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Can We Create Architecture That Embraces the Sacred and the Secular?

A recent Common Edge article by Duo Dickinson considered “sacred architecture” in an “increasingly secular time.” Part of the article was based on a study by the Pew Research Center, which has for years probed Americans about their frequency of church attendance along with trends in religious beliefs. You’ve probably already heard that things have not been looking good for organized religion and worship in the U.S. over the past few decades. According to Gallup, the percentage of U.S. adults in 2020 who belong to an organized religion fell to 47, down 23 points since the turn of the 21st century, the first time it dipped to less than half of the population in the 80 years the group has tracked membership. The decline has a generational angle: the younger you are, the less likely you’re a congregation member (58% for Baby Boomers, 36% for Millennials). 

The news is not good if you’re a clergy member and might be troubling for architects who have built practices on the design of traditional religious buildings. As someone who has studied and written and lectured extensively about religious architecture over several decades, however, it’s fascinating to observe what is currently happening to religious architecture. It’s adapting in nontraditional ways, as I’ve written on Common Edge before. I believe that what’s happening to religious architecture has little to do with secularism. After all, Pew has also found that 70% of U.S. adults describe themselves as spiritual in some way—hardly a secular wave. 

What’s going on?

In a recent article in The Atlantic, “Why Americans Suddenly Stopped Hanging Out,” Derek Thompson notes that in the past few decades social groups in the U.S. have been in steady decline. He cites sociologist Robert Putnam’s seminal 2000 book, Bowling Alone, which looked at the evaporation of membership in social clubs, organizations, mutual-benefit societies, bowling leagues—and religious congregations. Americans now spend more time alone than ever before in U.S. history, Thompson writes, while rates of anxiety and depression rise. Also rising exponentially, of course, is the amount of time we gaze into screens. According to annual data in the American Time Use Survey, no matter what your gender, age, ethnicity, income, or education, real-world socializing has declined. That includes attending religious services.

“…the very heart of the decline of people’s engagement with organized religion: face-to-face rituals and customs are in retreat, in both secular and sacred settings.


Thompson argues that more time with our screens means less time being active with community organizations, youth sports, or socializing with coworkers (especially with more hybrid and remote work options for many), or actively attending church; each generation attends less than their parents did. “Americans are suffering a kind of ritual recession,” writes Thompson, getting to the very heart of the decline of people’s engagement with organized religion: face-to-face rituals and customs are in retreat, in both secular and sacred settings. 

Regarding people’s religious beliefs or spirituality, or the dwindling attendance in sacred buildings, I’m not sure we can point the finger at a rise of secularism. A growing number of people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR), a choice that we might characterize as opting out of shared face-to-face rituals and customs. Younger adults (aged 18-49) account for nearly 60% of the SBNR crowd. 

The Pew study, “Spirituality Among Americans,” gives us a new view into American beliefs, which previous studies did not, as they focused primarily on the decline of Americans attending religious services. In the new study, 70% of Americans describe themselves as spiritual, or agree that spirituality is important to their lives; of this group, 22% identify as SBNR, which leaves about 48% as spiritual and religious. Few SBNR people (2%) attend organized religious services. However, about half of them say they are “affiliated with a religion” but don’t worship in a group setting. Spirituality takes many forms. Those who feel “connected to something bigger than themselves”—nature, the universe, beauty—are most prominent; “being connected to God” or “being connected to my true self,” far less so. Low on the list of “essentials to being spiritual” is “being connected with other people” and “continuing family traditions.” The diminished importance of these two suggests that contemporary spirituality is far less social. Any surprise that religious buildings are emptying? 

The survey found that a good chunk of the respondents engage in spiritual practices at least once a month in order to “feel connected with their true self,” with something bigger than themselves, or with other people. Forty-four percent of U.S. adults report that they routinely dedicate part of their day “looking inward or centering themselves.” More than a quarter spend time in nature. About 22% meditate, 7% exercise, and 4% practice yoga. All of these spiritual practices strike me as primarily solitary pursuits—again, no need for sacred buildings here. 

If the need for space designed for ritual—what might be called “sacred” space—is in decline, what comes next? The key might be found in the dichotomy of “sacred” versus “secular.” I would argue that for many people today it’s a false separation, perhaps one that’s fading. The idea of the sacred as present in the secular is not uncommon in many religions around the world, which might see the divine in nature, or in shrines and altars found in homes. For example, members of today’s Amish faith in the U.S. don’t build churches; they don’t have “sacred” buildings. Instead, they gather for worship in small groups in their houses, just like early Christians did before the first purpose-built churches appeared in the 3rd century CE. The orientation of contemporary people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” fits this pattern. 

Edward Anders Sövik’s Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Bloomington, MN, 1967, did not look like a church.


A midcentury modern American church architect who was highly suspect of buildings as “sacred” objects was Edward Anders Sövik, who practiced mostly in the Midwest. Sövik studied architecture at Yale shortly after World War II, but before that he was a student of Christian theology. He developed some pretty radical ideas about religious buildings. Sövik believed that the division between sacred and secular buildings was a pagan concept: Spirituality shouldn’t focus on “‘sacred’ architecture … but on people, on actions rather than things.” He argued that religious architecture should be “fully secular in character.” Such buildings shouldn’t be designed exclusively for worship, but flexible enough to accommodate a number of uses, “for social, recreational, and even athletic activities and for such things as day-care centers, clinics, and … housing for the elderly.” As I have talked with a variety of architecture students over the past few years about sacred space, this is the way they see the world, that there are only sacred acts: expressions of kindness, compassion, caring for others, generosity, volunteering.

Today, nonprofit organizations, such as Partners for Sacred Places, based in Philadelphia, help dwindling congregations that have large, nearly empty religious buildings find nonprofit partners that might use part of the congregation’s spaces for the arts, clinics, housing, soup kitchens, education, and community centers. The idea is to make better use of existing religious buildings that might serve their communities, just like Sövik envisioned more than a half-century ago.

Sounds like a pretty sacred undertaking to me. 

Featured image: Westwood Lutheran Church restoration by Kodet Architectural Group, Ltd., St. Louis Park, MN, designed by Edward Anders Sövik in 1963. Dana Wheelock Photography, courtesy of Kodet. 


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