Churches and other places of worship are important institutions in our communities that serve multiple roles and needs. While they are generally quite easy to identify due to their unique architecture and/or exterior appearance, I want to share information about churches here in Los Angeles that simply do not resemble the traditional ones that most people are used to seeing. But before doing so, let me first talk about a wonderful article written by Stanley Daniels who is co-founder and chairman of Atlanta-based Jova/Daniels/Busby Architects, and a member of the Guild for Religious Architecture. Published in November 2012, Daniels’ article does a great job discussing today’s changing church, and how advances in media, technology, architecture, and engineering have dramatically affected the planning, design, and usage of worship spaces. (For members of the American Planning Association (APA), you can access the article here after logging onto the APA website.)
Summarized below are key points I took away from Daniels’ article:
- “Megachurches” (those with 2,000 or more congregants) are gaining dominant ground in the religious landscape, with over half of all American churchgoers now attending the largest 10 percent of churches. Those attracted to the average megachurch are often youthful, family-oriented, and middle class, with 70 percent of attendees being under the age of 50 with children.
- Referred to by many as the “third place” (the first being the home and the second the workplace), the church has now become a community anchor by serving as a social gathering place. Worship spaces are no longer used just for formal worship services. They have now become far more community driven as more churches use their space as a place for their congregation to connect, mingle, and socialize.
- Churches have felt the impact of a weakened economy, causing many to postpone, or in some cases, forgo altogether, new building projects. Many are evaluating their current church facilities to see how they may be improved or expanded, and are choosing instead to renovate their existing space to meet new or expanded needs.
- Previous commercial or even industrial spaces have been recently uplifted for religious use. Typically, the churches benefiting from adaptive reuse of a large, open space have a more contemporary, “big box” look and feel. However, with planning and design creativity and technology, the results can be impressive.
- Whether it is a contemporary megachurch or a formal traditional church, how it is designed–both from an exterior and interior perspective and the services it decides to offer–is a reflection of the congregation it serves and the shifting role of the church within the community.
While Daniels’ article is comprehensive, it focuses more on suburban churches and does not address two types of urban churches found here in Los Angeles: storefront churches and those which use “secular” meeting places for religious use. Storefront churches are widespread in L.A. and can be found along major thoroughfares. Although his book is not specifically on storefront houses of worship, Professor Martin Krieger of the University of Southern California offers insightful background information and commentary on these institutions in Urban Tomographies (2011). Krieger has photographed the facades of hundreds of small storefront churches in L.A. which in part reflect the diverse migration and immigration patterns and groups. The stores are usually in older retail strip developments located in working-class or poorer neighborhoods. Many of the ministers of these churches are not formally trained or educated for ministry; often they are dual-career clergy with regular day jobs. According to Krieger, Christian institutions dominate the storefront houses of worship he photographed and many of them have Spanish-speaking congregations. The dominant denominations and movements are Pentecostal and Baptist, experiential and biblical, respectively. Krieger further points out that storefront churches reflect the dynamics of the real estate market, changing migration and settlement patterns, and historical streetcar routes.
There are also churches which do not own or maintain their own facilities due in part to the high costs of land, construction, ownership, and operation/maintenance. Instead, they use “secular” meeting places for worship services. This is especially common in downtown Los Angeles where a number of Christian churches rent spaces for use only on Sundays. Listed below is a sample of downtown churches which meet in non-traditional locations:
- City Light Church meets at the Downtown Independent Theatre (251 S. Main Street);
- New City Church meets at Los Angeles Theatre Center (514 S. Spring Street);
- Sovereign Grace Church meets at AT&T Center Theatre (1150 S. Olive Street); and
- Live Church LA meets at Club Nokia at LA Live (800 W. Olympic Boulevard)
Of course, none of these churches are recognizable as such except on Sundays when temporary or portable signs with their names are displayed. I am currently a member of City Light Church which meets at a movie theater that shows independent films. In the past, I have been part of churches that meet in schools, commercial spaces, and even a photo studio. Strange to say, I have probably spent more time in non-traditional churches than in more conventional church sanctuaries which I seem to only go for weddings and other special events!
It should also be noted that there are church buildings that have been converted for non-religious use. For example, the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana, often called St. Vibiana’s, is a former Catholic church building in downtown L.A. that is being used as a performing arts complex and event venue called “Vibiana“. The building opened in 1876 as the cathedral for what was then known as the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles, and remained the official cathedral of the Los Angeles see for over 100 years.
We have all heard of the idiom “don’t judge a book by its cover.” By the same token, I would say that we should not judge a church by its building or exterior either. Regardless of what they look like and where they meet, places of worship contribute significantly to the quality of life in our communities and serve important functions. As I have shared above, many churches in Los Angeles do not resemble the traditional places of worship as church leaders and/or congregations have chosen to use existing spaces (like commercial spaces, schools, theaters etc) rather than create brand new buildings. Storefront churches and those which use “secular” meeting places for religious use are prime examples.
Photos of Pasadena Christian Church and Vibiana by author
Illustrations of the Downtown Independent Theatre and The Notion Studio by artist Mindy Lee