How Finney Changed Church Buildings

Sometimes it only takes a very small measure of church history to cast a large light on modern evangelicalism practice. In Worship Through the Ages by Vernon M. Whaley, I discovered why modern church buildings are pulpit-centered and are often shaped like a theater. Whaley explains that Finney emphasized preaching above all else, and made every other element of the service subordinate to the sermon:

Finney almost single-handedly inverted worship and evangelism. Heretofore, pastors believed that worship was primary and evangelism was a by-product. Finney believed the exact reverse—everything is done for the singular purpose of evangelism.

For this reason, Finney requested that before he held meetings anywhere, the hosting church must remodel its church building.

When confirming his availability for a series of meetings, Finney would often inform the trustees of the host church that they needed to remodel the pulpit area of their building. Telling them that “the present location of seats and pulpit does not fit our new and necessary mode of worship,” he would instruct them to dispense with the church balconies and split chancel. Then, he would construct a platform across the front and place a pulpit in the middle to make certain the preaching remained the central focus of the services. Box pews were replaced by “simple pews” to allow room for people to respond to the invitation.

Where did Finney get the idea for such a radical reorientation of the sanctuary? Jeanne Kilde, architectural historian and religious studies scholar, explains in When Church Became Theatre that on one occasion Finney preached in a theater that could hold 2000 in Manhattan in 1832. This “unwittingly launched an experiment that would transform Protestant architecture.” Until this point, most churches looked like this:

After Finney experienced great results in the theater, his benefactor, Lewis Tappan told Finney, “I would preserve the form of a theater as much as possible.” Consequently, they built the Broadway Tabernacle a few years later, based on the template of a theater.

Notice in the picture above how there is no pulpit to elevate the preacher. This forces the modern preacher to hold his audience with “performance and authoritarian strategies.”  For anyone trained to preach in revival meetings in the open field this made sense, but when preachers lost that experience, many had trouble holding an audience. Our modern buildings are more like a theater than a church, and therefore require a performed sermon if they are to hold attention, not just a lecture or homily.



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