FARGO — Say the word “church.” Say it out loud. What comes to mind? Your own church, certainly. The wooden pews where you sit. The windows. The pipes to an organ.
But what else? High ceilings, stained glass windows, intricate designs, murals, golden and white hues. Perhaps the flying buttresses of Notre Dame, the cloisters of Westminster Abbey or the towers of Assumption Abbey in Richardton, N.D. A church is always easy to spot because it looks like, well, a church.
There is something about the architecture that inspires a conversation with God. And it’s not just limited to Christianity. Think of the minarets of a mosque. Think of the dome covered in prayer flags at a Buddhist monastery. Think of the ark of a synagogue.
Now, take those images away — no stained glass, no high ceilings. Without the traditional setting, does it still feel like a church? Is worship the same? Do you need to be in a church to go to church?
A number of congregations in the Fargo-Moorhead area are challenging the traditional relationship between worship and walls. In Moorhead, traffic turning off U.S. Highway 10 and heading north on U.S. Highway 75 accelerates past a long, simple building on the east side of the road. In what was once the Baymont Motel, Moorhead Baptist Church now hosts a congregation of about 90 people.
The current look of the church is due in large part to Pastor John Roloson. The building caught fire four years ago and Roloson, who has a construction background, remodeled it himself. Reminiscent of the motel the building used to be, the main worship space is a long, brightly lit auditorium with an altar and baptismal pool behind the altar. Another narrow hallway leads to large rooms for Sunday school and child care.
Roloson says he likes the space they’re in, and it serves their congregation well. It’s close and friendly. And while he agrees that architecture could affect the feeling of a service, he does not think it’s a big issue.
“Every church has a different philosophy in terms of what a service should be like and architecture could affect the spirit of the service, but nothing drastic,” he says. “Nowadays you see storefront churches. It’s no longer unusual to not be in a traditional setting.”
In Fargo, another church is highly visible to everyone who drives Main Avenue because of its prime location on the corner of Main and Fourth Street. River City Church Pastors Charlie Hogstad and Jake Peterson are aware of the way they stand out with brick walls and large windows overlooking the busy street.
While being located at a bustling intersection with lots of foot and motor traffic could be a distraction, Hogstad and Peterson say the location helps them stay “relationally focused and reminds us that we’re intertwined with what’s outside.”
“The space lets us express and be who we are and we want to continue doing so,” Hogstad says.
The casual, simple, open setting in what was once an auto shop seems to lessen the need to be formal. A wide auditorium space is used for service. The white-walled room is furnished with simple chairs in curving rows.
River City Church was initially in the hallway between Dempsey’s Public House and Atomic Coffee not far away on Fargo's Broadway. Hogstad and Peterson say they're happy they’ve always been downtown and been able to grow and expand as a church — all while remaining devoted to God — and they're not planning to move to a more traditional location anytime soon.
“In a traditional setting, the ‘ah’ factor can come from the architecture," Peterson says. "That isn’t there in a more casual setting. What is taught and preached, that brings the ‘ah’ factor in a setting like ours.”
Across the river in south Moorhead, at the Bluestem Center for the Arts facility that hosts Trollwood Performing Arts School performances and big concerts each summer, Pastor Travis Linn and his wife Becky of Relevant Life Church don’t feel the need to build a permanent facility as much as they find it necessary to be a church that impacts their community. The church, which now has a congregation approaching 300, is essentially a portable church that first began in a gymnasium.
“A church is a group of people and realizing that the people are what makes the church great,” says Linn.
With that belief, they bring in everything they need every Sunday, set up for the two services in a large room with windows facing woods and the Red River, and tear it down once the second service is over. During that time, it is hard to believe that the setup is temporary — because when decorated, it looks like it always is a space for worship.
There are chairs lined up to a small stage overlooking the windows, and even space for snacks and mingling after service. Linn believes one can make any space their own for worship as long as they feel connected to God and are passionate.
“Wherever we are — someone’s home, a gym — if you have the attitude that we’re coming together to worship regardless of where you are, something powerful happens and it transcends the environment,” he says.
Linn admits, however, that it can be an adjustment to get acquainted with mobile churches like Relevant Life for those who are used to more traditional settings. But the number of people joining the congregation is growing, and as a result, they are looking for bigger, more centrally located spaces to hold service.
Considering the growing number of congregants, the church will be holding service at the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in south Moorhead starting later this month.
Can a nontraditional church building or worship space replace a traditional one? Maybe, maybe not. There will always be a draw to the magnificence of a huge cathedral, the elaborate carvings and designs on pillars, chandeliers emitting golden light and lifelike murals.
However, nontraditional gathering spaces are growing as spaces for worship, devotion and community. There still are Bible verses. There still are hymns. There are always prayers.
No matter where a congregation might meet, as long as the people feel connected to one another and what is being preached, it is a church, according to local church leaders.
Think Matthew 18:20: "For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them."