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Church Architecture

After last week’s blog covering Human Cloning, I thought a little lighter topic might be appropriate.  A peek at the impact of architectural styles in churches seemed to me to fit the bill.  In a 2008 article by Tobin Perry entitled “Architecture Survey: Unchurched Prefer Traditional Styling for Churches Outside & In (http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=27767), offers some interesting insights.  It reviews a survey conducted by LifeWay Research for the Cornerstone Knowledge Network (CKN), a group of church-focused facilities development firms.  The upshot of the study was that people who don’t go to church are sometimes and somewhat “turned off” by the recent trend toward utilitarian church buildings. “By a nearly 2-to-1 ratio over any other option, unchurched Americans prefer churches that look more like a medieval cathedral than what most think of as a more contemporary church building. “, according to the article.

I have to agree – this is consistent with my own experience.  I have visited a number of churches that have adopted the big-box style of architecture over recent years.  “Harvest” churches come to mind, but there are a number of them.  My personal observation is that these churches also tend to be more ecumenical in their outlook, modern in their style of music, and casual in their manner of dress at worship services.  Often, the worship center – rarely identified as a “sanctuary” these days, possibly with good reason – are readily convertible to a basketball court or a concert hall.

I think that in some ways, this is a reflection of the lives of many modern Christians.  We relegate Christianity – and especially our personal worship – to whatever fits in with the other priorities in our lives.  The vast majority of our time is spent on work and recreation, with a very minor slice of it devoted to the cause of Christ.  In cases where the worship center itself is required to be multi-purpose, I think it says a great deal about us.  We are unwilling to set aside a physical space devoted solely to organized worship; that space must also be used to satisfy our entertainment and recreational desires.

I think the reaction of the 1,684 adults surveyed (adults who had not attended a church, mosque, or synagogue in the previous 6 months, is one element of a growing skepticism about the authenticity of Christians around the world.  Another reason that the world so often views us as hypocrites.

A lot of folks are searching for just about any other way to explain the phenomenon though. “Quite honestly, this research surprised us,” said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research and LifeWay Christian Resource’s missiologist in residence. “We expected they’d choose the more contemporary options, but they were clearly more drawn to the aesthetics of the Gothic building than the run-of-the-mill, modern church building”  Stetzer suggested that the unchurched may prefer the more aesthetically pleasing look of the Gothic cathedral because it speaks to a connectedness to the past.”  Sure – that’s it; it’s just nostalgia.  But wait!  The very next sentence in the article says this: “Young unchurched people were particularly drawn to the Gothic look.”  As a Valley girl might reply: “Duh.”  It’s not a trip down memory lane that people are hungering for; it’s a meaningful worship experience. It’s a connection to God that comes from focused, devoted conversation between God’s children and their heavenly Father.  Does this require a specific kind of building to occur? Of course not.  But is it perceived as being more likely to occur in a building that is clearly devoted unreservedly to that purpose?  You bet. Meaningful worship of Almighty God is a serious business, and deserves to be set apart from the trappings of entertainment and sport.  And whether people realize it or not, that is what they are feeling when they express a preference like this.  In my opinion, that also applies to the respect (or lack thereof) expressed by Christians by what they wear to worship services, as well as the tenor of their music and their behavior in the worship center.  The more casual we become, the less we care about what we are doing, and who we are there to honor.  It’s just that simple.

Denomination didn’t matter much in the survey either. “The Gothic style was preferred by both unchurched Roman Catholics and unchurched Protestants, according to the survey. ??”I don’t like modern churches, they seem cold,” said one survey respondent who chose the Gothic design. “I like the smell of candles burning, stained-glass windows, [and] an intimacy that’s transcendent.”

Finally, and from my perspective one of the most telling points in the article, was an assessment of the desirability of the church to “the unchurched” in terms of whether it is a “good place to hang out”.  Here’s what the article says: “Finally, the survey looked into what sociologists call “third place” gathering spots. First place gatherings are where a person lives, Stetzer said, while second place gatherings are where a person works. Third place gatherings are where a person comes “to hang out,” he said.” In the last few years churches have begun creating third place environments where the lost can come and just hang out,” Stetzer said. “This study asked the question, what kind of places do the unchurched like to come to do this?” More than three times as many people chose a sit-down restaurant (47 percent) rather than any other single response. Other locations that topped the list include: a bar or nightclub (15 percent), a local coffee shop (13 percent) and a sporting event or recreational activity (5 percent). ??According to the survey, the reasons they meet with friends where they do is because these places are relaxing (62 percent), casual (55 percent) and fun (29 percent). “

Unbelievable.  These guys are trying to make churches into comfortable hangouts – places that will compete with sit-down restaurants, bars and nightclubs, and coffee shops for peoples’ free time. Now I have nothing against congregants having a place to fellowship with one another and have coffee together, and so on elsewhere on the church property.  All of the churches that I attended growing up, had a kitchen and a Fellowship Hall for that very purpose.  It enabled the potluck dinners, wedding celebrations, and other social events that appropriately surround a living and vital church family.  But when we are designing utilitarian worship centers to be “multi-functional spaces” to attract people who want to have a place to “just hang out”, we are missing the point.  That’s what YMCA youth centers, shopping mall food courts, and Starbucks’ are for.  It’s what many folks do at the local bar & grill.  It is not the purpose of a house of worship, devoted to honoring God.

What do you think?

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