Where are those TPS reports, brother?

BuckheadTowerEvangelical Protestants, it’s sometimes said, are cautious in doctrine but willing to experiment broadly in how they get the message across. That’s always been evident with Willow Creek Community Church, which — as historian Randall Balmer observed in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory — worships in a facility that looks more like a corporate headquarters than a worship space.

Atlanta megachurch pastor Andy Stanley will continue in that anti-traditional tradition when his North Point Ministries builds a new — um, er, worship product facilitation center? — in the upscale Buckhead section of Atlanta. Reporter Walter Woods of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution fills in the details:

But like the ministry’s 83-acre campus in Alpharetta, which looks more like a high school than a worship hall, church leaders wanted a new sanctuary minus the steeple, pipe organ and stained glass.

“We wanted it to look like an office building,” said David McDaniel, director of campus expansion at North Point Ministries. “One, because it’s in an office park.”

More importantly, “having the building look like the office a typical [person] would enter five days a week is right in line with what we’re trying to do,” he said, adding that’s making people feel more at ease about church.

OK, my journalist’s curiosity is killing me: What word did McDaniel use rather than person?

Back to the narrative:

Stanley delivers his messages in khakis and golf shirts. His opening act is a live band jamming Christian rock music. The laid-back elements, like the architecture, are designed to put people at ease, McDaniel said.

Many people expect to be uncomfortable during Sunday services — they don’t know when to sing, when to kneel, they don’t know the rules — particularly those who haven’t been in a while, McDaniel said.

“We’ve tried to remove any obstacle, whether it be tradition or whatever, from the experience,” he said. “We present Jesus Christ and the New and Old Testament as written but with no other obstacles in the way.”

The music is “like what you’d hear on the radio,” McDaniel said. “You don’t have pipe organ music in your CDs. Why would you subject people to that on Sunday?”

In an age when the exteriors of community centers and banks aspire to the same grand statements that churches once used, there’s a certain symmetry in having churches look like those soulless buildings straight out of Office Space.

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  • http://raphael.doxos.com Huw Raphael


    No doubt.

  • don-o

    I recall that Andy got his knickers in a knot over his Daddy’s, er, marital situation.

    Now. Lo and Behold!

  • don-o

    Just noticed your headline, Doug, That is a funny joke.

  • Jeff

    “We’ve tried to remove any obstacle, whether it be tradition or whatever, from the experience,” he said.”

    In other words, 2,000 years of historic Christianity, the holy faith of saints and martyrs, is something that we should simply cast aside so we can mold the kingdom of God into some new “ministry model.” (Which is merely a Christianize euphemism synonymous with “marketing ploy.”)

    This comment is nauseating. I wouldn’t find it so deeply disturbing if it represented an off the wall remark by some fringe lunatic, but it’s frightening because this comment represents more and more the mainstream in evangelical Christianity.

    Nondenominational churches only serve to perpetuate the bastardization of our religion. They strip away the richness of our roots and the beauty of our tradition for a minimalist Christianity that resembles a corporation. Using pyrotechnics and PR, they woo the masses, herding them like cattle into their office complex, so they can recieve a warm fuzzy feeling and will surely return.

    Contemporary means “here today, gone tomorrow.” And so is the contemporization (is that a real word) of the faith a good thing, or are we killing ourselves in the end? Christianity has endured so long because it is a traditional and historic faith. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in theology to figure out what happens to a faith that is based on history when that history is cast aside…

    Plus, as a friend just reminded me, “Watered down drinks taste bad.”

  • Dave2

    But I *DO* have organ music on my CD’s. And traditional Christian hymns. Is it now a requirement to endure rock “music” to be an evangelical Christian?

  • http://www.neepeople.com Laura

    Ugh…I attended one of those churches for quite a while. I started to feel that I was going into the mall instead of church. We even had a quasi “Starbucks” in the foyer.

    A little while later I began the journey to Orthodoxy…

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    “In an age when the exteriors of community centers and banks aspire to the same grand statements that churches once used[...]”

    Huh?!? It’s only been of late that the main local banking chain has started building branches that “look like banks”– you know, the Roman temple look. (Actually, they’ve gone for the “Georgian Revival temple” look.) Other chains and somewhat older branches of this bank only look like banks if they have drive-through windows; comonly enough they are just storefornts.

    Indeed, one of the interesting marks of “modernist” church architecture is that mostly people have hewn to the line that “churches shouldn’t look like other buildings.”

    I’d also note that the story is reported like the opening of a new shopping mall. There’s no challenge to the pastor’s sales pitch– no reporting, for instance, of whether the Man On The Street finds this notion appealing.

  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    Americans like to feel comfortable. Many Americans spend their days in office parks and malls and feel comfortable there–a testimony to the human spirit’s ability to adapt and cope with even the most inhumane circumstances. Ergo, what makes them comfortable is a church that looks like an office building.

    And no doubt, once they’re nice and comfortable, seated in a pleasant chair (individual seating, of course–pews make people very uncomfortable because there’s the risk of touching someone else), with the Starbucks buzz setting in, they’ll be ready to hear Christ’s invitation, in Bonhoeffer’s words, to “come and die.” Or, in Christ’s own words, to “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood.” Because, really, the best place to hear the words of “Jesus and the New and Old Testament as written” (interesting word order!–I believe the Old was written first?) is somewhere really cushy. Of course, the first disciples didn’t really have that opportunity (capsizing boats, crowds of sick people, everyone packed into Peter’s mother-in-law’s upstairs guest room, then, later, catacombs, persecutions, et cetera), but they only managed to grow the Christian community by 40% per decade for 400 years. I’m sure that this new approach will have much better results. Cheers!

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle

    Well, at least when all the modernists die out, and postmodern Christians (who value “sacred space”) are worshiping in actual churches, Andy will be able to sell his office building to — someone looking for an office building.

    BTW, I have organ music in my CD player also (from the Eastern Orthodox composer Arvo Part), along with String Cheese Incident and Wilco. But I don’t go to church to hear jam music; I go to church to worship God and to connect with a tradition that has nourished millions for 2000 years. Megachurches like this one want to deny, rather than celebrate, our heritage as Christians.

  • Liz B.

    I agree of course that a comfortable gospel is a contradiction in terms. But I’m surprised to hear the hue and cry about the demise of the “traditional” church experience in that regard, since it has rarely seemed (in my experience) to capture the uncomfortability of Jesus any better than the “modern” style.

    After all, if Jesus didn’t come to speak to people somewhere “cushy”, he certainly also didn’t come to speak to people in the pews of an awe-inspiring building with stained glass and painted domes — how “uncomfortable” is that? Not very, until this century. (You can argue it inspired awe, but that’s different. Most traditional worshippers I know feel great peace and joy, yes, and comfort, in their old church buildings.)

    The uncomfortability of “not knowing the rules” (do I stand now? what’s going on?) or thinking “this music is so weird and from, like, four centuries ago” doesn’t seem to be the kind of uncomfortability Jesus cared about or encouraged. In fact, I think Stanley is right in one regard: that Jesus spoke to people within the confines of their everyday life, and bringing down the separation between Sunday architecture and Monday architecture seems valid in that sense.

    I lament of course the lack of regard for tradition (and what that says about a tolerance for diversity now, even), and the risk of watering down the message in pursuit of the “seeker” is omnipresent in these churches– I would love to see people come in because they feel welcome (another word for comfortable) and leave challenged and transformed, but I’m not naive enough to think that always or even mostly happens. But I’m also not sure this kind of movement is the end of the world and the gospel, and I think those of us who do worship traditionally should be careful not to throw stones from behind our own glass walls.

  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    Good post, Liz B. (are you the Liz B. I think you are? if not, there are two very smart Liz B.’s in the world instead of one).

    I don’t disagree with most of what you say. But I certainly don’t go to my fairly traditional church building for comfort. Awe is much closer to what I’m looking for there, and something bigger and older than myself.

    That this can easily become an equally cushy environment that dilutes the gospel, there can be no doubt at all. But speaking as a musician who has been involved in leading worship (mostly using music from the last two decades, not the last 400 years) in a wide variety of spaces, I have to say there is something uniquely soulless (and thus challenging to worship leaders) in environments that are designed from the outset to make people — a certain kind of people, that is, namely those who have offices in office buildings as opposed to, say, those who clean office buildings — maximally comfortable. Hotels are the worst. An office building would probably not be far behind.

  • Liz B.

    Office buildings make me itch, so perhaps I’m not the best judge in the first place. Andy, I defer to your broader experience in the actual effect of these settings (and not just because you called me smart)– I think the last point is the most important. An office building is probably only really comfortable for those who are already most comfortable in society. Any real problem probably lies somewhere in there.

    At any rate, among my new-to-God friends I have found that the style of music and architecture matter the most just in getting people through the door. Once there, it’s the community of believers that makes the difference– are they committed to being shaken up by Jesus, or not? The jarring reality of being part of a flawed 2000-year-old church helps that happen, but God still graciously works without it. What I think really triggers our reactions to this article is what C. Wingate pointed out: total absence of actual content– what happens within those white walls? I wonder if that was the whole sales pitch (which would indeed be sad, but I kind of doubt), or what was deemed new and newsworthy? I wonder how North Point felt about the article?

    (Right, and you correctly deciphered my very secret alias. Hey there.)

  • jim

    I changed careers precisely so I would NOT have to go to an office building five days a week. Why would I want to go to a place that reminded me of *work* when I am seeking rest in Christ?

    Why do Christians want to be so fake? Why do they feel the need to manufacture every last step?

    As CS Lewis said, Christ commanded Peter to “feed my sheep”, not “conduct experiments on my rats”.

  • NateB

    There’s a lot of hoary, orthodox dissaproval being expressed about this, but I wonder if any of these same people are familliar with Catholic architecture, say, 1955-present (I’m assuming here that some of these posters are Catholic)?

    I attend Latin mass at a 19th century, brick church in the city on Sundays, but for the rest of the week I go to the church in this photo –


    Walking into this building is perhaps the closest anyone will ever come to stepping in an UFO. I’m sure they’ll be no shortage of new-age cults interested in purchasing the property if the church ever wants to sell.

    That said, the service itself is about as dignified as the new rite can be, and the choir is very impressive ( the church is on monastery grounds ).

    So, I basically agree with the previous poster (who’s no relation) that orthodox Christian tradition -and the attendant awe that it inspires upon our physical selves- can hardly be stressed enough, but at the same time there are plenty of good people who simply have bad taste. That is, if someone prefers to hold services in an office building rather than a gothic cathedral, so long as the doctrine itself is orthodox then is there really a problem?

  • tmatt

    We may need to save parts of this thread as ad copy for the new Rod ROTB Dreher book, Crunchy Cons…


    Wait ’til you see the subtitle!

    Of course, this fits into the yin-yang GOP Libertarian thread, too.

  • tmatt

    Duh! FOTB Dreher!

  • http://guildedlilies.tripod.com/index.html Steve Nicoloso

    More importantly, “having the building look like the office a typical [person] would enter five days a week is right in line with what we’re trying to do,” he said….

    OK, my journalist’s curiosity is killing me: What word did McDaniel use rather than person?

    Presumably: “professional”… And yeah, is the church really looking to build itself up on the backs of people who crave so much the artificiality and inhumanity of the “office environment” that they would seek it in a church? God help us…


  • YetAnotherRick

    The idea of using office space architecture in church buildings is quite old and was certainly not pioneered by Hybels or his generation. Just about 30 miles southeast of Willow Creek is a church which has incorporated (excuse the pun) actual office space into its facility for almost 150 years.


    The current Chicago Temple is of Burnhamian/Brobdignagian proportions. Though having many traditional features of a Gothic Cathedral, it has 16 floors of office space stuck in the middle. If that’s not an adequate example, consider storefront churches, which have been around for…well, a really long time – anybody know? Interestingly, in addition to office space, the Chicago Temple features churchfront stores.

    Regarding other aspects of traditional practice, I grew up in a humble, low-church, non-liturgical Evangelical Church. As a musicain, I’ve participated in an extremely wide range of liturgical settings and performances of sacred music, and I find it hard to understand why some people seem to have a need for a very specific aesthetic in order to experience true worship and fellowship in encountering God. For me it matters little whether I’m playing my wind instrument with a guitar at a singles retreat, accompanying a singer at a Candle Blessing Vespers Service (at a Smells & Bells Episcopal Church), or in the middle of 500 musicians in Mahler’s awe-inspiring setting of “Veni Creator Spiritus.” Somehow I just can’t picture Jesus walking into Willow Creek and saying “What? No stained glass windows? And where’s the Pipe Organ?”

  • Harris

    t the end of the day, it is not the building but the content. To the extent that architecture reflects beliefs, the suburban-mall-styled church only reiterates the a-historical (and by definition anti-intellectual) aspects of American Evangelicalism noted by Noll and many others.

    The rejection of tradition is also the rejection of memory. While that refusal to remember, to prefer the present or worse, our own ideologies seems to be the character of our modern suburban age, that refusal nonetheless leaves us open to all manner of evils, theologically, politically, culturally. The profound irony is that a church that seeks to be conservative in its theology, has a methodology that abandons conservative (or at least Burkean) principles. Those who do know history, also know how easily the pursuit of relevance ends in tragedy.

    Finally, this bit “they don’t know when to sing, when to kneel, they don’t know the rules —” brings out the element of kneeling. Last I knew, that was one thing I didn’t have to worry about in an evangelical church. I suspect, that underneath that is an anti-Romanist maybe anti-Episcoplian (ie. class issue and culture war) animus. Subtly he sets up the righteous audience from some “them” out there

  • Lola

    Here’s an acid test – can you imagine yourself, or your child, getting married in a building like this? I know I certainly couldn’t imagine myself getting married in an office building (and yes, my wedding was held in a place specifically built for Orthodox Christian worship).

  • http://stomaphagus.weblogs.com Stomaphagus

    I have trouble with those Hip New Churches who play “rock & roll” in an effort to “connect” with a new generation. I speak, alas, as an unrepentant secularist whose church experience extends only to a year or two of attending Quaker meeting. Christian rock is dreadful — the form and the message are just misaligned, I think. On the other hand, an old Delta bluesman calling on Christ from the gutter gets my attention.

    From http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2005/02/christhaunted_e.html:

    “…The fact that I didn’t think I heard a single interesting bar of music from the forty or so acts I caught or overheard at Creation shouldn’t be read as a knock on the acts themselves, much less as contempt for the underlying notion of Christians playing rock. These were not Christian bands, you see; these were Christian-rock bands. The key to digging this scene lies in that one-syllable distinction. Christian rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off of evangelical Christians. It’s message music for listeners who know the message cold, and, what’s more, it operates under a perceived responsibility — one the artists embrace — to “reach people.” As such, it rewards both obviousness and maximum palatability (the artists would say clarity), which in turn means parasitism. Remember those perfume dispensers they used to have in pharmacies — “If you like Drakkar Noir, you’ll love Sexy Musk”? Well, Christian rock works like that. Every successful crappy secular group has its Christian off-brand, and that’s proper, because culturally speaking, it’s supposed to serve as a stand-in for, not an alternative to or an improvement on, those very groups.”

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  • http://www.buckheadchurch.org BC staffer

    Toss out some scripture that talks about architecture…. (and no “stretching” passages and making assumptions…)

    Let’s take a looksey…

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    I recommend consulting Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible, which is an extended exegesis on how much God cared about the design of the Temple.

  • http://www.buckheadchurch.org BC staffer

    With the risk of being tagged a heretic, do the parameters of the OT temple apply today… in our NT world?

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    I stand rebuked, and never again will I suggest that God cares whether we pay attention to aesthetic questions when building something for his greater glory.

  • http://www.buckheadchurch.org BC staffer

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. I think it is my turn to appologize since I got the impression that this was up for discussion. I realize now that it wasnt. Sorry that I read that wrong. I, by no means, am out to rebuke anyone. I’m know that I am sure that I am qualified to do that. Again, didnt mean to upset you.

    I know that my point wasnt that God doesnt care what things look like. I was just uncomfortable with what seemed to be an assumption that the church would be “soulless” because of what it looked like on the outside.

  • http://www.buckheadchurch.org BC staffer


    I meant say in my post above that, in terms of rebuking you that “I’m know that I am sure that I am NOT qualified to do that”

    Repeat… I am NOT qualified to rebuke anyone… Roger that…

    PS.. I also meant to spell “know” correctly (… not “now”)

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    The topic is open to discussion — see all the posts preceding yours, and note that your posts still appear here, although you remain anonymous. I normally delete anonymous posts.

    I will, however, plead guilty to responding to you in a spirit of sarcasm. I felt that your asking for a prooftext on architecture was unfair, but I should have said so in a different way.

  • http://northpoint.org Andy Stanley

    Andy here…

    Churches are prohibited by code in the area we chose to build. We were allowed to place a church on this property by conforming to current building codes. Basically, that means we could not build a building that looked like a church.

    The good news is that there are several amazing church buildings within an mile or two of our site…complete with stained glass, organs, pews, the works.

    Currently, our Buckhead campus, meets in a rennovated grocery store. Seventy percent of those who attend are single. The average age is probably 27. Last week 3,800 people attended our four worship services.

    Fire away…

    Just thought I should submit a fact or two into the discussion.

    I’m still learning.

  • Jeff Sandstrom

    I have been a member of North Point for ten years, and currently worship and serve at the Buckhead campus (the current, grocery store version). I would like to weigh in on the discussion from an insider’s perspective.

    First, I am concerned with the notion that modern and contemporary somehow implies that the message of the Gospel is being “watered-down.” I’ve been a Christian for thirty years and have never been in a church where the Truth has been presented in a more relevant way. Every week we hear story after story of lives transformed by the power of God, and many of those people credit that fact that the message is put in an appealing cultural context as reason for their being open to hearing it in the first place.

    We strive to create irresistible environments where people are encouraged and equipped to pursue intimacy with God, community with insiders, and influence with outsiders. Part of that influence is based around the idea that they might actually show up if they’re not made to feel like they’re missing out on the secret handshake.

    I know this debate has been waged for years, and I don’t claim to be an expert. I just see it working every week at the Buckhead Church and feel compelled to defend “the model.” We’ve never been intentional about “wooing the masses,” or “herding them like cattle.” We want our folks to experience authentic community and the power of personal ministry so we can have a small part in what God is doing to fulfill the Great Commission. If that means that for this time and place the most effective way to accomplish that goal is for the context to be in a building that looks like a shopping center, a school or an office building, so be it.