A recent Baptist Press article headline declares: "Unchurched Prefer Traditional Styling for Churches Outside, In"
The three-page article states,
When given an assortment of four photos of church exteriors and given 100 "preference points" to allocate between them, the unchurched [surveyed] used an average of 47.7 points on the most traditional and Gothic options. The three other options ranged from an average of 18.5 points to 15.9 points.
"We may have been designing buildings based on what we think the unchurched would prefer," [Jim] Couchenour concluded. "While multi-use space is the most efficient, we need to ask, 'Are there ways to dress up that big rectangular box in ways that would be more appealing to the unchurched?'"
It goes on to say that many prefer it because these churches seem to appeal to all the senses, both with the appealing architecture, and the appeal to the senses through sound, and smell (incense) as well provide a sense of connection to the past. The article continues:
[Ed] Stetzer noted that despite these survey results, most of the churches that look like a cathedral are in decline. Just because someone has a preference for the aesthetically pleasing Gothic churches doesn't mean they'll visit the church if that's the only connection point they have to the congregation.
This survey and the conclusions drawn by LifeWay Research intrigued me for a couple of reasons.
First, it intrigued me because I've recently written how I sometimes struggle with maintaining a sense of awe and wonder in a corporate worship experience in the movie theater in which we meet. As a highly aesthetic person I am deeply impacted by my surroundings, and even though I could not be counted among the "unchurched" surveyed, the results in this article speak what I have felt for some time. I long for the old, for the sense of being on sacred ground, for the combination of majesty and simplicity of the ancient cathedrals and chapels; and for the quiet reverence and sense of "transcendent intimacy" (as one respondent of the survey put it) that oldness represents.
But it also intrigued me because last year my church stepped into the whole building-a-building-and-envisioning-our-"wildest dreams"-for-that-space ordeal. Despite what I just said about my struggle with meeting in a theatre, the idea of building a building rather freaked me out. There is a laundry list of reasons for my freakout, and lessons I'm learning from this new experience, which I will not bore you with here. Rather, I'd like to speak about two opinions I've previously held that I seem no longer to have. I don't know when I changed my mind, exactly, but change it I have.
First, I no longer believe it is absurd for a 21st century church to build a building. I've held this opinion for a long time; nearly a decade. I started by thinking just that it was not wise in today's economy and environment; that there was no need to own when a church could rent existing facilities and spend the money saved on mortgage interest and upkeep on the more important ministry of people -- feeding the poor, housing AIDS hospice patients, building and supporting ministries overseas, among other ministries. This conviction came about, I believe now, as a response to all the times I got my hopes up and dreamed about what it would be like to be in whatever facility Mosaic was looking to buy, back in the day we were looking for property, only to be let down when negotiations fell through. When Erwin finally announced that we would shelve the property search indefinitely and just be a mobile church, I celebrated heartily. I was very tired of disappointment.
I realize now that I took what was good and right for one community and decided to apply it to all communities. That is not right. What is good for one, may not be good or right for another. Each community must follow where God leads them specifically, not follow others because a path has already been cleared. Whether building a building or owning a building is right and good for my church at this time is not clear to me. I honestly don't know. I only know that I was wrong to try to lay on the whole church the constraints of what worked for me in the past.
Second, Jim Couchenour's above comment really struck me: We may have been designing buildings based on what we think the unchurched would prefer.... we need to ask, 'Are there ways to dress up that big rectangular box in ways that would be more appealing to the unchurched?'"
I'm wondering, should we really be designing buildings based on what the unchurched would prefer (whether that is only just what we think or what we know they'd prefer)? Or should a building instead reflect the heart of the people who will inhabit it; that is, their heart toward God? Should it be their offering of worship to God, or an offering of invitation to the community around them? Or can it be both, should it be both, with perhaps one more dominant than the other?
I ask because I don't know, and I'd like to know what others think
I will say, however, that it seems to me, as I consider this issue, that we need to learn from Willow Creek's recent admission of wrong-focus. They realized, and admitted, recently that their seeker-focused services produced Christians who expected to be hand-fed and entertained, rather than true followers of Christ willing to surrender themselves fully and completely to the love, grace, and will of the Living God and ready to follow Jesus wherever He led no matter the cost no turning back. Isn't it possible that focusing more on what might bring in the unchurched rather than on expressing our own communal heart, love, adoration, praise, joy... whatever...toward God is also wrong-focused, and perhaps even denies the unchurched the opportunity to comprehend that it is not all about them; but rather all about God?
Covenant Presbyterian Church in Green Hills is building a beautiful cathedral on a hill just off Hillsboro Pike. I see it every day as I drive home. It juts up and stands tall, with its high stone walls, and towering spire boldly holding the cross high, declaring to all the world "He is Holy! See His majesty!" I love that. At first I was upset that someone was building another church building -- in a city with literally a church on every corner -- and messing up the beautiful landscape. But the thing about this place is that it doesn't mess up the landscape. It adds to it. It creates a sense of majesty, and of awe and wonder... one doesn't even have to walk in the doors of that building to be impacted by it. Every evening as I pass that hill I am reminded of the majesty and glory of God; of how much bigger and more powerful than I is He. I would very much like to attend church in a building like that, I think.
It is true that buildings do not make the church. And Ed Stetzer rightly speaks to this issue by pointing out that most of the cathedral-like churches are in decline. I think this is because their mind-set is as old as their building; with all the draftiness but none of the majesty or intimacy. They are able to attract those seeking God, but they cannot keep them because God seems to no longer reside there. Perhaps what is needed is to combine the old architecture with the "new" understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus so that God can be found both in the majesty and awe of the building and also in the humble, loving, gracious, accepting followers of Jesus who passionately worship God under its roof.
What do you think?