Minimalism and the Church

By Hillary Asbury

“To appropriate: to take for oneself; take possession of; to steal.”

While at the theological symposium in Saint Louis last week, I had the rare pleasure of meeting a fellow liturgical artist. Kelly Schumacher is the founder of Agnus Dei Liturgical Arts in Saint Louis, Missouri. She is a talented creative with a theological foundation for her work that is as elegant as it is intelligent. Her passion for what she does is unwavering, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

The lecture that Kelly gave at the symposium was impressive and inspiring, but there was one point in particular that stood out to me. She was discussing the Minimalist movement of the 1960s and ‘70s and the impact that it had on church art and architecture. As she presented an example of a particularly bare church interior with minimal design, she asked if we thought it was beautiful, if it recalled thoughts of a heavenly Jerusalem and the adorned Bride of Christ, and if it inspired faith and devotion. “Let’s be honest,” she said, “no…and we can do better.” She went on to say that by adopting minimalist design principles we are “appropriating false theologies.” I was floored by her choice of words, and I’ve been trying to unpack them ever since.

The trend in art and architecture known as Minimalism has its roots in Industrial-era Europe but began to gain traction in New York in the 1960s. The main stylistic components are abstract geometric shapes, and the core of its psyche is a rejection of all metaphor and meaning beyond that of surface value. For architectural purposes, this often means that structures are reduced to only their necessary components, the bare minimum needed to function. In Minimalist art, we generally see large planes of solid color, nothing more. I have to wonder already if a system of design based on the idealization of meaninglessness is appropriate for use in our churches.

Minimalism is also heavily influenced by Japanese tradition and Zen philosophies, sometimes looking to the environment to reveal something spiritual and abstract in the design. Again, I wonder. How can this be congruent with our theology? What are we trying to communicate here? How did we get into this mess in the first place? Did we simply succumb to the trends of popular culture? It’s true that these things tend to creep into design choices unnoticed, but we are in the world, not of it, are we not?

Another point Kelly made in her lecture was that churches are holy places—holy, set apart. They shouldn’t look like every other building on the block. The church is the Bride of Christ, should she not look like it? Should she not be adorned for the marriage feast that is to come? Instead, Minimalism would have us strip her bare! What we are left with are sanctuaries that are utilitarian at best and cold at worst. Our faith is not a cold or a minimal faith. We are lavishly loved by a God who pours out blessings upon blessings. So why do we still cling to the tenets of a visual philosophy that so clearly conflicts with our doctrine? I have to echo Kelly when she says that we can do better.

Artistic movements often come with some pretty hefty philosophical baggage, and the Minimalist system of design is no different. It is critical that we be cognizant and careful with how much of this baggage we invite to cross over the threshold into our churches. Our design will profess something. Our art and architecture will tell the world something about us and something about our God. What do we want it to say? Will we profess the philosophies of Minimalism? Zen? Every architectural element, every corner of space is a chance to speak the Gospel, and we are missing opportunities everywhere, opportunities we cannot afford to miss. We can do better, and we must.