USA Today reports that the church steeple, once a key feature of church architecture, is on the decline:
Nationwide, church steeples are taking a beating and the bell tolls for bell towers, too, as these landmarks of faith on the landscape are hard hit by economic, social and religious change…
Architects and church planners see today’s new congregations meet in retooled sports arenas or shopping malls or modern buildings designed to appeal to contemporary believers turned off by the look of old-time religion.
Steeples may have outlived their times as signposts. People hunting for a church don’t scan the horizon, they search the Internet. Google reports searches for “churches” soar before Easter each year…
Today, he says, people want their church to look comfortable and inviting, “more like a mall.”
The article has some interesting points:
1. Churches look more inviting without a steeple. This is interesting as it suggests that a primary goal of church architecture is that people feel comfortable and avoid symbolic references to “old-time religion.” Several times in this story, the comparison is made to shopping malls: newer churches want to be inviting. I’m not sure that I particularly find shopping malls inviting – they are quite functional in what they intend to do, that is, generate profit – but I can see how they have more relaxed atmospheres. But should this be the major goal of church architecture?
2. Beside this cultural issue, this appears to be a budget issue for many churches as steeples cost money to build and maintain. These sorts of “frills” might be difficult to support in tough economic times. I like the example in the story of churches leasing out this space to cell phone companies: this is American pragmatism.
3. The idea that it was once important for people walking around a community to be able to see a steeple from a long distance is intriguing. What marks the skyline of a typical suburb or American small town today? (And let us be honest: how much can you see from a car, as opposed to walking, anyway? Perhaps this is why we have church signs that look more like signs for fast food restaurants or strip mall businesses. Are these more inviting as well?)
4. If the steeple is no longer a distinctive architectural feature of churches, what does mark these buildings from other typical buildings? Anything beyond a sign out front? But as the article suggests, perhaps this is the point.