Unchurched prefer cathedrals to contemporary church designs

Posted by Kendall Harmon

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?’"

Read it all.

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeParish MinistryEvangelism and Church Growth

Posted April 25, 2008 at 6:00 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Kate Stirk wrote:

well, duh, if you don’t go to church and you bother to think about “church” you remember all those pictures you’ve seen of classic European cathedrals (or poignant New England churches) from all the movies and that’s what you think of as “church”. When you walk into a “modern” church your brain twists around and you think- this can’t be where I’ll find God - it doesn’t look like a “church”....and you don’t hear the Gospel message because you’re so busy thinking about how this doesn’t look like a church…packaging (and placement and consistent brand message….) matters - ask any retailer.

April 25, 6:43 am | [comment link]
2. Anglicanum wrote:

First, why can *I* get funds for one of these research thingys?  I could have given them this answer without doing all the work and pocketed the money.

Second, it’s not just the unchurched who prefer churches to look like churches.  I find it difficult to pray in a place that uglier than the Super Walmart the next town over.

April 25, 8:38 am | [comment link]
3. drummie wrote:

A lot of the newer design churches look like they tried to copy the modern non denominational look of a funeral home’s chapel.  It totally turns many people off.  I average going to at least 90 services counting Holy Communion and Evening Prayers a year so don’t feel that I am “unchurched”, but I will always feel better in a traditional design church.  Church “In the round” kind of reminds me of a stage show, not worship.  Big Screen TV and a band of guitars, drums and a saxaphone reminds me of a club or bar, not worship. NO surprise here.

April 25, 8:50 am | [comment link]
4. Brian of Maryland wrote:

Not to put too fine a point on all this, but the operative words are, “unchurched prefer.”  That suggests other things like, “unchurched prefer to sleep in on Sunday morning” or “unchurched don’t buy the whole Jesus thing” or “unchurched see no need to be in the Body of Christ.”

A different question might be, “Where have all the young, churched believers gone?”  I suspect that would give a more helpful answer than assuming, “See, I told you our old, empty buildings are the wave of the future.”  Shesh.  Make fun of contemporary worship spaces and and how they’re used, but let’s not ignore the elephant in the room: that’s where most former non-believers are flocking.


April 25, 9:12 am | [comment link]
5. evan miller wrote:

Well, as a “young churched believer” I bolted my Presbyterian roots and became an Episcopalian, drawn first to it by the glorious liturgy and beautiful high-church worship in a gothic-revival parish church.  Thankfully, the parish was belssed with a rector who was a powerful preacher and solidly orthodox.  But what got me in the door was the liturgy and the beauty of it all.

April 25, 10:46 am | [comment link]
6. Harvey wrote:

I don’t believe it is what building we worship in it is whom we worship.  Our Lord was born in a stable.  Early churchpersons met in the upper room, or even places of Jewish worhip.  Some Gopthic building may look beautiful and reach to the sky but they are failling apart because the skills and money to repair them are not available any more.

April 25, 12:15 pm | [comment link]
7. Choir Stall wrote:

You’re right, Harvey.
But, when you invite company over do you treat them to Spam on paper plates?  Do you vacuum up a bit? Maybe some flowers? How about air freshener?  Likewise when we invite God to be among us we should put out the best. A steel shed with spotlights shining on gum-chewing worshipers doesn’t speak well.

April 25, 12:22 pm | [comment link]
8. Daniel Lozier wrote:

Evan Miller (#5), As an Organist/Choirmaster, I’d like to hear about the music in your parish:  Traditional?  Contemporary?  Blended?  As a young person, do traditional hymns, organ, and choir speak to you and provide a vehicle to worship or are they a stumbling block?  Do you believe modern technology (video, screens, power-point, etc.) and contemporary music performed by a band is a requirement to reach young people?

April 25, 12:29 pm | [comment link]
9. writingmom15143 wrote:

#7…I’ve been in some of the most beautiful homes imaginable.  Well-
kept.  Historic.  Gracious entryways.  I’ve sat on wonderful chairs
and eaten incredible food on the lovliest tables imaginable.  And in the midst of all that grandeur, all I wanted to do was leave because it was so cold and empty.  And I’ve been in homes so small you could barely turn around with Goodwill store furniture and served
uninspiring food on paper plates and I would wonder how long I could stay because the love and warmth there was overflowing.

The best is different for different people.  For me, it’s not about
how big and grand the church is but, rather, how big and grand
the love for Jesus is in that church.  I’ve worshipped in cathedrals
and cow pastures and the times that the worship was the most real to me when when I was with people who loved Jesus and people who loved me.  (Gum chewers or not smile  )

April 25, 12:49 pm | [comment link]
10. SpringsEternal wrote:

I love my old, gorgeous, ornate church… but what brought me in wasn’t the building.  It was a flyer on the back of a bathroom stall in a bar and an evening service with the promise of food.  To reach the “young and unchurched” you’ve got to be where they are, and I don’t see a lot of advertising and outreach from the older, more traditional churches around where I live… and these are both areas where mega-churches tend to excel, at least around here.

April 25, 3:12 pm | [comment link]
11. evan miller wrote:

Alas, I’m no longer young.  However, as one who was present at Woodstock and loved (loves) good music of all kinds, the music that parish (unfortunately, that parish wasstolen by our revisionist bishop and I neow worship in an Anglican parish) had was very traditional organ and choir with beautiful anthems and chanted Psalms.  The rector even sang the first portion of the Communion service.  I loathed the “praise band” music with screen and projector that they had at the later “contemporary” service.  I now have teen-age children who grew up in the parish I described.  They, particularly my 17 year old daughter, LOVE rock-n-roll and even (shudder) hip-hop, but they can’t abide most praise band music and the tech-dominated services.  They love hymns from the Hymnal 1982 and 1940 and anthems by such as Mozart and Vivaldi, Purcell and Vaughn Williams.

April 25, 4:27 pm | [comment link]
12. Sarah1 wrote:

In theory since I am under 40 I still count as “young”—although I personally think that age is in how you feel.  ; > )

And I’m with Evan Miller all the way.  Give me the hymns in the two hymnals, traditional anthems, and chant.

Same goes for most of the Gen-Xers I know—who ain’t gettin’ any younger, it’s true.  But I stand behind the principle that mainly the rise of “seeker-sensitive” music and worship was driven in large part by the Baby Boomers, why I have no idea.

April 25, 5:29 pm | [comment link]
13. WilliamS wrote:

I’m with Evan and Sarah (and I’m still under 40 and holding on for dear life). A major part of my conversion to Anglicanism was the grandeur of worship. It was during the end of my junior year in college as a Religion Major at a superb evangelical college that I suddenly realized that I did not know how to worship God.

It’s going to be different for different people, but for me, to “praise the Lord…with all that is within me” includes worshipping God with all five senses.

William Shontz

April 25, 5:48 pm | [comment link]
14. magnolia wrote:

i am also in agreement with sarah and evan. there is something so spiritually satisfying connecting me to my ancesters while saying the old words and prayers and hearing sacred music. funny comment #2, i agree some modern churches are uglier than wal-mart.

April 25, 6:00 pm | [comment link]
15. Alice Linsley wrote:

When a person makes a decision to go to church, he or she usually wants it to look like a church.  Hopefully, the real marks of the Church will greet them also.

April 25, 6:37 pm | [comment link]
16. rob k wrote:

I am a volunteer docent at one of the largest TEC cathedrals in the US, built in the medieval French Gothic mode, with all the stained glass, statuary, murals, chapels & altars that one might expect.  Almost all visitors, Christian (including many RCs and others), other faiths , and some unchurched, from all over the US and the world, agree almost to a person with Evan Miller and Sarah, that this is “really a church”.  We hope that the faith of all is strengthened and that those without faith may find it there.

April 26, 5:58 am | [comment link]
17. William Witt wrote:

I was a teenager and young adult during the 70’s, just missed out on the Golden Age of Rock and Roll, and lived through the beginning of its decline.  Some of the music that the previous generation and my own produced was great—the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Bruce Cockburn, Leonard Cohen, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Fats Domino, Leon Redbone.

Some of it was terrible—Elton John, the Carpenters, America, the Captain and Tennille, the BeeGees, disco in general.

Every time I find myself in a praise or “blended” worship service, I feel as if I am being punished for the bad taste of my youth.

I also grew up in an Evangelical megachurch built in the round with a huge stage to accommodate the choir, various musical groups and Christian bands, and sometimes full orchestra.  If I can get it, I definitely prefer either Gothic cathedral style or stone English country church buildings.

As we are being driven from our property, we may have to get used to worshiping in shopping malls or high school gymnasiums.  We can at least sing decent hymns.

April 26, 9:11 am | [comment link]
18. Townsend Waddill+ wrote:

I’m glad Lifeway undertook this research.  It seems to this traditional-worshipping Anglican, on first glance, that it is a “duh” moment, yet many of the church buildings that you see going up are contemporary, utilitarian spaces.  I applaud Lifeway and CKN for doing this, and trying to get to the bottom of why the unchurched are looking for more traditional worship.  Good for them!!

April 26, 11:06 am | [comment link]
19. evan miller wrote:

We’ve been worshiping in a theater, an elementary school gym, and now a middle school gym for four years now - truly a time in the wilderness for a high churchman like me - but at least we now have a traditional service as well as a contemporary one and the traditional one is by far the best attended.  We have a small but dedicated choir led by a very fine organist and choirmaster and try, in our small way, to do justice to the matchless musical heritage of Anglicanism.  On alternate Sundays we use either Rite I or the 1662 BCP.  Operation Pass Along, a ministry of Hillspeak in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, has been wonderfully helpful in providing hymnals (both 1940 and 1982) free of charge.

April 28, 10:53 am | [comment link]
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