Thorncrown Chapel was the dream of a retired school teacher.
By Doug Reed
Nestled in a woodland setting, Thorncrown Chapel rises forty-eight feet into the Ozark sky. This magnificent wooden structure contains 425 windows and over 6,000 square feet of glass. It sits atop over 100 tons of native stone and colored flagstone. The chapel's simple design and majestic beauty combine to make it what critics have called "one of the finest religious spaces of modern times."
Thorncrown was the dream of Jim Reed, a native of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. In 1971, Jim purchased the land where the chapel now stands, and he built his retirement home there, planning to spend the rest of his life in the peaceful seclusion of the Ozarks. He wasn’t the only one who admired his location, however, and people would often stop near his house to gain a better view of the beautiful Ozark hills. Instead of fencing them out, Jim chose to invite them in. He decided he and his wife should build a glass chapel in the woods to inspire their visitors.
At first, his friends and family opposed the idea. Everyone thought Jim was an unlikely servant of God. He did not go to church, and for most of his life, he showed little interest in spiritual things. Why would he suddenly want to do something for God, and why would God choose a fellow like this to do something for Him? Jim was a very persistent fellow, however, and he kept talking about his idea until his family reluctantly gave him their blessing.
The first major obstacle was finding an architect. Who could design the kind of structure Jim wanted, and who would be willing to take on such a project? Jim found his answer unexpectedly one morning while having an early breakfast with a friend. The two were discussing the problem when a man sitting nearby walked over and tapped him on the shoulder. The man apologized for eavesdropping but explained that he knew E. Fay Jones, an architecture professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The fellow assured Jim that there was no better man for the job. Shortly thereafter, Jim met Fay Jones, and much to Jim’s surprise, Jones was quick to accept the project.
From the first, it seemed God’s hand was in everything, even Thorncrown’s location. On March 23, 1979, the construction crew broke ground on the mountainside, where Fay originally planned to build the chapel, and was just a day away from pouring the foundation when God put the brakes on. Jim was taking a look around the site when he felt a strange sensation. Though he was alone, he felt like someone was gently pushing him, as if to say, “Walk this way!” When Jim reached Thorncrown’s current site, the urging stopped. He looked around. Before him was what looked like a natural stone altar. To his right stood majestic rock bluffs and to his left was a beautiful wooded setting. There was no question that this was the spot, and Fay agreed. It seemed like everything was falling into place.
Halfway through the project, however, funds began to run out. The building process soon ground to a halt, and Jim desperately tried to raise the necessary money to complete his dream. First, he went to several banks to try to get a loan, but none would take a risk on such an unusual idea. Next, he wrote all his friends, thinking someone would surely help him. Few responded, and the ones who did chided him, saying that a retired schoolteacher like Jim should not be building a glass chapel.
Finally, Jim stepped out one evening to take what he thought would be one last walk down to his half-finished dream. He told himself that he would allow himself one final look and never return. Questions filled his mind: “Why would God do this to someone who is trying to serve Him?” “Why would the Lord give a person a great idea and then abandon him?”
Then, just as Jim was about to leave his dream behind, he did something he had never done before. On the still incomplete altar, he fell on his knees and he prayed. And though Jim had prayed before, it was never on his knees and never like this. He wept and cried, and in the midst of his travail, he found he was not alone.
There, in that lowly place, Jim had a revelation. Sometimes we set out to serve God, and we believe a divine mission or work for God is our destination. Yet we do not know that our real destination is God Himself. For Jim, it was his failure to serve God that ultimately led him to God. The Lord never wanted Jim to build a chapel for Him; He wanted to build a chapel with Jim, giving Himself to his beloved child in the process. The two began to walk as one when Jim reached the end of himself.
That evening, Jim grabbed hold of grace, or maybe it grabbed hold of him. When he got up from his knees, he knew he had entered the realm of God’s possibilities. More importantly, he had a relationship with Christ that would change his life. Three days later, a woman in Illinois loaned him all the money he needed to finish the chapel.
We could tell you about all the awards Thorncrown has since won and about how famous it has become, but that is not the point. The real miracle is that, on his knees, Jim went from chapel builder to a man who knew God and possessed the gift of God’s presence.
Jim’s failure and God’s grace shaped the destiny of Thorncrown Chapel, but not in the way you might think. Thorncrown’s purpose is not to point to what a great man did for God; its story is about what a great God did for a man He loved. It is the plot and potential of everybody’s story. Today, Thorncrown’s elegant beauty continues to speak in harmony with the glory of creation. “God is present,” it quietly says. “Come participate in who He is.”