ChurchScape

Megachurches and the Iconography of Environment

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Susan Power Bratton
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , August
     2016.
     448 pages.
     $49.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481303835.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In ChurchScape: Megachurches and the Iconography of Environment, Susan Power Bratton weaves together ecclesial and architectural history, historical theology, environmental science, aesthetics, and constructive ethics to present an expansive yet nuanced account of American megachurch landscapes. Beginning with a historical narration regarding the establishment of meeting houses on colonial commons and concluding with a call to consider the social and environmental implications of the church “in-place” (349) within a larger context, Bratton’s survey demonstrates how megachurch complexes reflect the deep theological ties of the communities that inhabit them. Along this line, Bratton eschews the common assumption that megachurches are a carbon copy of American shopping centers, concert halls, and sports stadiums, untethered from the traditions of sacred architecture and the development of Christian thought in the United States. Rather, Bratton asserts that, “for American Protestants, religious architecture and its landscape settings have long been statements of who God is and where God dwells” (12).

The former Chair of Environmental Science at Baylor University, Bratton shines in her chapter “Woodlands, Wetlands, and Wildlife: Caring for Creation” (255-286). Pivoting away from historical survey, Bratton delves into environmental ethics and poses a series of actionable opportunities for church leaders in various contexts (suburban, urban; woodland, watershed, or wetland adjacent) to consider. While the spectrum of issues that Bratton brings into focus–such as water quality, impervious surface runoff, wetland conservation, and native plant community preservation–are no different from those that developers of American malls and entertainment auditoriums face, she suggests that church leaders may be called to a higher ethical standard than other builders. Bratton suggests, “[t]he question is not, Should churches comply with water district or city planners? Rather, Should churches make an effort to do more than the law requires?” (263). In this way, Bratton underscores the ways in which megachurches are members of a living ecclesial heritage as well as innovators at the forefront of a new set of environmental challenges and opportunities.

One of the most valuable contributions Bratton presents in this volume is her entreaty for American megachurches to cultivate an “ethos of institutional neighborliness” (347), in which the social, physical, and environmental concerns of the larger community are brought into focus. Evoking the image of the New Jerusalem, Bratton urges the reader not to consider the church as an alternative city, insulated from the concerns of its civic context, but to be deeply invested in the service of their home region. Church leaders, Bratton contends, should reckon with natural processes, including water quality and flow, erosion control, wildlife habitat, parking remediation, and commit themselves to improving their understanding of conservation initiatives and methods as “stakeholders in the global gateway” (354). Bratton’s emphasis on the thoroughly practical avenues of community engagement–lunch with the park commissioner and neighborhood association, volunteering for a stream restoration project, installing a demonstration rain garden–sets her work apart from other theological examinations of the built environment, which stress individual and family contributions to creation care.

Although Bratton touches on issues of race and class in her chapter “Gateways,” I had hoped for a stronger critique of the relationship between megachurches and urban renewal initiatives. As a predominately ethnographic study, Bretton’s impartial examination of churches such as First Baptist Church in Dallas fits the genre of her project. Where this oversight becomes problematic, however, is when Bratton shifts into practical theology and social ethics in her final chapters. Her emphasis on environmental resource management strategies over environmental justice issues, as well as a commendatory perspective on New Urbanism, omits the ways in which local communities can be further disenfranchised by these progressive policies.

As the first historical and theological study of megachurches and their landscape, Bratton’s Churchscape is a singular contribution to the growing field of Christian theology and the built environment. Moreover, Bratton’s survey is admirable in its scope: in addition to the wide variety of disciplinary perspectives—historical, theological, environmental, ethical, and aesthetic–demonstrated in her work, Bratton committed herself to years of field research, visiting over two-hundred megachurches across the United States. The fact that the majority of the illustrative photographs within the volume are Bratton’s own only highlights this careful field work. It follows that, as an extensive review of megachurches, Bratton’s book will appeal to a broad audience: scholars will find Bratton’s ethnographic survey of the American church’s changing relationship to the environment an important contribution to the study of American megachurches, architects and landscape architects will discover Bratton’s outline of historical influences on megachurch architecture useful for their projects, and church leaders will be challenged by Bratton’s generative environmental ethics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lisa Beyeler-Yvarra is a practicing urban designer and graduate candidate at Duke Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
January 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Susan Power Bratton is Professor of Environmental Studies at Baylor University.

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