What the Unchurched See in a Building
New research says people are looking for "sacred" buildings.

On the heels of David Gibbons' interesting thoughts on the way many churches squander their resources on underutilized buildings, Matt Branaugh has this piece over at LeadershipJournal.net. Apparently, if you're going to throw your church's money into a building, make it a sacred one. -Url

Does "sacred" space appeal to or repel the unchurched? A recent survey probed 1,700 unchurched American adults, putting photos of four different church exteriors in front of them. Respondents indicated their preferences by allocating 100 points across the four images, based on the appeal of the appearance.

The Gothic look averaged 48 points, more than double the next-highest finisher, a white-steeple-and-pillar exterior that averaged about 19 points. The other two churches, with more contemporary looks, averaged 18 points and 16 points, according to the study, commissioned by Cornerstone Knowledge Network and conducted by LifeWay Research.

So should churches opt for the cathedral look as a way to attract the unchurched?

Not necessarily, says Jim Couchenour, director of marketing and ministry services at Cogun Inc., a church building design firm that co-founded Cornerstone with Aspen Group. Aesthetics are an important element to weigh, Couchenour says, but the building must reflect the values and integrity of the congregation in order to work.

"Buildings without relationships have no meaning," he says. "The vast majority of people will go to church based on an invitation from a friend or family member. A small minority of people will make a decision based on the way the building looks. If it were aesthetics alone, we'd have a lot of beautiful buildings in inner cities that are full. That's just not the case."

And one style that works for one church doesn't necessarily work for the next. Younger respondents in the study, for instance, rated exterior design as a higher priority, while older participants tended to prize a building's usefulness.

"The style is not as important as the integrity of the design," Couchenour says. Integrity starts with the church realizing what God has called it to be, what ministry needs it can meet, and how a building can help meet those needs. "People - churched or unchurched - can tell if it has integrity, if it feels right."

September 18, 2008

Displaying 1–9 of 9 comments

Steve - ShapingWorship.com

October 01, 2008  1:52pm

Man looks at the outward appearance. God looks at the heart. Some one asked who we are trying to impress. The answer is yes. We need sacred space because, as Scripture reminds us, man does in fact look at the outward appearance. And we need to be sacred people, because God looks at the heart. Could it be both? http://www.ShapingWorship.com/cgi-bin/enter.cgi?fromlink=blog.christianitytoday.com

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Messy Christian

September 25, 2008  8:49am

Being an unchurched Christian, I can tell you that no matter how pretty or fantastic the church building, I would not be there if there are no genuine relationships in that building. I can appreciate a cathedral's beauty, however. I do walk into one just to pray ... but go there every Sunday? well, I need more than just a nice building.

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Don Warrington

September 21, 2008  8:02pm

Having been raised in this: http://www.vulcanhammer.org/anglican/bethesda/ I am sympathetic to the judgment of the unchurched re the most appealing style of architecture. I would say, however, that my home church had a much stronger donor base to work from than most Evangelical churches, based on where it's at.

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September 19, 2008  11:12am

I find it odd that we're trying to separate the new and old covenants here. Jesus came to fulfill the Law not abolish it. Just because the Law has been fulfilled doesn't mean it's worthless or that we shouldn't pay attention to general principals handed down through it. The fact is Jesus didn't say much at all on how the church would look in the future. So how can anyone say that the church has gone astray? Is God not soverign? Is the world not being evangelized more today than any other time in history? I think in order to harness the power of the Church there needs to be both small groups meeting and larger worship centers. I agree with the article...our building speaks to our values louder than any core value statement on our website or pamphlet at our kiosk.

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September 18, 2008  7:34pm

"Sacred space"? That's old covenant with the holy of holies. We are in the New covenant. God does not dwell in buildings made with hands. He is ONLY looking for sacred people - living stones built together in love one another relationships. Special buildings of any style mess up that priority. But all these buildings look and feel so normal, so holy, so inspiring. Why let the scriptures get in the way of good feelings? 1. God has used cathedrals so He must like them. 2. God never commanded us not to build them so it might be a good idea. 2 bogus reasons why leaders continue to lead God's people to focus billions of $ for what God did not ask for - away from what God did ask for - reaching all nations and serving the poor. Good point Sheerahkahn The cathedral church, modern or old in style is always designed by men to be "attractional" as one author put it. God has designed His people to go into their territory, not attract them to our turf. Jesus gave us an axiom of where our hears would be. "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." One look at 90% of the hearts of institutionalized saints and you know their hearts are cemented in their cathedrals. Preaching great sermons to fix this will not do it. The system must change to free the hearts of God's people. Traditions of men shout so loud, saints can't hear the truth to set them free.

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September 18, 2008  2:59pm

It's probably safe to say that most "contemporary" designs have more appeal to previously churched folks (or perhaps currently church?) than true "unchurched." Doesn't seem like a ton of data, and again, it's aesthetic appeal based on photographs. It may be artistically beautiful, but not conducive to honest worship. I also appreciate the $30 million argument...we seek to find a third way, but that's preference too!

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September 18, 2008  11:44am

" but the building must reflect the values and integrity of the congregation in order to work." I present you with the classic example of peoples values, and how they expressed their religosity and piety in Medieval Europe. The Cathedral was the centerpiece of the community, and the kingdom, and reflected all the ideals and thoughts about G-d, and eternity. http://www.notredamedeparis.fr/-English- My issue is...if G-d can create this.... http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2289/2519050795_18f0549779.jpg?v=0 Perhaps we should just calm ourselves down, and realize that instead of building a thirty million dollar edifice that one earthquake can level, we should take that money and spread it around for the good of people...like http://www.compassion.com/default.htm http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/ Which, oddly enough, also conforms to Y'shua's command to care for the widow and orphaned. I know, not as glamorous as a 30 million dollar edifice, but who are we trying to impress anyway, G-d, or man?

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September 18, 2008  10:42am

I would find it interesting to see a study that went a little further and questioned different unchurched groups by location and region. Such as differentiating urban, suburban, and rural as well as the different regions in the US. I'm sure you would see some big differences when comparing Appalachian rural, southern suburban and a northeastern urban unchurched group. It's also likely that we could guess pretty accurately what those people would be drawn to.

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James Henley

September 18, 2008  9:55am

This agrees with the general perception that "unchurched" people would tend towards a spirituality which has an atmosphere of the "sacred" - contrary to the 80s and 90s "secularisation" of the Church. Interesting that the first response to this research from someone with a personal investment in this established way of building churches is to attempt to de-bunk it...

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