How Christian Church Design Evolved

Church pews and chairs

The iconic steeples of Christian churches may seem like an anachronism in the increasingly secular age in which we live, and yet almost 70% of Americans say they attend church occasionally, while as much as 40% are classified as very religious under a Gallup poll. There is even evidence that those who are very religious — regardless of faith — are healthier than those who are not. Church architecture and interior design, too, play an important part in American life; a picture of a church steeple is still instantly recognizable.

It is interesting then that many of the iconic or traditional elements that we associate with churches have not always been part of the design life of such buildings. Steeples, for example, like much of American church design come from the English tradition of Georgian architecture made most famous by the likes of Sir Christopher Wren and his successors.

Church steeple history, however, is not definitive and so the exact inspiration for the structure remains unclear. Some believe that they are Christian appropriations of pagan fertility symbols, but there is no definitive evidence linking the two. Others point to the steeple’s heavenward positioning as indicative of its function to point believers towards God. Regardless of its origins, the steeple remains a key design element for Christian churches and one that is both recognizable and visible enough to attract attention to the place of worship.

Pews are another of the staple design elements standard across most churches and symbolic of the act of Christian worship. But for more than the first millennium of church worship, there were no pews; instead the worshippers stood or walked around to fellow congregants. It was the introduction of the sermon as a core element of the church service that resulted in pews, then just stone benches along the walls, being installed in churches in the 13th century.

Between the 1600s and the mid-1800s, seating in church as according to social class with higher ranks sitting closest to the altar. Pews also served a very important financial function as a source of income for the church until the early part of the twentieth century. Pews were rented to wealthy or influential families or individuals to raise funds to support the church, although the Church of England viewed the practice as controversial in the 1860s and 1870s and started to form so-called “Free Churches” where it was not permitted.

Church pews take an array of design forms, from elaborate cushioned benches with hassocks or footrests to plain wooden seating. They are now becoming sought after in terms of interior design, with used church pews now taking pride of place as benches at dining tables in homes and hotels. Like steeples, pews remain an important symbolic part of Christian church design.