space to devote to different functions and activities.

Because this was not a single-use building, but multifaceted in its spaces and functions, it should offer opportunities to design “in cathedral.” The term “in cathedral” was coined by author and educator Elizabeth Drescher and explored by Keith Anderson in his recent book, “The Digital Cathedral” (Morehouse, 2015). Being “in cathedral” recognizes the sacred in everyday life, in everyday places, the network of relationships among neighbors and even strangers, and the witness of believers beyond the confines of an enclosed sacred space. These new designs should be “in cathedral” with the surrounding neighborhood and the people who live there.

The search for the sacred through the design studio assignment resulted in what we think are some provocative, challenging schemes of what the new houses of worship might look like as religion in America continues to change. In fact, we had to admit that we, as design critics (of the boomer generation), might not be ready to accept the new kinds of sacred places and spaces that the students might develop.

When the students presented their projects there were a few debates between students and teachers about what could or should be considered sacred and what wasn’t. It was at that point that we realized that the design project to design a new house of worship had achieved some measure of success: to challenge and confront the idea that a religious building should be static and unchanging; to consider that every generation needs to ask and try to answer what it is, or what it might be. 

(Julio Bermudez is on the architecture faculty of the Catholic University of America and heads the Sacred Space and Cultural Studies concentration. Michael J. Crosbie teaches architecture at the University of Hartford)

About the author

Michael J. Crosbie


Click here to post a comment

  • I don’t find the structure of where I worship to be a compelling feature, as long as there is space for ongoing ministry to people according to their spiritual needs. Architecture is ever evolving no matter what the practical application, but as regards the Church, resources should be allocated carefully to promote the greater end in view, which is the salvation of souls, and care for those who have spiritual and material deficits in their lives.

  • This exercise is slanted to begin with using Catholic students only and the assumption being “house OF worship.” How about Houses. Worship. That is, people worshipping and practicing and growing their faith in everyday life — in houses, offices, community rooms, parks, coffee houses, bars, etc. Just like what you read about in the New Testament. There is a place to express worship through architecture, just as in any art. But creating houses of worship is a medieval, if not ancient Roman, concept.

  • The church (“the called ones” literally, which also in the Greek simply came to be understood as “town hall”) has always, and always will be organic in developing its space. There is no lack of permutation of the physical arrangement and housing of the gathering of the congregation along the range of the human imagination.

    Walls of buildings have never been a barrier to the full expression of the Church of Jesus christ, except to those segregated groups who have dwelt in them.

  • First of all, the students are not necessarily Catholic, the school is. Second, their projects reflect your concerns about worship not being bound to one sacred room. Third, you probably mean that _Christian_ houses of worship are a medieval idea. Other religions have had houses of worship prior to that. Although if the idea is actually ancient Roman, wouldn’t that mean they’re appropriate for Christianity, being as the religion came into being in the milieu of ancient Rome?

  • Still heavily Catholic influenced. And you’re right about other religions, like ancient Roman. Our form of religious observance — pulpit, sermon, sacramenal offering, vestments, etc — has more to do with ancient Roman/Greek religiioius rituals than Jewish and first century Christian. Read Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola for one. Or compare to Celtic Christianity.

  • Don’t mind me; just going through my marginal notes here, you guys, brothers Michael J. Crosbie and Julio Bermudez:

    (1) In the real world already there are very many “a private garden behind (a) chapel”, none, however, “signifying the biblical location of humans’ first encounter with God.”

    (2) In the real world anything but “a sacred space (gets) contained by stained glass”.

    (3) The claim, “the big transformations in spiritual belief are being led by millennials”, gives a new meaning to the phrase “super-duper over-exaggeration”.

    (4) I Google-d “where the sacred might be found” and “places for the spirit”. 0 Results.

    (5) If “‘in cathedral’ was coined by author and educator Elizabeth Drescher and explored by Keith Anderson”, who did “in mosque”, and “in synagogue”, and “in ashram”, and “in shrine”?

  • Do the authors know about the absolute revolution going on in the Roman Catholic Church’s new buildings? The era of modernist abstraction is completely over. The Diocese of Raleigh just built an overtly classical cathedral. The Diocese of Knoxville is doing the same. The new chapel at Mundelein Seminary was done in a classical and figural way. The seminary chapel renovation at the Josephinum was restored to figural imagery and classical architecture. The Diocese of Raleigh is building a new Gothic Revival seminary by architect Michael Imber. Architects like Duncan Stroik, James McCrery, O’Brien and Keane, Appleton Associates, David Meleca, Jackson and Ryan, Franck and Lohsen, Ethan Anthony, William Heyer and many others are leading the charge in traditional design.

    And to answer the authors’ final question, every generation that knows theology knows what a church is: a sacramental image of the heavenly Jerusalem, an image of the Mystical Body of Christ, a fulfillment of the Temple, and anticipation of heaven, an image of Ezekiel’s vision and Daniel’s mystical understanding. It is based on the pattern that God showed Moses on the mountain. It is the image of the Bride of the Lamb, the new heaven and the new earth, and assembling of the members of the Mystical Body under their head, Christ, signified by the altar. It is deeply biblical and an specific, theologically-driven thing. It is not whatever the uneducated masses emote that it should be. And if a church architect doesn’t understand what these things mean, they shouldn’t be designing churches.

    Making churches that are empty, vague, un-theological and anti-architectural–that is, churches which are “spiritual but not religious”–just because millennials are unlettered in theology and undisciplined in praxis is a sell-out. We would not tolerate it in a surgeon if he said “I’m for health but don’t know anything about it.” Allowing the full, developed, particular, theologically-rich and essential reality of the Faith and its art to be encountered is the answer. Raise people up through great examples which challenge them to understand. Don’t dumb them down through self-imposed mediocrity.

  • as a committed Catholic, I find very little to be Catholic in this article. In fact, Catholics do not build “houses” of worship at all (a Protestant term, really)…they build sacramental images of Christ in architectural form. A highly developed theology of the church building has been developed over the years for ecclesial groups with a developed sacramental theology. This is not merely ancient, but essential to the theological mission. A wonderful person to read on this is the author Jean Hani, especially his “Mystery of the Christian Temple.”

  • Were the house churches established by Christians [aka “The Way”] during the first generation after Jesus any less valid than the elaborate imagery you describe?

  • Lots of confusion in the mix….. as usual,using facts.
    Only four kinds of churches in scripture.
    Dead, sleeping, sleep walking and Glorious Church.
    Anyone know which one Jesus returns for?

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.