In 1748, Giambattista Nolli designed the very first city map created in aerial view, called the "Nolli map" (see section of map above). This approach to visualizing cities established a new perspective for how developers and architects design cities. As an architect and a follower of Christ, I believe that we’re called to analyze how our cities and communities function, and look for ways in which we can better glorify God through the physical environment around us.
Throughout the scriptures, God has instructed His children to lay foundations, raise his temples, construct altars, erect cities, and build spiritual houses on solid rock, all according to the patterns and design that he has established (see Exodus 25:8-9, Hebrews 8:5). His instruction is always detailed and flawless, often times including exact measurements, colors, and materials.[i] His character of perfection and beauty is displayed through both His creation and His instruction for us to create.
What does this have to do with me?
Before you exempt yourself from reading this article, it is essential to understand that the call to design and build is not exclusively for those in the field of Architecture, engineering or construction. Far from it. For we are building the Kingdom of God, and we (as believers in Christ) are all equal participants. Paul reminds us of our identity and calling in his letter to the Ephesians;
“So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In Him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22).
The “built environment” refers to our man-made physical, spatial and cultural surroundings that are shaped by how we live and interact with our natural environment.
As believers, we must acknowledge that the Kingdom of God is not only an image of a heavenly home where we will one day be reconciled to God, but it is being built up around us right now. [ii]
Think about it. We were commissioned by God to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations”(Matthew 28:19). Where does that happen? Where do we worship God, love others, make disciples, and build the Kingdom of God? The answer should be, everywhere. In our homes, at our places of work, our churches, and everywhere in between. And guess what, every single one of those spaces, from the tallest skyscraper to your favorite hiking trail, is a part of the built environment. [iii]
You are an active participant in the built environment, whether you want to be or not. In fact, often times “inactivity” can be the most influential part of how effective the space is.[iv] As with any discipline or practice within our lives, we must be intentional with everything we do, always asking ourselves, “is this glorifying God or self?”
The Master Architect
Before we begin to explore our role in the built environment, it is important to acknowledge the very first (and greatest) architect. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In Genesis, God establishes the garden of Eden as a dwelling place for mankind. Adam and Eve have everything within the garden to live and to flourish. It was perfect in every way, but as sin entered the world mankind was banished from the garden (Genesis 3). But God, despite the failures of men, remains faithful and sovereign over all creation.
Hebrews chapter 11 highlights the many great men and women of faith that have gone before us. The author emphasizes how each of these men and women lived as strangers and exiles on earth, not belonging to any country or homeland, but desiring a heavenly country; the city that God had prepared for them. Zechariah chapter 8 paints this utopian-like city as being marvelous in sight, peaceful, flourishing, with vines full of fruit and children playing in the streets. Revelation chapter 21 goes into even greater detail regarding this “new Jerusalem” as a radiant jewel, clear as crystal, with golden streets, great walls, and gates that were never shut. A city designed and built by God, prepared for his children.
So, we know God has an eternal city prepared for us, but what do we do in the meantime? In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches us how to pray. “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on EARTH as it is in HEAVEN.” God is instructing us to not be content with the current state of our world, but to bring His Kingdom to Earth now!
God is the master Architect and creator of all things. He is perfectly capable of building the Kingdom of God on his own, yet he invites us to be partakers in the construction. God didn’t place Adam and Eve in the garden to idly sit by while he unfolded his plan for creation. He gave them instructions to cultivate and exercise dominion over that which he created (Genesis 2:19-20). One of the ways we cultivate His creation is through the shaping of our built environment.
The Gut Check
Every activity of our lives influences the built environment -- what houses we buy, where we shop for groceries, where we attend church, what clubs our children join, which gym we go to. Pastor and Theologian, Eric Jacobsen, notes in his book, The Space Between, that, “The living of our lives is not only shaped by but also shapes the built environment” (Jacobsen, pg. 25).
What do your patterns of life look like? Do you engage in spaces that encourage social interaction and loving your neighbor? What sort of patterns of design and planning are you encouraging? For example, one pattern that has taken hold of American city planning and development is the idea of consumer-driven suburban sprawl (if that wording seems strange or unfamiliar, just bear with me).[v] Sociologists Mark Gottdiener, Ray Hutchinson, and Michael T. Ryan note in their book, The New Urban Sociology, that in contrast to pre-industrial cities that were planned according to certain religious or symbolic meaning, most modern cities are driven by the pursuit of profit which overrides any previous social or religious order.
In other words, the most influential factors that determine development in most American cities are centered on materialism, profitability, and individualism. They may be framed within the idea of the “American dream”, but at what cost? When anything begins to replace our commission from God to make disciples of all nations and seek the welfare of our communities (Jeremiah 29:7), we need to take a step back and reassess our heart condition.
Paul instructs us in Romans 12:2, “do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” When engaging and/or designing our built environment, it is absolutely imperative that we begin by searching our hearts and the condition of our minds. Have our desires been transformed to align with the desires of God? Or have we conformed to the ideals, pursuits, and pleasures of our culture and society?
The Kingdom of God will never be fully realized on earth until Christ returns and establishes it himself (Revelation 21), but we have divine instruction from God which holds the utmost authority and precedence in every aspect of our lives. By the strength of the Holy Spirit we must never cease to pursue the excellency of design in our built environment, just as God has demonstrated before us.[vi] He wants the best for us, and so should we.
So What Next?
You may be thinking, “but where do I start?” As I have analyzed my local community, and responded to my own personal convictions regarding the built environment and how to best glorify God throughout the patterns and rhythms of my life, I have compiled a list of elements that I strive to encourage within my own community. I would encourage you to assume a similar posture of observation and engagement within your community. The built environment should be:
Human-centric. Human scale, at human speed, engaging human senses, encouraging human interaction. It can be so easy to allow other “things” to dictate the development of our cities, neighborhoods and homes such as property values, popular trends, and (worst of all) automobiles. (Full disclosure, I am particularly passionate about this topic) Cars dictate so much of our daily life that they have become less of a tool and more of a necessity. One simple question you might ask yourself is, if your car(s) broke down today, would you be able to continue making disciples and serving in your church and community?
Beautiful and complex. Our natural environment is detailed and complex beyond our own comprehension. Not only that, but it is beautiful. God loves to express his creation through aesthetic.[vii] Why do we marvel at the colors in a sunset, or the elegance of a snowflake, or the brilliance of a musical masterpiece, or the vastness of the oceans and mysteries beneath it’s surfaces? It’s because God designed it to be beautiful and to take our breath away. Why shouldn’t the order and organization of our built environment evoke the same wonder and awe?
Communal. The Kingdom of God is a community of believers, therefore our built environment should reflect the same sense of brotherly fellowship. We are designed for interaction with one another, not to be isolated.[viii] James K.A. Smith emphasizes the importance of being engaged with others when he poses the question, “could there be elements of an architecture that foster concern for the neighbour—a mode of design and planning our spaces that regularly and persistently invites us out of ourselves and our involutional worlds of self-interest, and exposes us to the needs of the Other?” (Smith, Loving Our Neighbor(hood)s: The Architecture of Altruism)
Encouraging the great commission, not hindering. Does the layout of your neighborhood, design of your office, location of your church, and proximity of your other daily activities make it easier or more difficult to make disciples? Do you have to go out of your way to have a conversation with a stranger or serve your neighbor? Our built environment should be bursting at the seams with spaces designed for the purpose of interaction and congregation.
Striving toward Shalom. The Hebrew word Shalom means peace and was often used to denote wholeness and perfection.[ix] In order to seek shalom within our world, we must design in a way that encourages equality, balance, and integration of different cultures and lifestyles. Most of our cities today can be clearly defined by different “zones” of race, income, or social status. This type of segregated development is not accidental, and it has torn apart communities and cities for as long as there have been cities on earth.[x] In the eyes of the Lord there is no distinction between us, but we are all one in Christ Jesus. Our built environment must be informed by the people living within them and should serve each individual equally. God does not show personal favoritism or partiality [xi], so neither should our built environment.
Our perfect and loving God created a world to be cultivated and our participation is not optional. EVERYONE has been commissioned to build the Kingdom of God here on earth, regardless of vocation. Doctors, teachers, students, stay-at-home parents, accountants, and architects alike share in the same responsibility to actively encourage better design and functionality of our homes, neighborhoods and cities through our rhythms and patterns of life. It is my prayer that this article encourages you to have conversations about how your home, work place, means of transportation, and church plays in to how you make disciples and live in obedience to God’s Word.
[i] Genesis 6:14-16, Exodus 26, 1 Kings 6, 1 Chronicles 28, Ezekiel 41
[ii] Daniel 7:14, Luke 10:1-12, Matthew 13:31-33, Luke 17:20-21, Matthew 6:9-10
[iii] Eric Jacobsen- The Space Between: A Christian Engagement of the Built Environment, http://www.uwindsor.ca/vabe/25/what-does-term-%E2%80%9Cbuilt-environment%E2%80%9D-mean
[iv] Eric Jacobsen- The Space Between: A Christian Engagement of the Built Environment
[v] Mark Gottdiener, Ray Hutchinson, and Michael T. Ryan- New Urban Sociology
[vi] Genesis 1
[vii] Aesthetic (noun)- a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty.
[viii] Genesis 2:18, 1 John 1:3
[x] Mark Gottdiener, Ray Hutchinson, and Michael T. Ryan- New Urban Sociology, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/08/01/the-rise-of-residential-segregation-by-income/
[xi] 2 Chronicles 19:7, Romans 2:11, Ephesians 6:9