An Offering to God

November 16, 2009


Flourish Magazine, Fall 2009
A Flourish interview with Michael Abbaté.

Although Christ’s church does not dwell in buildings of steel and stone, it still needs physical venues to host worship, teaching, celebrations, and potato-salad-laden pot lucks. Is it possible for those built structures, and not just the hospitality and services they house, to echo the values of the church within them? How might they reflect the value of conscientious stewardship?

Flourish posed this question to Michael Abbaté, a LEED-certified landscape architect and the urban design and planning

Michael Abbaté

Michael Abbaté

director for Gresham, Oregon, who is also the author of Gardening Eden: How Creation Care Will Change Your Faith, Your Life and Our World, and a Flourish 2009 Conference speaker. Abbaté reminds us that, as with every aspect of our lives, church-building is “an offering to God,” and must embody our response to his goodness.

Flourish: In a Christianity Today article, architect and designer Gary Wang says that congregations seeking to reflect their ministry priorities in their buildings’ design “believe that buildings can express the values of congregations, bringing new meaning to the act of stewardship in architecture.” As an architect who understands the importance of buildings being designed in environmentally sustainable ways, how would you describe “the act of stewardship in architecture?”

Michael Abbaté:  Building a church is a bit like making an offering to God. We take the little we have, given freely and genuinely from grateful hearts, and use it to create a place of worship that glorifies him. This basic principle has manifested itself in different ways and forms in different times.

For the early Jews, the building of the temple was a monumental and spiritual task. There were exact specifications that had to be followed, and no expense was spared (1 Kings 6). It took seven years to build the first temple. As King Solomon said to God: “I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever” (1 Kings 8:13).  Here, stewardship was manifested as magnificence worthy of an all-powerful God.

In the early years of Christianity, believers gathered mostly in houses. But as the movement grew, houses were modified and converted into more formal gathering places such as the shrine at Dura Europos in Syria, the first recorded Christian worship facility. Stewardship was demonstrated by sacrificially converting one or more homes into a dedicated gathering place for early believers.

In the Middle Ages, church-building exploded. As the church expanded its influence into all aspects of culture, places of worship became monumental in scale, symbolizing the far-reaching influences of God and his church. In keeping with the desire to make cathedrals larger, taller and more monumental, architecture was radically transformed. Many of architecture’s innovations came as a direct result of explorations in church architecture. In this period, stewardship meant allocating much treasure, toil, and time to the construction of these new “temples.”  The pendulum had swung back to the days of Solomon.

In the period between the Middle Ages and the mid-20th century, church building design varied greatly, but generally struck a balance between spiritual inspiration and functionality. As congregations shrunk and multiplied, they decentralized church-building. Fewer could afford grandiose forms or ornamentation. In fact, in many American churches of the 18th through 20th centuries, church architecture started to mimic community values of frugality, simplicity and practicality. Here, stewardship was demonstrated through a lack of unnecessary frills, stretching every church-building dollar as far as possible.

In the United States in particular, this ethic of utilitarianism has dominated most Protestant church-building ever since. Even in the mega-church building boom of the last quarter-century, evangelical Christian churches have squeezed the most possible square footage out of every church-building buck. This has created the common “big box church” that is surrounded by a sea of parking, similar to the retail development trends of the same time period. In contrast, Catholic and other “High Church” congregations have often retained their commitment to places of worship that strive to capture the magnificence and awesomeness of God.

Today, Christians are starting to reconsider past church-building practices. Many large congregations have decided to decentralize, rather than grow ever-larger. In this model, the parent church utilizes technology to broadcast its services to daughter church locations, either at dedicated or shared facilities.

Other churches are considering stewardship in another way, evaluating how much time their facilities are actually serving as places of worship. Many find that stewardship can be demonstrated by sharing facilities with other churches or organizations. Or, because parking space consumes so much land, the idea of sharing parking with an adjacent retail development, or letting the community use its parking facilities during the week as a park and ride lot, is gaining adherents.

Energy use has also become a stewardship issue for many churches. As congregations build new facilities or expand old ones, they look at ways to minimize energy use and, consequently, operations and maintenance costs.

F: How have you seen churches reflect the specific value of creation care in their design?

M.A.: The creation care movement is just in its infancy. Most believers are just starting to discover ways that changes in their personal lives can reflect an attitude of environmental stewardship. Changes in churches will follow these personal convictions on the part of congregants.

green-church-building-FlourishMany of the aforementioned trends—shared facility use, satellite campuses, and energy awareness—are evidence of the incorporation of creation care principles into church design. But the only objective standard to measure the sustainability of new construction projects is through the LEED™ Rating System, from the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED is a rating system that evaluates registered projects across a spectrum of issues such as site impacts, energy conservation, water efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, and indoor air quality. Projects can qualify in one of several categories, in increasing order of effectiveness: Certified, Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum levels. Since its initial released in 2003, over 2,650 projects have achieved LEED status. But of that total, only 9 are churches, synagogues or other places of worship. This does not mean that there have not been significant efforts on the part of individual churches to make their facilities more sustainable. However, it does point to the fact that church construction is not providing many examples of the green building practices common in other types of construction. This is likely to change as more and more congregants make personal lifestyle changes and desire to see the same type of conservation modeled in their places of worship.

F: We’re accustomed to thinking of stewardship in terms of wise financial management. Can “green” design be done on a frugal budget?
M.A.: Many sustainable design strategies make economic sense for churches. Churches are typically institutions that hold buildings and facilities for a long time, often in excess of 50 years.  This makes the issue of life-cycle costs and payback duration very germane to church design considerations. Some green strategies have very short paybacks, such as changing to compact fluorescent light bulbs, for example.

Other green construction pay-offs are immediate, depending on local regulations. Orienting a new building to take maximum advantage of local climatic conditions is a no-cost item that can reap large financial benefits over time. Creating a “green parking lot,” with permeable pavements, storm water “bioswales,” catch basins, and underground pipes, can be less expensive than common construction practices.

A highly energy efficient, automated Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning system (HVAC) is also a money saver with a very short payback interval. Insulation and weatherproofing also pay financial returns almost immediately.

Other strategies such as energy-generating solar photovoltaic panels require much longer payback intervals. However, a church may find that these strategies reflect good financial stewardship, because of the length of time the church will benefit from them.

F: What are some of the simplest responsible design elements churches can incorporate in their structures?

M.A.: Here are 10 easy ideas:
1. Plant trees to shade buildings
2. Share facilities, including parking areas, buildings, and meeting areas with neighbors
3. Make new construction highly insulated and weatherproofed
4. Use windows and natural “daylighting” to reduce the building’s need for artificial light
5. When artificial lighting is needed, use fluorescent and other energy-efficient lighting
6. Use long-lasting, durable, local and recycled materials in construction
7. Minimize construction waste
8. Design buildings to use natural ventilation to the maximum amount possible
9. Use local native plants to reduce landscape maintenance and water use
10. Provide facilities that will encourage people to walk, ride bikes or transit to church (shaded bike racks, walkways, bus stops, etc.)

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