Houston-area residents know South Main Baptist Church for the beauty of its Romanesque sanctuary and for its reputation as a progressive congregation committed to meeting physical and spiritual needs, both locally and globally.
Keeping the facility beautiful and the ministries vital costs money. Maintaining balance in budgeting for building maintenance and support of missions and ministries presents a continual challenge, Pastor Steve Wells said.
That’s a choice faced through the ages by Christians, who believe God is revealed both in beauty and in the impoverished. Is there money for both?
“Surely the God who created a world of indescribable beauty and created us with multiple senses values aesthetics,” said Michael Clingenpeel, senior pastor of River Road Church, Baptist, in Richmond, Va. “If we’re created in God’s likeness then we will appreciate aesthetics as an avenue to the holy, to experience transcendence.”
River Road’s Georgian sanctuary is well-suited to the liturgical worship and commitment to high musical standards which characterize the church.
“If we spend all our resources in trying to achieve beauty, we may miss opportunities to be missional,” said Clngenpeel. “But I do think there are people who become more open to God through their senses, both visual and aural. You can reach people through those things.”
South Main values excellence in worship and devotes significant time and resources to that end, from “architecture that inspires awe” to music and liturgy that touches hearts and transforms lives, Wells said.
“If my reading of the New Testament is correct, we are created to worship God with other believers,” he said. “If I read Revelation correctly, the day is coming when we no longer will have need for Sunday School or mission trips, but there never will be a time when we are not worshipping God. We are eternally destined and designed for worship.”
South Main invests in worship because “lives are changed there,” Wells added. At the same time, the church equips members for ministry beyond the church’s walls, “to manifest the kingdom and be the body of Christ in the world,” he said.
Allan Aunspaugh, minister of music at Second Baptist Church in Liberty, Mo., said the issue can be summed up in the title of a book by worship writer Marva Dawn — A Royal Waste of Time.
“There are also those among us who would question any use of precious resources given by the faithful on ourselves,” he said. “However, the Old Testament is full of examples of the lavish gifts given to build the tabernacle and the temple. To have the best artisans build the finest worship space and fill it with ornate furnishings as an offering to a holy God is a given.”
While Jesus commands his followers to “feed the hungry and clothe the naked,” he also reprimands the critics of a woman who anoints his feet with costly perfume, calling it a “beautiful thing,” Aunspaugh added.
“When we ‘waste’ our time and resources worshipping the one and only God, our eyes become clear to see the human need around us and we are more fitted to meet those needs,” Aunspaugh said. “It’s a precious balance, but balance there must be, lest we become skewed one way or another.
Cameron Jorgenson, assistant professor of Christian theology and ethics at Campbell University Divinity School, said Christians have addressed the question of aesthetics and morality through the centuries.
In the 10th century, Russia is said to have embraced Eastern Orthodoxy after a ruler’s emissaries returned from Constantinople with reports of magnificent churches and rituals surpassing all others in beauty, Jorgenson said. Other Christian writers have cited the therapeutic and even salvific potential of the aesthetic in spiritual and religious life, he added.
“You can’t quantify it but it is one of the many ways we encounter God,” Jorgenson said.
Baptist blogger Tripp Hudgins, who calls himself an anglo-Baptist, said the answer to the question depends on the motivation.
“If you are spending money because you believe offering something beautiful might…help people encounter the risen Christ, then do it,” said Hudgins, an American Baptist minister currently working on a doctorate in liturgics and musicology at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.
Churches must also have a clear sense of their theology of worship and their theology of money — and that the two are compatible, he said.
“The trick for Baptists is we have this habit of saying the poor need to be fed but we don’t need beautiful worship,” he said.
But it’s wrong to overlook the impact aesthetic and beautiful worship can have on ministry, Hudgins added.
“Liturgy is never practical,” he said.
David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, said aesthetics isn’t necessarily synonymous with extravagance.
“Aesthetic beauty is relevant because we were made by God as aesthetically sensitive creatures, but some of the most profound worship I have witnessed in the world is in purely functional space dressed up with a few very basic touches,” he said.
“We need some kind of space in which to conduct the life of the church,” he added. “It can be a home, storefront or borrowed school classroom. It certainly doesn’t need to be the Taj Mahal. It does need to be adequate to meet the needs of the congregation.”
While a church should strive for excellence in all it does, it also should seek a balance, said George Bullard, president of the Columbia Partnership, a church consultancy.
“There is a line that each congregation must define for itself between quality and extravagance,” said Bullard. “The quality of worship sanctuaries (and other aesthetic components) must compliment the economic values of the average leadership person in the congregation.”
Roger Olson, Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary, takes exception to how some congregations justify exorbitant expenses in the name of providing “meaningful” worship.
“I once belonged to a church that paid non-Christian vocalists to ‘stack’ the choir,” he said. “To me, ‘meaningful worship’ is not necessarily professionally perfect worship. It’s the people of God making a joyful noise to their Lord to the best of their ability. I doubt that God is offended if someone sings off key or can’t carry a tune.”
In a metropolitan area like Houston where residents can choose among more than 500 Baptist churches — not to mention nondenominational megachurches and hundreds of congregations representing scores of other denominations — some churches might be tempted to make budget decisions based on what would attract new members and young families.
“We try not to think of ourselves as being in competition with any other churches,” Wells said. Instead, the church has determined its identity in terms of values, beliefs and worship style.
If potential new members express interest in the congregation but want to see South Main change its identity significantly, Wells gently suggests churches where they might feel more comfortable.
At the same time, South Main recognizes young families who might find the church’s worship meaningful and the ministry opportunities fulfilling will not join if the congregation does not provide a safe, clean and secure environment for their children. So the church devotes the necessary resources to maintaining and improving preschool, children’s and youth areas.
With additional reporting by Jeff Brumley.