Flying into Phoenix from Charlotte while making a connection to San Diego on Wednesday evening I was looking out the window of my American Airlines Airbus 321 and saw a site that looked like a big mega-church, and I wondered if it was possibly a project by the company I work for. At Visioneering Studios we design and build churches across the country, so as we cruised by at several hundred miles per hour I snapped a couple pictures out the window with the thought that I would search it out on a map after I got to the hotel in San Diego later that night.
The site was a bit remote, not unlike a lot of other suburban mega-churches that often have to go to the outskirts of larger cities to find enough acreage to house their campuses. This site was right off the main highway for easy access and great visibilty (another trait churches look for). It was surrounded by undeveloped desert scrub brush and not much else, but residential rooftops were nearby and growing churches often seek to get out in front of the suburban expansion coming their way that will one day put them right in the middle of the community. This site had huge parking areas and the design of the building included a covered drop-off, a cylindrical tower “entry” element and an interesting and creative layout that was reminiscent of churches we’ve designed at Visioneering Studios.
While I was too far away and passing by too fast to see any facade details or logos I was quite certain it was a church and I was interested to find out which one it was and if we had designed it. I snapped a few other photos out the window of the plane as we landed in the 105-degree oven that is Phoenix in the summer, and forgot about it until I got to the hotel after landing in the Mediterranean climate of San Diego that makes otherwise sane people willing to pay $750,000 for a 3 BR house and spend 4 hours a day commuting 5 miles to work. I got to my room and popped open my MacBook. By finding the Phoenix airport on Google Maps and looking at the landmarks in the photos I took, I was able to trace the flight path and find the “mystery” church site. As I scrolled the map east from the airport and zoomed in on the site to find out the name of the church another name popped up instead…Casino Arizona!
Wow, that was not what I was expecting at all. I was surprised, but shrugged it off and forgot about it as I tried to get to sleep quickly since it was now the middle of the night to my east coast body. The next day passed in great meetings with a multi-site church about changes to some of their campuses and then it was time to head home. Leaving San Diego this morning I connected in Phoenix again, and as the Boeing 757 raced skyward toward Charlotte I noticed that we were backtracking along the same route I flew in on a couple days prior, and I now saw the casino out the window again. This time I already knew what it was and that’s when I had an unexpected and troubling question pop into my head. “What does it say about the churches we work with, and the designs we create, that they can be confused with a casino?”
Woah! My initial reaction was negative and surprising to me. I thought, “Have church facilities become ‘secularized’ to the point that they look like ‘sinful’ casinos?” That’s a charge often hurled at mega-churches by smaller or more traditional churches and individuals who often look condescendingly at the “mile-wide and inch-deep” broad-brush caricature that culture has painted of mega-churches and their “excesses.”
Having worked with churches for 15 years, unfortunately I have found that there are some bad apples out there that people can point to that fit that mega-church caricature. It’s sad that this is ever true, but for every bad apple I have seen or heard about, there are hundreds of others that are fulfilling the Great Commmisson, reaching their communities, and sending people and resources to the ends of the earth serving the hopeless and helpless.
I’m not one who tries to over-spiritualize every event in my life and I don’t audibly hear the voice of God speak to me. I often wish I did, but that could be scary too, because those who hear that still, small voice are often the ones we read about who have changed the world in the most incredible ways through sacrificing their own personal comfort and ending up in places I never even knew existed.
As we accelerated upward and eastward leaving the casino quickly behind, inside I felt what may have been the prompting of the Holy Spirit as another emotion and another question suddenly bubbled up. Maybe it was because on the flights this week I brought along Mark Batterson’s new book, “Whisper,” which is about learning to be still and quiet and listen for God’s voice in your life, and so I was more “in tune” for it, but the new emotion I felt was joy and the new question was, “If a casino, whose sole purpose is to take your earthly treasures from you, can use creative architectural design to develop a place people want to go to, why can’t a church ‘redeem’ this type of engaging design and use it as ‘architectural evangelism’ to draw people to Christ through His Church, whose sole purpose should be to teach you that your earthly treasures aren’t as important as your eternal soul and heavenly treasures?” How true. Externally focused, life-giving churches will use whatever means and methods are necessary, short of sin, to reach others for Christ because they understand and fully embrace the eternal consequences that are at stake.
I long ago realized that arguments between believers about things like pipe organs vs. electric guitars, hymnals vs. screens, pews vs. theater seats, and steeples and stained glass vs. “secular” building designs are all spiritually neutral personal preferences. Jesus never sang from a hymnal while wearing a suit and tie and sitting in a pew as light filtered though the stained glass windows and someone played “Amazing Grace” on the organ. He also never sang a Chris Tomlin song from words on a screen while wearing shorts and a t-shirt sitting in a theater seat sipping a latte while haze and moving lights created the ambiance for the shredding electric guitar solo. Neither method changes the eternal truth of the gospel message, so as long as that truth is being preached and lived out by that church, the rest is just following Paul’s example.
We’re all moved to worship, and drawn to a deeper relationship with Christ, in various ways, which is why I believe that Paul statement in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, that he would “become all things to all people so that in all ways he might save some,” is still applicable to these discussions about personal preferences today.
So now I don’t feel bad that I mistook a casino for one of our church projects. I know that this style of facility has been used in amazing ways across the country to reach millions for Christ and I’m glad to have played some small part in that through my work at Visioneering. I also know that this style of building is not for everyone and not for all time. Things change. Large mega-campuses may never completely go away but there’s been a trend in the church market away from these over the last few years toward smaller, community-based, multi-site locations. If I were to fly over one of these smaller church projects we’ve designed I may mistake it for a great restaurant, or retail shop, or public park, or I may not be able to distinguish it at all, and that’s okay. As long as we are designing churches as engaging spaces that are outward focused and serve others while reflecting the beauty and creativity of our Creator, I’m good with whatever form that takes. How about you?