In some cases, a lack of resources forces a small congregation to settle for a vacant storefront. But Renn said the long-term commitment to build a house of worship that stands as the town's symbolic spiritual center is more than a matter of money or architectural taste.
"Fundamentally it's not just a change in architecture but in ourselves and our values," he said.
Renn said architecture often reflects society's values, pointing to the Protestant megachurch as a house of worship designed to adapt to the current consumer culture rather than give a sense of permanence that stands outside of the culture and serves wider community.
"The average suburban megachurch is an architectural horror show," Renn wrote in a recent issue of the online publication New Geography. "The best of them generally rise to the level of an upscale corporate conference center. The worst are like 'That '70s High School.'"
But such criticism is unlikely to move Christian evangelical leaders toward changing their sense of place in a community, said William Dyrness, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary.
He said most evangelical or nondenominational Protestants don't place as much value on the place in which they congregate as other faiths do.
"For Protestants there is not a symbolic significance to the space itself; it's what goes on inside," he said. "It’s the people that are important."
Dyrness explained that megachurches also often accommodate communities that are new to an area that doesn't have a sense of history or tradition. "They are usually young families just getting started," he said of the majority of worshippers, who appreciate the variety of services such a large church can provide.
Congregation and community
But the benefits of a house of worship can go beyond the immediate congregation, city planners say, and a religious institution can use that leverage to work with community leaders to create a prominent place for a house of worship.
The benefits of attracting thousands of worshippers, residents and tourists to downtown and providing social services to the needy in the area were among the reasons Los Angeles city officials worked with the diocese to keep the new cathedral in the city and help revitalize the city's core, recalled Donald Spivack, former deputy chief of operations for the city's Community Redevelopment Agency and now a planning consultant.
"You are talking about a facility that has a capacity for 4,000 people and has public open space, a conference center and a number of other facilities that can serve nonreligious uses," Spivack said. "In addition, it was an opportunity to create an architectural monument that would attract people into the central city."
The diocese weathered some criticism for the $190 million price tag for what some critics called "Taj Mahony," but the community has now embraced the edifice and surrounding plaza as its own, said Cardinal Mahony, who has been criticized in recent months for his handling of the child sex-abuse scandal in the diocese.
"They don't call it the Catholic church, they refer to it as just the 'cathedral,'" he said, mentioning the concerts, funerals, memorial services, proms, festivals, commencements and other public events that have taken place at the cathedral's campus since it opened in 2002. "It has become a dynamic center for the city."
Smaller churches in smaller communities can serve that same role from a physical and spiritual standpoint, Dowdy said. He recalled his days living in Chico, Calif., where the Catholic church he attended was surrounded by fraternities and sororities associated with the local state college.
The incongruities of the location were apparent, with beer cans occasionally littering the steps of the mission-style St. John the Baptist church on Chestnut Street. Graffiti would appear, or a stained glass window would be broken.
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