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May 2011

The architecture of mission

Let's consider architecture and construction. What role can they play in the mission of God? Naturally, buildings create space for all sorts of churchly activities. That's wonderful. But can architecture actually give shape to mission? Can it teach us about what God is up to in the world?

The reason I ask this question is simple: we are conducting a renovation of the Olson Campus Center this summer. This is the first major building project on campus since, well, the construction of the Olson Campus Center in 1984. This renovation project is exciting! It's also important for the community's life at Luther Seminary. Why? Because, as the old saying goes, "First you shape the building, then the building shapes you." Good architecture does just that. It shapes a community in significant ways. So how will this building shape our community for mission?

The renovated Olson Campus Center will align with Luther Seminary's mission to prepare the type of leaders the church most needs. The sense of community on campus will be strengthened with the addition of classrooms and space dedicated to fellowship of students, faculty, staff and friends of Luther Seminary. It will further foster an engaging environment that supports a new model of learning, which goes beyond the classroom setting.

I first experienced "missional" architecture when I visited the Valparaiso campus many years ago. The chapel on campus is glorious and it has a unique design. When you walk down the center aisle toward the front altar, all you can see is the cross at the front of the sanctuary. The cross holds your focus; you can't see outside. The windows are built at such an angle that you can only see outside the sanctuary, i.e., the world, after receiving communion and walking back to your seat. "Go in peace," you can hear. "Serve the world." The world comes into focus only after the community is sent forth from the altar. So we are gathered at the table and sent forth from God's presence there into mission. First we focus on the cross, then on mission. Architecture shapes mission. In the Valparaiso chapel, it really preaches!

Since that time, I've witnessed many examples of "mission-shaped" buildings. If art is a new form of evangelism then so too can architecture serve as a great teacher of the faith. "First we shape the building, then the building shapes us." Our prayer for the Olson Campus Center renovation is that it will create an atmosphere of hospitality and fellowship, community and perspective on the world that teaches and encourages Luther Seminary's community about mission to and for the world. Let it shape us for mission.

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