Culture At Large

Unchurched people like old church buildings better

Nathan Bierma

For my article on the resurgence of traditional church architecture in the May issue of Christianity Today, I interviewed Eric Jacobsen, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington, and author of Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Brazos Press, 2003). He agreed to have our entire e-mail exchange shared here at ThinkChristian.

What was your reaction to the recent LifeWay survey that found that 'unchurched' people prefer the look of older church buildings over contemporary buildings?

In some ways this ties into a larger trend of architectural preference in our culture. The supposedly more rational utilitarian buildings have not been well-liked because they don't work very well, visually or otherwise. The modernist dictum of "form follows function" has not turned out to be true. Most buildings that eschewed traditional architectural features for a more rational form have failed to inspire much interest. It seems that buildings that are interesting and well-built continue to inspire even when they are no longer used for their original purpose. The most popular restaurants and theaters are often the result of adaptive re-use of old buildings intended for another use. The dominance of the historical preservation movement can be read as a significant critique of contemporary building practices across the board.

Why does older church architecture remain attractive and resonant in our culture?

Traditional church buildings used as churches may be more attractive to the unchurched because they want to see something in the church that is different from other aspects of their life that are shaped by market forces and narrow demographic branding strategies. A traditional church suggests that there still are (or at least have been) people who care for more than just the bottom line and want to support something that is broader than their own interests and evoke a sense of solidity and permanence.

Tradition has a bad rap as some kind of oppressive fixed rule that can't be violated, when actually tradition can be a more organic accumulation of the best ideas and practices that have endured across the generations. If someone builds something and it is not liked, that will be the end of that idea. However, if someone likes what is built, they may copy it. If enough people copy it, then the new thing will become a style. And if that style becomes beloved, then it will become a tradition.

The LifeWay survey also talked about the importance of churches providing a 'third place' (a gathering place other than home and work). Why are third places important in our culture, and how can churches provide them?

Third places are invaluable for connecting with people who don't come to our churches. They also tend to build up social capital for churches, which helps the people in our neighborhoods feel less defensive about us and be more open to public interaction of all kinds. This said, I am a bit skeptical about the prospect of churches trying to create third places on their property. According to Ray Oldenburg, who coined the term 'third place,' one of the key characteristics of a third place is that it is on neutral territory. This allows them to be a social leveler. No matter how we try to dress it up as a secular venue a church will not feel like neutral territory for many people. Churches would do better to find the third places that already exist in their communities and encourage their leaders and members to spend time there. If there aren't any third places in their neighborhoods, it is probably because zoning regulations prohibit it, and then the church should work for zoning variances to be granted or to change the zoning laws.

What about the argument that says, 'buildings don't reach people, people reach people'

That is true, but we do need to be careful of separating what we claim to believe from how we live it out. If we claim that God is sovereign and then exercise a consistently hand-wringing leadership style, eventually people will figure it out. In the same way if we claim that God is a God of beauty and that humans are the crown of his creation and then build ugly buildings that make humans feel like cogs in a machine, people will wonder if we really mean what we say. I wonder how the above logic would work with respect to, say, church music. Since people worship God, not instruments, we shouldn't worry too much about practicing with our instruments or making sure they're in tune. While a healthy dose of caution is good, I worry about being too reductionistic in our thinking.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Church, News & Politics, Social Trends