From this months issue of Christianity Today (May 2009):
Keeping Holy Ground Holy
The average person is not at all repelled by Gothic or Romanewque architecture,” says Robert Jaeger, executive director of Partners for Sacred Places, a nondenominational nonprofit that preserves and renews historic church buildings in the U.S. “The average person finds the symbolism and the craftsmanship compelling, beautiful, and comforting.”
There’s a desire out there to connect with something ancient, something transcendent,” asays Ed Stetzer, director of Lifeway Research and author of Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them. “there’s a hunger to move beyond a bland evangelcialism into something with more historic roots.”
Last year, a LifeWay survey commissioned by the Cornerstone Knowledge Network found that unchurched adults prefer Gothic church buildings to utilitarian ones, challenging the conventional wisdom that medieval-looking churches feel out-of-touch and stuffy to seekers. LifeWay showed over 1,600 unchurched adults four pictures of church buildings, ranging from mall-like to Gothic. The majority prefered the most ornate church.
“The study probably tells us that the appearance of a traditional church might not be the turnoff that people assumed in the seeker age,” Stetzer says.
Of course, Stetzer also notes that in North American and Europe, the congregations with the oldest buildings are the ones struggling the most to retain memers. THere’s a difference between admiring a building from the street and going inside to connect with a congregation”
Buildings don’t reach people, people reach people,” says Stetzer. [Nathan Bierma. 2009. “Keeping Holy Ground Holy – A new survey suggests seekers are not looking for user-friendly, mall-like buildings.” Christianity Today, May, pp. 36.]
For a generation (or two), the buildings provide us an opportunity for piquing interest and are a tangible invitation to enter in. We see this at my parish all the time. But, whether people stay or not depends on whether something is going on within the place. That “something” is not the building, not nice people, not a cornucopia of programs, not socio-political positions, but whether God is encountered in the midst of the people in the context of worship, the Eucharist. It is the encounter with God and the real change that such an encounter causes within that will cause people to stay.
What to do? Even the writing of the article reveals a passing way of thinking – “Seeker” is passÃ©. Current day evangelicals are generally better in shifting with the times, but there isn’t the moderating influence of the Tradition. Here is the pressing problem with the Episcopal Church. We are the ones with the old buildings and a dwindling membership. Yet, we are the ones with all the attributes that should be attracting “seekers” of the younger generations.
We continue to be stuck, and for too many of us we continue to believe that it is “moving the furniture around,” programs, social activism, and many other things that bring people in and cause them to stay. Those things don’t, in most cases.
There has to be a lessening of “scheming” to “save us” and more of the simplicity of the foundational principles of the faith, the Tradition, that which has spiritually enlivened and feed people for two millennia, that which has survived – more about Jesus as the person He claimed (claims) to be and less of what we want to imagine Him to have been or to be coming from both the imaginations of conservatives and liberals. This also means, of course, that the architectural styles of church buildings are a bit moot – people will stay where their souls are touched by God.