Yesterday, I noted the recent Lifeway Research study on church architecture and preferences among the unchurched. The study also looks at “third spaces” (hang-out spots) these guys and gals find preferable.
Even though I have some Qs about the study methodology, these are my thoughts from the results they got:
When the unchurched think about going to church, many think “vintage.” Remember, the “Gothic” style church got 47.7 preference points (out of 100) among the four churches presented, meaning all the others split the rest (fairly evenly, in fact).
Another BIG point for us who deal with young adults: according to the study, this effect was even more pronounced among younger people. Those 25-34 years old gave 58.4 points to the Gothic exterior. Meanwhile, surprisingly the most traditional church exterior received only 32.9 points from individuals 70 or older. (I’m asking for more info about those even younger.)
What “food for thought” does this give us? Well, Vintage is “in,” that’s for sure. (Does what’s “in” matter? I’ll talk about that at the end of this post. I’m not as “consumer-focused” as it might sound like.)
This finding simply parallels what we already know – that there’s a renewed desire for “roots,” for authenticity that is heightened by something actually being old. I was kinda surprised when others expressed surprise at this finding, because this very much fits the ever-growing mindset.
We’re seeing this trend very specifically in some Emerging-style churches, that’s for sure. This includes “flagship” Emerging churches like Vintage Faith in Santa Cruz (which merged with a Presbyterian church and meets in their old building), or Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis – also in an old Presby church.
Stained glass is in. Hymns are in. Candles are in. Liturgy is in. Vintage is in.
I’ve asked those Lifeway guys if they have any other breakdowns from “young people,” especially within the Millennial Generation (roughly 24 and younger). Hopefully I’ll hear back.
When the unchurched “design their ideal church,” they may be thinking “vintage,” too. The researchers also asked individuals what kind of church they would design – and gave them a list of adjectives from which to choose. Admittedly, some of the study’s prepared adjectives seem oddly-chosen or could have double meanings – like “open,” which could more naturally describe a church’s “community” than its “building.”
But some church-preference adjectives I found interesting that could connect with the Vintage idea were “beautiful” (chosen by 38%), “reverent” (24%), “traditional” (22%), “formal” (9%), and even “somber” (5%)! Meanwhile, there were certainly adjectives that may go the other way: “bright” (36% – but what does “bright” mean for a building?), “simple” (35%), “casual” (23%), “innovative” (12%), and “exciting” (5%).
But as noted, there could have been some confusion between the church community and the church family for many of those adjectives (in both sets).
The unchurched really like to get their grub on. Well, at least when “meeting and interacting with a friend.” In the “third space” aspect of the study that asked where people were MOST likely to meet a friend, “‘sit down’ restaurants” walloped the other options. They received 47%, followed by “bar or night club” at 15%. Coffee shops got third at 13%.
Now, remember, this is where these people are MOST likely to meet a friend. Nobody’s saying they don’t use coffee shops. But I found this note pretty interesting, especially with all the investment put into creating ministry-related “third place” coffee shops in recent years.
So if you are trying to create some sort of “third place” as an easy “front door” to your college ministry or church, keep in mind that a full-blown cafe may work even better than a coffee shop (you know, if you have a few hundred thou to spend).
Note also that this stat is about meeting with a friend – not meeting with an associate or leader or boss, getting work done by yourself, relaxing by yourself, or interacting with strangers. I imagine coffee shops would probably win out in those cases.
So what does all this have to do with college ministry?
Well, the “third space” issue above is pretty self-explanatory. As for the church building stats, here are some thoughts.
Mindset: These stats certainly continue to confirm the appreciation for “Vintage” among many in our culture. An old church building is true vintage; it’s even more “rooted” than candles put on a stage to manufacture a “vintage” environment. I continue to believe that some ministries – especially college ministries within traditional environments – could find great success by taking advantage of Vintage elements they already possess.
But Vintage best connects with this generation when it’s paired with authenticity. Traditional building plus “traditionalist” congregation isn’t a good draw. But “historic” building + “alive” and “real” congregation can be mighty attractive to somebody who’s into “Vintage” and “Authentic.” I like the term “Authentage” myself. This generation loves Authentage.
Counterbalance: Maybe even more than pointing out this mindset, this study simply plays devil’s advocate when we’re thinking about the environments we design, whether we’re building big buildings or just designing a ministry room. If our natural inclination points us toward incorporating “the latest” and “the newest” into our ministries, this study offers a balancing perspective.
An example: I think a whole lot of churches went for “ultra-contemporary” buildings within the past 10 years; sadly, some of those buildings’ accoutrements may “best fit” only a very thin slice of the population. What’s that thin slice? It’s MY mini-generation (I’m 28) – we were the tail end of Gen X that caused the worship wars and demanded super-contemporary-ness for about 5 minutes. Troublemakers!
Ten years later, it turns out that perspective didn’t last – and now “traditional” (as long as it’s authentic and not “traditionalism”) seems to be coming back around. The funniest example of this from my trip has been seeing Mars Hill Seattle actually project pictures of stained glass in their song slides at their new, hip Downtown campus.
My thought? Some churches actually have the real stuff! If they haven’t thrown it all away to build their modern building!
(Mars Hill Downtown is in its own Authentage environment of a different sort – an old night club long known for being a “trouble spot” in Downtown Seattle, gritty and with its own sort of “history.” They’ve converted it – in more ways than one, you might say. And they kept one of the go-go stands for a coat rack. Really.)
So before you build that new building or move to that ultra-contemporary worship space, work this study into that thinking process, too. There may be some real appreciation for traditional environments, as long as we don’t bulldoze ’em all.
Unchurched: Remember, this study only heard from the unchurched. “Church kids” often have different views of church, based largely on “what we grew up with.” Still, plenty of students may like the “newness of oldness” if you introduce liturgy or start holding your large group meeting in an old church.
It’s interesting to realize that when the unchurched think about attending a Christian ministry, some of them prefer going to something outside their everyday experience – something that doesn’t look just like the malls, theaters, or restaurants they already frequent. In fact, if they cross that serious personal line of deciding to check out Christian community (which for some of them feels like a pretty major, crazy decision), they might be hoping for an experience that in some way “feels like” participation in something deep and different.
One great quote from the article about the study: “‘I don’t like modern churches, they seem cold,’ said one [unchurched] survey respondent who chose the Gothic design. ‘I like the smell of candles burning, stained-glass windows, [and] an intimacy that’s transcendent.'”
Seeker-sensitive?: Honestly, I’m really not as interested as I might sound in trying to “engineer experiences.” Most of our decisions on where we “do” college ministry or how we design church spaces will be affected by a lot more than just simple preferences – and they certainly should be!
I’ve been in some great churches across the spectrum of architecture this year, and oftentimes churches look to meet in structures (whether they own ’em or rent ’em) that fit the culture of the church and/or the culture of the local community. This makes a lot more sense than any slavish attention to church preferences “out there.”
Still, since we probably consider our own preferences when we design our ministry spaces, it doesn’t hurt to consider the preferences of the unchurched in our communities, too – since they are hopefully our future ministry members, too! Further, intentionality demands that we think about what our structures communicate to outsiders and insiders, as well as the other ways they facilitate our purposes.
Finally, like I said before, I really think all this Authentage business shows a present mindset, too, that reveals something about those we’re trying to reach.
Authentage is in, indeed. And if that’s true – that at least some unchurched individuals are drawn to “realness with roots” – then we have a great opportunity, don’t we? Christianity has a lot of “realness” and “roots” to offer – characteristics in fact fundamental to the gospel, which is both true today and beautifully historic.
By reminding our friends about those vital aspects of our Faith – through our words and even our “spaces” – we build toward becoming “all things” to this generation.
Written from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill