Study: Unchurched prefer traditional church buildings

Here is something to keep in mind next time your church wants to build a new facility: according to a study conducted by Lifeway Research, unchurched people prefer traditional-looking church architecture to the more modern "mall" look that has been adopted by many evangelical or "seeker sensitive" churches.

Unchurched/non-Christian subjects of the study were asked to rate the appeal of several churches. They preferred the most traditional, a gothic, "cathedral-style", church to several other designs, some quite 'contemporary,' by an almost 2-1 margin. Among younger non-churched people (age 25-34) the percentage who percieved the gothic church favorably was even higher.

The findings surprised the researchers at Lifeway, but come as no particular surprise to me as someone in that young/postmodern generation. A friend of mine (also in his mid-20s) once commented (while pointing out the new building of the First Baptist Church in New Orleans) that he wished more congregations would build church buildings instead of "factories." I heartily agreed, and it seems we are typical of our generation. One respondent in the study said that the highly contemporary church architecture "seemed cold."

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 (see here, or here, here, or here). I suspect the fact that postmoderns/millenials are very symbol and icon savvy is connected with this shift as well.

Of course, (as many congregations can testify) it takes much more than pretty buildings to reach people for Christ, yet I do believe that this desire for "mystery and history" - often expressed in symbol or art - is one of the reasons that, while Evangelical Churches have largely plateaued and "Mainline" Protestant Churches continue to decline in the US, Eastern Orthodoxy has continued to gain converts (in addition to immigration-based growth) and grow.

So I end this with an appeal to my United Methodist brethren: please do not follow the non-denominational model of making our churches feel as much like coffee shops and malls (those great temples to consumerism) as possible.
May your churches to look and feel like sacred spaces - churches set apart for common prayer and worship.
May you use the liturgy of the Church (as This Holy Mystery urges us to do as we also move to weekly Sunday eucharist) and let us draw people into the Mystery of communion with God even as we celebrate the many historical elements we already possess: the venerable liturgy, the ancient creeds, the classical vestments and other visual arts, the holy sacraments, and all of our continuity with ancient, catholic, ecumenical Christianity. How we present and celebrate our faith is as much a part of our message as the words we say.

Here is a similar rambling of mine...

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Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Here is a very thoughtful interview with someone else on this same survey:


6:04 PM, May 07, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Here is another blog post that touches briefly on a similar feeling among some church-goers:


8:35 PM, November 15, 2009  

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