Give Me That Old-Time Religious Architecture

Saint_Patricks_CathedralAndrew tweeted about a study that LifeWay did in which they found that those who do not attend church prefer gothic cathedrals to contemporary church structures. The goods from the report:

“People who don’t go to church may be turned off by a recent trend toward more 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.

The findings come from a recent survey conducted by LifeWay Research for the Cornerstone Knowledge Network (CKN), a group of church-focused facilities development firms. The online survey included 1,684 unchurched adults – defined as those who had not attended a church, mosque or synagogue in the past six months except for religious holidays or special events.

‘Despite billions being spent on church buildings, there was an overall decline in church attendance in the 1990s,’ according to Jim Couchenour, director of marketing and ministry services for Cogun, Inc., a founding member of CKN. ‘This led CKN to ask, ‘As church builders what can we do to help church leaders be more intentional about reaching people who don’t go to church?’’

When given an assortment of four photos of church exteriors and given 100 ‘preference points’ to allocate between them, the unchurched 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,’ 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?’’

The report states elsewhere that this trend holds true for those who are from Roman Catholic and Protestant backgrounds and is even stronger among those in their 20s and 30s. This may be something as simple as a whether a building fits into your symbolic order – when one thinks of the word “church” certain associations or images are unavoidable. While having an older style of church building won’t necessarily draw people in, when they do come they can connect their surroundings to their expectations.

There may, however, be another factor at work here. Most contemporary church structures are architectural disasters. Most fall into the trap of looking either a warehouse (though sometimes that’s what the building was originally) or a shopping mall. I understand that much of this is a result of pragmatic thinking. It’s often cheaper and easier to buy up a swath of industrial park or soon-to-be-developed farmland and stick a couple multi-use rectangular boxes and ample parking on that land. Or is it? Walk through a city like Toronto and it’s easy to see all manner of abandoned or nearly-abandoned church buildings. The capacity of religious structures – and handsome gothic-revival ones too – in this city must far exceed the church-going population here. In the ‘burbs I understand that the situation might be different, but most suburbs are grafted on to what were once farming communities that often had their own churches as well. Many of these buildings are burdens on their congregations and/or denominations and I imagine that they would only be too pleased to have new tenants to share the structures that they own.

Maybe this is not a workable solution for every conceivable Christian community in search of a new digs. It is an alternative though to the mindset that what a new church really needs is to build some hideous new ticky-tacky shopping mall-like structure. At any rate, if a church community has choice between building a new monstrosity of a building and being a tenant in an old gothic-revival sort of place, we can now say with some confidence where those who are not going to church expect the church to be.