Daniel Hixon at Gloria Deo points to a study that reveals younger unchurched prefer the look and feel of traditional church buildings. Lifeway, who did the study, seems shocked and Daniel seems to make more of the study than I do.
The popularity of the traditional/gothic building among younger unchurched people was related to a broader cultural trend I have been trying to point out on this blog: many younger people (including younger evangelicals) are looking for more of a sense of historical connectedness and transcendance in their religious experience … I suspect the fact that postmoderns/millenials are very symbol and icon savvy is connected with this shift as well.
I don’t want to say that aesthetics are unimportant. We discussed this a lot last week in class. Planning a church building should include more than practical considerations. I even would take into account what Bishop Wright said about simply moving into a building that carries with it memories of its past (the example he used was that of a former cinema converted to a church when his diocese has lots of large buildings that could have been bought). Of course, places can be transformed into sacred spaces, but that’s not the point here.
Still, this survey’s results conveyed what unchurched people thought. However much they like the architecture, they don’t go. Well, they do but likely not for worship. Cathedrals here can charge anything from £5-10 and people will pay to go in. These style of buildings are quite popular for weddings here. Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island decried the lack of pews in Lincoln Cathedral (which use folding chairs that are easily removed) because it detracted from the beauty of the church. Yet, I read no interest in spiritual matters. I suspect that the preference for traditional buildings for unchurched has more to do with their perceived aesthetic and historical interest. I don’t think we can count on this to be a point of evangelism. Also, for the stories of people who like this sort of building, I can point to other stories of people terrified to go in them because of their religious connotation.
Unchurched do go into the ‘temples of consumerism’, the coffee shops, the pubs, etc. I don’t think they go there because they intend to worship there, nor do I think Christians should copy their layouts simply because that’s where people go. It is worth looking at why people gather in these places. Traditional architecture has the problem of boxing us in. Large pulpits and pews don’t provide the place for people to talk in small gatherings as the coffee shops and pubs.
I have long thought that churches should at least downplay (if not abandon) the attractional model of evangelism and mission. If mission includes being sent out, then why we do plan mission with the intention of getting them to come to us? I still say we don’t need pews, but perhaps rather than making our churches look like coffee shops we need to go there.
Creating sacred space includes more than what the building looks like. It includes creating community. Something I find hard to do in the traditional buildings. I do hope we can create a sense of sacred through liturgy and symbol, but I also think people are looking for a place to belong.