A new study on millennials and church architecture reminded me of a Maria Bamford comedy bit. In it, Bamford describes church strategies to trick people into attendance, such as meeting in storefronts or coffee shops with suspiciously churchy names like “The Rock” and “Crossroads.” These strategies don’t make Bamford more likely to attend; it just makes her distrust Christians. (Although I heard in a recent interview that she now attends a Unitarian church.)
It seems like the young people in the study, which is a joint project of Barna Group and the Cornerstone Knowledge Network, are similarly suspicious of how churches use space. They are interested in churches that have something unique to offer, in addition to the spiritual growth that can be found in other worship communities. They certainly don’t want a church that tries to be entertainment. The study refers to this as a preference for “modularity” and “visual clarity.” One of the participants referred to the corporate style of modern suburban megachurches as a “bait and switch.” Similarly, participants expressed a desire to know where they were, how they fit in and what’s expected of them.
This research is, in many ways, good news for the church. Rather than something “hip” or “trendy,” many millennials wanted the church to be unambiguously itself, a place for respite from the busyness of life and a way to make a connection with God. I think that’s what most of us want the church to be, when we think about it.
Beyond that observation, as with other studies on this generation, the data shows more diversity than consistency. Even within the majority group, participants preferred church spaces to be both “traditional” over “trendy” and “modern” over “authentic.” Majorities also chose “upbeat” over “low key” but “quiet” over “loud.” And in many of these cases, the margins were not overwhelming; a third or more often chose the minority option. I’m grateful for this variety, because I have no idea how I’d go about designing a building or worship service that is traditional, modern, upbeat and quiet all at once.
What we can do is build a worship space and service that leans into the gifts and identity of a particular congregation and helps visitors to see how they might fit into that community. And I also think that’s probably what God wants us to be doing, whether it appeals to young adults as a bloc or not. There’s something comforting about knowing folks see through our attempts to be trendy. It wisely tells us to stop trying to be cool (ironically, what’s cooler than not trying to be cool anyway?) and put more into trying to be God’s people instead. Let’s let these perplexing survey results free us to be the people of God in our own ways, whatever tradition or style that might mean.
This research is, in many ways, good news for the church