Of Tepees and Tabernacles

We are building a new church in our parish, and to lead the effort I have been thinking and reading about church architecture. Looking around at the dismal buildings that have been presented as Catholic churches over the last 50 years, one has to ask where on earth the architects, designers, and liturgists got their ideas.

We don’t have to look far. G. K. Chesterton said, “Every argument is a theological argument,” and the modern churches clearly reflect the beliefs of their builders. First, the builders and their buildings are fundamentally utilitarian. Driven by the unquestioned modernist dogma that “form follows function,” they have designed not churches but auditoria. Everyone can see the altar; the sound system is excellent; the toilets are capacious and clean. The air conditioning works, and the roof does not leak, and (most important of all) the building was not expensive.

When it comes to whether the church should be beautiful or not, the building committee adopts the doctrine of Judas: “Why should the money be spent on costly ointment when it could be given to the poor?” In other words, let’s cut out all that beautiful stuff; it’s too expensive. We need a few statues and vestments — but cheap, mass produced stuff will do. But too often, once the cheap choice is made, they forget that the money saved was to go to the poor, and the savings are merely pocketed.

Then there are the liturgists, who tell us that the Mass is all about “gathering the people of God for a fellowship meal.” Therefore, everyone must sit around the altar as a family. I heard one trendy priest explain, “When I am celebrating Mass, I am like the shaman telling stories around the campfire with the whole tribe gathered around me.” On this pretext, on Holy Saturday, this priest brought the new fire into the sanctuary of the church itself. I suppose it was unsurprising, therefore, when he built a church that resembled a large brick tepee.

In fact, the tepee has its own theology: Some anthropologists theorize that the Native Americans built tepees and placed them in a circle around the campfire because they understood life to be cyclical. They lived in circles because life was a circle: birth, death, and reincarnation.  But the Judeo-Christian understanding of the cosmos, history, and God’s providence is not cyclical but linear. We believe in an intelligence behind all things, which has purpose and meaning and intention. Therefore, we believe in a beginning and an end; an Alpha and an Omega. Consequently, those other tent-dwelling nomads, the Hebrews, worshipped God not in a tepee but in a tabernacle.

I have never understood why Christian architects agonize over the basic structure of a church when the Bible itself has a whole section on church architecture. One only need read Exodus 25-30 chapters to see just how God wants His house to be built. Of course, we need not try to create an exact replica of the temple in Jerusalem, like an attraction at Disneyland — but the basic outline is there. The temple itself was simply a grand and permanent version of the tent-like tabernacle in the wilderness that God prescribed.

The basic outline is a rectangle with a large outer courtyard for the people, an inner courtyard for the clergy, and a Holy of Holies where God’s presence was focused. For 2,000 years, the vast majority of churches — whether Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, neo-classical, or a combination of the above — were built in this same, simple, three-chambered fashion. These Christian churches conveyed a sense of direction from the entry, through the great west door, up the central aisle to the sanctuary with its altar, and finally up to the tabernacle — the Holy of Holies and the presence of Christ. These Christian churches not only conveyed in architecture the linear view of salvation history, but they also evoked the hierarchical sense of the church. As you moved forward, you also moved further up and further in.

All of this is lost in the modern tepee, circus-tent sort of church. Tradition was trashed, and innovation was in. Every new church had to express the latest trend, or be the vehicle for some architect or poorly trained parish priest to “express himself,” or some new idea or enthusiasm.


Another principle from the Book of Exodus corrects this modern mania for self-expression. Along with the rectangular, three-chambered structure, some other principles were also established. The tabernacle was not essentially a meeting place for the people of God; it was first and foremost the dwelling place of God. That the people went there to make sacrifice and worship was incidental. The focus, therefore, was to create a worthy and beautiful dwelling place for the deity.

The difference between then and now is striking. We moderns don’t intend to make a temple for God. We intend to make a meeting place for ourselves. No wonder we build auditoria and not temples.

The final principle established in the instructions for the tabernacle rests on the second. If this is the dwelling place for God, then nothing but the best is worthy of His house. We read that the children of Israel brought all the gold and silver that they had plundered in their escape from Egypt and used it to make the golden candlesticks, the gold-plated tables, the sacred vessels, and the Ark of the Covenant. The women brought their costly fabrics and threads and wove into the panels of the tabernacle exquisite portrayals of angels. The fabric walls themselves were not made from rough wool, but from expensive dolphin hide and rare linens dyed with precious purple and encrusted with gems.

No base, utilitarian meeting place with a few tawdry trinkets and decoration thrown in. Instead, the tabernacle was a glorious dwelling place for God–an awesome throne room for the Almighty, into which His people came to offer their sacrifices of praise.

One of the happier consequences of the tepee churches is that, because they were built cheaply and filled with trashy junk, no one will feel too bad when they reach the end of their lifespan and are either torn down or turned into the parish meeting hall. They were fashionable buildings of their time — a time when the timeless was dismissed as boring. Consequently, like bell bottoms and double-knit leisure suits, when their time is over, these inconsequential buildings may be disposed of, and no one will grieve their going. No one will form a committee to petition the bishop to preserve the historic and important church. Instead everyone will breathe a sigh of relief and vote to bring in the demolition team.

Happily, a new generation of church architects is even now arising that understands the impact and importance of timeless architecture — and how tradition can be at once timeless and up to date. These young men and women are determined and intelligent and talented, and they are fully Catholic. Committed to their faith, and undaunted by an architectural establishment that, feeling threatened, ridicules them, they are working quietly and courageously to renew the tradition in our day and age. They wish to build churches that are beautiful tabernacles for God — not just gathering spaces for His people.

Rev. Dwight Longenecker


Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson. Check out his website and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

  • Michael PS

    In my native Scotland, Catholic church buildings have been reformed with a thoroughness not seen since John Knox put the smile into Calvinism.

    However, I spend a lot of time in Paris and, within walking distance of my little studio apartment I can attend mass in the old abbey church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (built by King Childebert I (511-558) or in the vast 17th century structure of Olier’s Saint-Sulpice, with Cavaillé-Coll’s great organ. As a lawyer, I often have business at the Palais de Justice, where there is a weekday mass in the Saint-Chapelle, arguably one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

    Now, all these are quite unspoiled. As the property of the Nation, no one can put so much as a tintack in the wall, without government permission ad they are not disposed to allow liturgical reformers to tamper with historical monuments. Thank God, say I, for the Law of 1905!

    • digdigby

      Thats funny-sad. And very true. Thank God the radical secularists protected these churches and kept them out of the hands of ‘Catholics’.

  • pammie

    Nothing on earth is quite as dismal , ugly and downright disheartening as Boomer church architecture unless it would be the theology that is behind it all.

    • hombre

      I have visited five almost brand new churches in my diocese and they are beautiful examples of what it means to create a gathering space and a prayer space. It is not an either or, as some of the people in this thread seem to think. And by the way, a church is not a building. It comes from ecclesia, a Greek word meaning a gathering. And so a church has always been a gathering place.

      I have belonged to those cold communities where nobody says anything (or can’t, if the weather is bad) on the way in and everybody quietly leaves on the way out. Joyful houses of God, those, which would probably satisfy some of the Catholic curmudgeons I know.

      • pammie

        Perhaps it’s because I have a “gathering space” and a “prayer space” right in my own house that I long for a beautiful , reverent, majestic location to worship the living God, along with fellow believers. If we want to socialise afterwards we may do so in a number of ways none of which have much to do with church architecture past or present.

        Lucky you if you find Boomer churches appealing as they are certainly in the majority. And they wont seem nearly as sad looking when converted into flea markets (or whatever) as do the more traditionally built ones now.

        • Micha Elyi

          “If we want to socialise afterwards we may do so in a number of ways none of which have much to do with church architecture past or present.”

          Really, now and what do you suppose the entrance to St. Peter’s Square is all about?

    • Micha Elyi

      Boomer church architecture

      That would be shown in churches built within the last 10 years or so because before then Boomers weren’t old enough in sufficient numbers to dominate parish or diocesan leadership.

      In the diocese in which I live the church buildings that most resemble the teepee and auditorium churches disparaged in the article were typically built in the period 1950-1980 (the earlier, the uglier). One cannot honestly blame Boomers for those.

  • G.

    I’ve observed another practical problem with the round layout. The “wings” out of the direct, forward-looking line of sight to the front of the altar tend to be treated as a “blind spot” where people are prone to chit-chat or check their text messages.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    But, Father, you will have to face the consequences of erecting a church that is not only beautiful, but inspires reverence and elevates the human spirit in its praise of the Almighty. You will have to spend much more time at the entrance to the church after Mass listening to the accolades of visiting Catholics who will remark that they have never participated in a more beautiful liturgy.

    I know because I hear this at our parish of St. Peter’s in Beaufort. What with an awe-inspiring church, a beautiful choir that can sing more than “Gather Us In,” incense, more than the requisite two candles on the altar, altar servers who know what they are doing, a bit of Latin sprinkled in, fully vested clergy at the altar and sticking to the Missal people are…well besides themselves.

    So, get used to hearing the compliments from the visitors.

    • Fr Smith

      I still count it a great privilege that I got to serve as Parochial Vicar and Administrator at St Peter’s, Beaufort. Don’t leave out the wonderful deacons and staff as well 😉

      • Deacon Ed Peitler

        There are some priests who just ooze class!

  • Mark Kirby

    Can it be said that the churches, pre-and-post Vatican II, are appropriate to the rites celebrated in them? I’m in no position to impeach the experience of the “trendy priest;” so far as I can see after all these years, the Novus Ordo has a natural tropism toward informality. Look at the language of the Mass being corrected by the new translation. The simple presence of Latin in the Tridentine Mass makes an audible analog to the reservation of space erected in our older churches: Communion rail, rood, Archangel statues flanking the Tabernacle, and so forth. A similar construction and relaxation of reverence can be discerned between our music patrimony, of chant and polyphony, and what’s sung (often unsung) in parishes today.

  • John

    The sound systems are excellent in modern Catholic churches you say? Wow, where? I haven’t yet entered a Catholic church where anyone understands the concept of audio amplification.

  • Cord Hamrick

    Allow me to second John’s observation, with (ironically) a bit of amplification:

    There are, in my experience, no Catholic churches at all whose sound systems are better than those used by a typical middle-school youth group in a small evangelical church. Some of them are inferior to what I had in my dorm room at college. I attend mass at the sixth largest parish in one of the fastest-growing dioceses in the U.S.; I have heard it described as a “Catholic megachurch”; and yet, while my high-school garage band did not have better P.A., my college band did.

    And I’m sad to say that the efforts at audio production in other Catholic parishes I have visited were similarly atrocious. I am sure that God is pleased at the well-intended service of the elderly gentleman who was conscripted to move faders, in obedience to principles of which he is entirely ignorant, on the tiny Peavey sound-board, stuck back in some obscure corner of the church where the sound reaching his hearing-aids is guaranteed to be the most unlike what everyone else hears in the rest of the room. I am sure that God honors his earnest efforts.

    But I think God might also be pleased were we to make something resembling an attempt at excellence. That maybe our offering of worship ought to be more like Abel’s and less like Cain’s.

    And I am certain the homilies would have a better opportunity to edify, were they audible and intelligible. I am sure parishoners would find it a slightly less grinding spiritual exercise to “lift up their hearts,” were they to hear music that was beautiful, and hear it well enough to be able to tell that it was beautiful.

    When I was on my way into the Church, and it was time for the Rite of Election, the Archbishop had all the RCIA classes from the archdiocese gather in the Civic Center. I was looking forward to it: Here was the Church, with enough people coming in to require the hiring out of a large public venue! With the Archbishop presiding! A successor of the apostles! Big deal!

    Uh, huh. Persons speaking through microphones were inaudible or garbled or interrupted by feedback or all three. Likewise the singing, listlessly performed by a small troupe who seemed to have come together to sing those two tunes for the first time that very day. The musicians were not bad in the sense that I heard no glaring errors, but I heard no special effort either.

    Worst of all were the songs themselves. One was “On Eagles Wings”; the other was equally bathetic, lyrically and melodically, and drenched in sappy piano right-hand rolls and major-7 chords of the type which make Sominex superfluous and bid fair to deny Ambien and Lunesta a market.

    It was embarrassing. Did those planning the event appreciate what such an approach says, in a voice far louder than words?

    The entire event bespoke an attitude: “Quality doesn’t matter because God always grades on a curve, so who cares if we offer up something shoddy, so long as it saves time and effort and money?”

    Medieval cathedrals were built as well as things could be built, with stained glass and impossibly high arches and white stone and gilding and lavish attention to detail. As church music evolved so too did architecture, with some buildings literally designed around the pipe organ (that earliest kind of analog synthesizer) so as to reverberate and magnify the sounds of all pitches evenly. In short: People gave a rip, and did it in such a way as to suggest they thought maybe God gave a rip, too.

    I have sometimes heard Catholics of a traditional bent excoriate the “hippie Mass” and say that contemporary worship music was inappropriate for Mass. Maybe they’re correct; but I wanted to ask them: “How would you know? It is not as if you have ever heard any contemporary worship music. Not, you know, competently done. And had your chants all been sung by pitch-deaf street hawkers and all your violins played by unrehearsed first-year students with worn-out bows and your pipe-organ music played on electronic keyboards purchased for under $100 at Wal-Mart, I guarantee you that you’d have concluded that chant and chamber strings and pipe-organ were unfit for the Mass, too.”

    Even today we hold the body and blood of Christ in golden vessels, thank heaven. But everything in the realm of church music is in a slouching and slovenly manner, and audio production worst of all.

    • G.

      The cheapening of music and architecture certainly go hand-in-hand. Minimalism has become the currency of authenticity/legitimacy in both cases. Nothing can be “complicated.”

      In music in particular, there are also persistent vestiges of an antiquated, condescending primitivist myth wherein one must imitate the supposedly “simpler,” “folk” cultures whose artisans allegedly just “create,” supposedly without the trappings of intellectual “interference.” Or as the music store t-shirt said, “Don’t Think Just Play.”


    • Joan P.

      “Even today we hold the body and blood of Christ in golden vessels, thank heaven. But everything in the realm of church music is in a slouching and slovenly manner, and audio production worst of all.”

      I have been to churches where the Precious Body and Blood of Christ is held in glass and ceramic vessels.

  • mark

    It’s really hard to blame the architects when they have so little to work with. Centuries ago, God was THE center of the community, as was evident in the beautiful churches, some of which sometimes took decades and even centuries to complete.

    These days the selfishness of the average contracepting Christian (especially Catholics, who know better) is evident by their grudgingly dropping their dollar into the collection basket, leaving directly after they receive communion, going home to their 4000 square foot house and perfectly groomed lap dogs.

    I for one, believe that pastors want a beautiful church building and settle for way less due to “circumstances”.

    • Cord Hamrick


      I fear you’re quite correct about the grudgingly-dropped dollars. I don’t know what the numbers are now, but four or five years ago a read a report on giving to churches which showed evangelicals giving about twice as much, measured as a percentage of income, to their churches as Catholics do to theirs.

      As a consequence, you get my simultaneous embarrassments: The bad sound systems and far-from-sparkling-new facilities at the Catholic parish, contrasted against the comparatively lovely and state-of-the-art stuff at the non-denominational church where I used to attend…and also my mother’s report that her (Southern Baptist) church and a few others in the same zip code “went in together” on contributions to a nearby ecumenical ministry to the needy, but that the Catholic parish ran low on funds and couldn’t hold up their end of the deal.

      They teach tithing in my mother’s church; I grew up giving a dime from every dollar of allowance. They teach that it’s on one’s pre-tax income, because God is more important that government and gets the “firstfruits” not the second cut. They teach that it’s a sign of faith in the Lord’s faithful provision, and an act of prioritizing God over stuff. They say that if you’re not doing it joyfully, don’t do it, but pray, asking God for the faith to be able to do it joyfully.

      Now the Catholic Catechism doesn’t teach the pre-tax 10% rule, in much the same way that the U.S. Bishops don’t mandate “meatless Fridays.” But I wonder: Do some Catholics not understand that the non-requirement of “meatless Fridays” is intended not to absolve the faithful from any penitential act on Fridays, but rather to encourage them to one more meaningful, more significant? And likewise, I wonder: Do some Catholics not understand that the non-requirement of 10% of pre-tax income is because the Catechism is directed equally to Americans and Somalians, to the wealthy and the impoverished? The Church would lay no heavy burden on the third-world poor, whose widows already give a “widow’s mite” which probably amounts to far more than 10% of their wealth, to say nothing of their non-existent “income.” But we Americans, even in an economic downturn, have little excuse not to give above-and-beyond tithing for the support of the Church and Her Charities, while we walk around wearing clothes that didn’t come from Goodwill, using electronics that weren’t purchased used, and fulfilling our Friday Lenten obligations at Red Lobster.

      Anyhow, it is not always obligatory on the believer to make certain that the House of God is in perfect condition before the believer’s family home becomes palatial. David was famously told “thanks, but no thanks” by the Lord Himself when feeling agitated over that very issue.

      Still, in the U.S. we could probably benefit from at least a small shift in financial priorities. And I think some church sound systems could benefit, into the bargain.

  • Micha Elyi

    Suitable places for the Stations of the Cross and provision of niches in which to place statues are typically lacking in the post-1950 church buildings I see.

    (There can never be too many niches.)