We could debate over when Church buildings appeared. There's some evidence to suggest they began to appear during the interlude in persecution that occurred in the 3rd century between Decius and Diocletian.
But it's clear that they did not appear in earnest until the Constantinian period. The notion of Church or Sacred Architecture is also a development born of this period. This is the period that begins to confuse the idea of 'church' with a building. The Constantinian Church began by adopting the architecture of the Roman basilica and then over time it developed into an elaborate and very rich although theologically dubious tradition.
The Reformation failed to address this question. It must be granted the Reformed perhaps more than any other group made an approach to New Testament simplicity but they were still largely captivated by the Constantinian vision. Grand buildings dominating the skyline, the classic architectural vision of Sacralism was retained.
The Puritans and Quakers adopted simplicity and indeed their buildings are preferable and more in line with the New Testament than what we find in other Protestant traditions. The idea of the 'Meeting House' conscientiously breaks with the idea that the building is somehow sacred. We can keep with that way of thinking by referring to the main portion of the building as the auditorium rather than the sanctuary etc...
For many the 'pulpit' has become a sort of sacred spot. Others focus on windows and grandiosity.
As an adherent to the Sufficiency of Scripture and the Supremacy of the New Testament I am categorically opposed to any notion of sacred architecture or a special building designated for worship. The very notion is theologically problematic and smacks of Judaising. Let's face it, to most Christians the building is a temple and until recently you dressed as one going to a temple or sacred place.
This doesn't let the contemporary Church movement off the hook. Granted they've abandoned the 'Temple' model, at least in part. But they've replaced it with the theatre, the grand hall of entertainment for music and drama. Their casualness is just as much a production as a High Churchman in his robes. Their seating and stage arrangement is just as much an element of theatrical display and production as the nave and high altar of medieval churches.
They're doing the same 'type' of thing but in a different cultural context and with a modified theology. The impulse, the error is the same. Once again we must condemn any notion of a special building, a performance, sets and props etc...
New Testament worship is very simple in terms of the tangible. We have the body of believers and the Word. We have two visible forms of the Word, water, and the bread and wine of communion. And that's it.
We have no Levites, no priesthood, no altar, no sacred building, no other symbols other than what has been provided. Any additions deny the sufficiency of Scripture and in every case replicate and thus detract from the meaning of the symbols God has provided. Even the cross, largely unknown to the early Church is not necessary or desired. The Bread, Wine and Water demonstrate everything we find with cross and in fact do it better.
I live in an area with a declining population. Grand old church edifices are in a state of decay. The congregations are too small to support a full-time pastor let alone maintain and heat these very expensive and inefficient buildings. Many congregations would have already folded without their buildings. The building keeps them going so to speak and once the building is gone they 'collapse', which is telling.
For many the only way they keep going is the congregations have old trust funds established many years ago when their congregations were larger. By investing in the markets they've built a nest egg and this is what they use to make repairs etc...
Many are failing and it only takes one big roof replacement or something along those lines and they're dipping into the principle. After that, things begin to quickly decline. In many cases this is a good thing as these so-called churches are little more than neighbourhood social clubs and dens of heresy.
Though I avoid roofs now, I've certainly climbed up on many over the years and I'm always in awe of some of the roofs on these so-called church buildings. Grandiosity and sacredness seem to go together in the sacral mind. I often stop and watch roofers working on these buildings and reflect for a moment on both my age and the gratitude I feel for not having to be up there with them.
Here's a 'sacred' building and yet who works on it?
More often than not the workers are rank pagans. Roofers in particular are often a rough and scruffy lot. How often have I seen tattooed pierced freakish drug and drink types up on church roofs and precarious ones at that?
Isn't there something funny about this? Is there something odd about having these total pagans risk their lives working on your holy building? I suppose someone could cite Hiram, but I don't think that's the same. These workers are hardly inspired.
And I'm serious, some of these church roofs are flat scary. The costs are magnified just in the amount of time it takes to 'set up' the ladders, bracing and scaffolding it takes to get up there and work.
It's a strange way of 'ministering' to the public.
Contractors have their lingo about working on church buildings. Your work is supposed to be extra-perfect, church quality. Of course isn't this all a form of superstition?
Personally I will not work for churches. I've had a few calls over the years and I turn them down flat. I won't work on any aspect of their buildings. Sometimes I'm called because they think...here's the 'Christian' contractor. That's right, I am a Christian and that's exactly why I won't work on your building. This is all the more true if it's a United Methodist or some other liberal mainline congregation. Why would I want to help them promote their false gospel? I want their building to close down, not thrive.
The whole thing is a mess of bad tradition, bad theology and superstition. It just always hits me like it did the other day when I saw some dirt-bag druggie type crawling off a local Free Methodist church. It was a scary roof and I could tell the crew was having a really hard time getting up there to fix it. It looked to me like some flashing had come loose or something. I thought, wow, what if that guy falls and dies or gets hurt. I'm sure the congregation has insurance. I hope the roofer's employer has worker's compensation. Of course if he's self employed he can't carry it and thus in that case he would be uninsured as far as his injuries go. Isn't that wonderful, death settlements and threatened lawsuits, lawyers and insurance agents (lovely people all) all for your holy roof?
What's the alternative someone will ask? Don't congregations need big buildings?
No, they don't. This plays into a larger problem with Church polity and the way Protestants have structured their congregations, largely mimicking the Roman Catholic priesthood. If you have a true plurality of elders, the Presbyterians claim to but they actually don't, then you don't have a central celebrity pastor figure. At that point congregations can be smaller and when they grow they can form new congregations. Rather than have one large congregation with 200 people, maybe you have 5 congregations spread out over a city comprised of 40 each. That certainly seems to be more in line with what the New Testament presents us.
What about big congregations of thousands of people? Well, apart from a few historical examples like Spurgeon, most of the time these big congregations are not really very Biblically faithful to begin with. What I'm trying to say is they are more anomalies than the norm.
As much as we can appreciate Spurgeon it's clear that the congregation was largely built around his person. Yes, he had elders but Spurgeon was the show so to speak. When he died it began to fall apart. There were doctrinal issues but it was more than that... Spurgeon was gone.
How much money is wasted on building projects, property and then look at all the strife over design? These buildings generate a bureaucracy all their own.
I'll grant many of the old village church buildings in the English countryside are charming but that does not change the fact that they are established on a theological fallacy.