Unchurched prefer traditional buildings?

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.


2 thoughts on “Unchurched prefer traditional buildings?

  1. Hey Will,
    I must say I am extremely gratified to have written anything that somebody thought was worth responding to, even disagreeing with.

    I did want to say that I was not (intentionally) advocating any particular model of evangelism per se. (I personally believe that evangelism is the work of the whole church community as a living embodiment of, and witness to the reality of the Kingdom of God, wherever the church community finds itself).

    I am more concerned in this article with keeping track of what I believe to be a cultural shift among postmoderns (i.e. Gen-Y and millenials). By no means would this include everyone in those generations (generational stereotypes are always misleading). I was born in 1982 which means (according to some definitions) I straddle Gen-X and Gen-Y, but I definitely do share the fascination with the ancient, the timeless, the deeply-rooted, and the symbolic that is said to characterize many (but not all) in this group.

    If these things are true, it will have implications for evangelism for sure (I believe the study was commissioned for this purpose), but it will also have implications for how we teach spirituality and spiritual formation as well, and this is actually where my interest is in this shift. The survey simply confirms that this holds true for unbelieves as well as for young evangelicals (the group I most often hear this sort of interest attached to) and that is of great interest to me.

    God bless you and your total ministry!

  2. Daniel,

    Thanks for stopping by. Perhaps I overstated your thoughts as they related to evangelism. I accept that. Whilst I was born in 73, I moved from the typical evangelical anti-liturgy position to one of appreciation of mystery and liturgy. Probably many in my age group can point to that as well as yours. But, even if that is representative of a significant portion of post-moderns (and at least for the British culture of nonchurchgoers, I don’t see a desire for mystery per se), I don’t think this has much to do with our buildings. Most who are drawn to mystery want it within the community, where ever they meet. For instance, the orthodox (you mention them in your post) do not have gothic buildings at all, and many are quite ordinary looking (from the outside), at least at startup.

    I guess in a church that may die because of their determination to hold onto buildings we cannot afford to maintain, I get worried when we place the emphasis on buildings. I recognise the cultures you and I work in are quite different.

    Still, you make a good point about truly reflecting on our buildings. We want to remember that space is important and says something about us.

    Thanks again for stopping by, and blessings on your ministry as well!

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