The church is not a building, but it certainly has buildings.
My own church has a stone structure by a creek in Johnson City, Tennessee. We know that the first Christians here baptized believers in that water and worshiped together on the banks, nearly 200 years ago, before building the fellowship hall and sanctuary with stone and stained glass.
Around town, I see churches that meet in storefronts, in renovated factories, and one above an upscale barbecue joint. There are big, towering church buildings on the main streets downtown and, further out, churches with wide, rolling, golf-course-worthy lawns. There’s a clapboard church tucked into a hill where they painted over the word Baptist, and now, in slightly unsteady freehand, the sign says Holiness. There ’s a church with a gazebo pulpit in an expansive parking lot, built for drive-in worship; another with space designated for a taco truck; another where the windows have been covered up; and another that looks like a giant Hershey’s kiss. At each of these places, Christians sing and socialize, pray and think about their lives—what they love and what they should love—and they listen to the Word of the Lord.
None of these places, unfortunately, appear in Allan Doig’s A History of the Church through Its Buildings. The “church” of the title turns out to be incredibly narrow, the “history” even narrower.
Size, shape, and composition
Charlemagne is crowned emperor six times in these pages, while Martin Luther shows up only once, critiquing the funding mechanism for the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome. There are no Puritans in the book, despite their intense opinions about church buildings. No Pentecostals, despite their radical reimagining of sacred space. There is only one mention of Baptists, and that is a passing reference in an extended quotation.
Nor does Doig’s scope extend to Africa, Latin America, North America, or Asia (with the exception of a brief mention of Jesuit missionaries to Japan). The book discusses 12 buildings: three in Rome, six elsewhere in Europe, two in Istanbul, and one in Jerusalem. These are all churches one might see on a humanities tour with a liberal arts college—tourist attractions and World Heritage sites.
In fact, A History of the Church through Its Buildings would be perfect for that kind of trip. Doig, a recently retired chaplain for a college at Oxford University, frequently describes the best way to approach these historic buildings. In Aachen, Germany, for example, he recommends “coming round the eastern end of the Rathaus … from the market square past the Granustrum,” a tower, for the best view of the Basilica of the Holy Mother of God. In Istanbul, Doig suggests taking the tram to the Hagia Sophia, since it “closely follows the ceremonial route of the emperor, from the former site of the Hebdomon military grounds near the airport, via the Golden Gate, past the fora and on to the milion, the marker from which all distances in the Byzantine empire were measured.”
The book also focuses its explanations on why each building exists, enlisting history as necessary to explicate a structure’s particular size, shape, and composition. Rather than using the churches to illuminate the history of the church, it’s the reverse.
For example, Doig doesn’t show how the Basilica of St. Vincent, in Cordoba, Spain, sheds light on Arianism, the Christological heresy that dominated in Spain at the time of its construction. Instead, he offers Arianism as the explanation for the location of the cathedral, as a sixth-century king of Hispania moved the bishop’s seat in an attempt to unite and reform Arian Christianity.
After Arianism was condemned at the Council of Toledo in 589, the Roman Catholic Pope Gregory attempted to secure the orthodoxy of the church with a series of gifts, including purported relics of Christ’s cross, Peter’s chains, and John the Baptist’s hair. But since the structure was built before the Roman influence was well established, the Cordoba church has “a four-bay nave with side-aisles, transepts, and chapels to either side of the sanctuary.”
As the narrative moves on, it becomes clear that for the author, “Why does this church have a four-bay nave with side-aisles, transepts, and chapels to either side of the sanctuary?” was the most interesting question to be asked.
The book’s deepest insight into church history is that the structures always reveal something about a church’s relationship to power. While churches are set apart as houses of God and places of prayer, they are never entirely apart. Each structure has a place in a legal regime, an economic order, and a political system.
Sometimes, in fact, the church is the symbolic foundation of state power. The Abbey of Saint-Denis, in Paris, for example, was rebuilt by King Pepin the Short and finished by his son Charlemagne to sanctify their replacement of the Merovingian royal line. Father and son were both buried in Saint-Denis, as were all but three of the subsequent kings of France and many other monarchs. The church—set apart—served a crucial function in the construction of the idea of the French state.
“As a space for the performance of the rituals of kingship,” Doig observes, “no other could compete with Saint-Denis.”
My church’s building in East Tennessee certainly doesn’t compete with Saint-Denis on this count, though it too reveals a relationship with power. The property lines have put limits on our expansion over the years. On Sundays, worshipers have to park in a neighbor’s lot, requiring us to take care to maintain that relationship. Last year, we used COVID-19 relief funds to pay the utilities for the building we mostly didn’t use during the pandemic.
Records of relationships
As I read A History of the Church through Its Buildings, though, my mind turned to the relationships that Doig does not explore. A church building arranges a congregation’s relationship to baptism, Communion, and preaching. It is in the design phase that a church decides whether the pulpit will be in the center or off to the side, whether or not there will be a fixed structure for serving the Lord’s Supper, and how new Christians will be buried with Christ and raised with him.
The building also structures the relationship between the church and its music. Sometimes worship leaders are literally spotlighted, but I’ve also prayed in a church, converted from a house, where the music came from another room. It felt like eavesdropping on the morning’s hymns.
The building can physically represent church hierarchy—saving a seat for a bishop, offering an exclusive entrance for the senior pastor, or setting up a greenroom for a guest speaker.
A church also organizes a congregation’s relationship to itself. In Doig’s own Church of England, there’s a huge difference between buildings with fixed pews and buildings with movable chairs. Some congregations sit in a circle while they worship. Here in Tennessee, it’s not uncommon to bury the deceased behind the church building, until the Resurrection. The building may be passed down to us through the generations—along with the faith itself—so that as we worship on a Sunday, we also realize we are taking care of something that we ourselves did not build and that we will one day leave to others.
The church, in the end, is not a building. But it does have them. And the history of the church happens, in part, through buildings. That history shouldn’t be limited to buildings that attract tourists and World Heritage designations. If we learn to look carefully at even the humblest churches, we can see a record of relationships and traces of the faithful witness of believers before us who used these buildings to sing and pray, live their faith, and receive and proclaim God’s good news.
Daniel Silliman is news editor for Christianity Today. He is the author of a forthcoming book, Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith.