Symbolism in modern church architecture

Posted by on Aug 24, 2020 in Architecture

Symbolism in modern church architecture

I recently finished reading Theology in Stone by Richard Kieckhefer (read my review here).  It explores four key aspects of church architecture: Spatial Dynamics, Centering Focus, Aesthetic Impact and Symbolic Resonance, and how these have been treated in different types of churches at different times through history.

In a previous blog post, I looked particularly at how the spatial dynamics worked in various different church services.  In this I want to look a bit at the subject of symbolism.

In the more lavishly decorated churches, particularly of the more “high church” denominations, the symbolism can be quite literal – statues, paintings, inscriptions.  Many of these symbols also work because they are part of a long tradition and as such gain recognition among those who know that tradition.

But what about churches that don’t have such a tradition?  Are they condemned to worship in soulless sheds that provide shelter but say nothing about who they are as a church?  Are there other ways?

When working, a couple of years ago, on a speculative project for a new building for a growing independent evangelical church, I took the opportunity to explore how simple, economical, modern construction could be layered with symbolism that expresses how the church sees itself.  I did not expect most of the symbols to be legible to the casual observer, but that they would add extra layers of understanding for those who looked into it – almost like hidden Easter eggs.



The circle represents the people being gathered together.

A circle transforms the congregation from an audience to a community.  It rejects individualism by making people look one another in the eye and acknowledge them as brothers and sisters worshipping together, not in isolation.  In its perfect form it would be a complete circle, but that would be considered too radical and practicality of use requires compromise.

This form, although always seen as unconventional, has been used throughout history, e.g. the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

Twelve pillars

Numbers are often used symbolically within the Bible.

The number twelve is frequently used as a symbol of the people of God – in the Old Testament the twelve tribes, in the new, the twelve apostles.  The circle of twelve pillars here symbolises the church being the people of God gathered together – people who do not necessarily have anything else which unites them brought together as a family.


The cross is the most recognisable symbol here and represents the death of Jesus as the central most important event in the Christian faith.

The cross is marked out in the flooring – it is the foundation on which the church stands.  The people are gathered around the cross.  The baptistery is sunk into the floor in the centre, speaking of being baptised into Christ’s death.  The lectern would sit on the cross, showing it to be the basis of Christian teaching.

The cross runs out the door into the foyer and café beyond to show that the cross is not just central to worship but shapes the whole life of the church.



The roof structure is in the form of a sunburst.

If the cross speaks of death, then the sunburst speaks of resurrection and glory.  The cross is the floor as the foundation, but the sunburst in the roof is what lifts the eyes and hearts of the people.

The church sits in that space between, looking back and remembering and looking forward in joy and hope.

Broken wall

The broken wall symbolises multiple things but primarily, it symbolises the relationship of the church to the world around it.

There is a tension between the desire for separation and integration; the tension between the call of Jesus to “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place” and call to be “a city set on a hill [that] cannot be hidden”.  The wall encloses and defines the space but the gaps allow views out into the world around and allow those passing to look in and see what is going on.


The tent form of the roof looks back to Abraham, who lived as a nomad in a foreign country because “he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

While it is common to speak about “timelessness” and “permanence” in church architecture, and I know I have done so myself, the church is a temporal and transient thing.  The building is not a monument to last forever but a temporary home on the journey.

All of these symbols layered on top of each other within one space seek to communicate something of what the church stands for – their purpose and their beliefs.  I have sought to do this without using the standard architectural motifs of traditional church buildings, beautiful though they might be.

You can see the complete design (unfortunately unbuilt) in our portfolio.

Neil McAllister

Architect, Associate Director