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 survey conducted by LifeWay Research for the Cornerstone Knowledge Network, 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,” said 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?’?”
When given an assortment of four photos of church exteriors and given 100 “preference points” to allocate between them, the unchurched used an average of 47.7 points on the most traditional and Gothic options. The three other options ranged from an average of 18.5 points to 15.9 points.
“We may have been designing buildings based on what we think the unchurched would prefer,” Couchenour concluded. “While multi-use space is the most efficient, we need to ask, ‘Are there ways to dress up that big rectangular box in ways that would be more appealing to the unchurched?’?”
“Quite honestly, this research surprised us,” said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research and LifeWay Christian Resource’s missiologist in residence. “We expected they’d choose the more contemporary options, but they were clearly more drawn to the aesthetics of the Gothic building than the run-of-the-mill, modern church building.”
Stetzer suggested that the unchurched may prefer the more aesthetically pleasing look of the Gothic cathedral because it speaks to a connectedness to the past. Young unchurched people were particularly drawn to the Gothic look. Those between the ages of 25 to 34 used an average of 58.9 of their preference points on the more ornate church exterior. Those over the age of 70 only used an average of 32.9 of their 100 preference points on that particular church exterior.
The Gothic style was preferred by both unchurched Roman Catholics and unchurched Protestants, according to the survey. The average unchurched Roman Catholics gave the design more than 56 of their preference points.
“I don’t like modern churches, they seem cold,” said one survey respondent who chose the Gothic design. “I like the smell of candles burning, stained-glass windows, an intimacy that’s transcendent.”
More than half of the unchurched indicated the design of a church building would impact their enjoyment of a visit to church. Twenty-two percent said the design of the church would strongly impact their enjoyment of the visit and 32 percent indicated it would have some impact. More than a third said it would have no impact whatsoever on their visit.
Stetzer noted that despite these survey results, most of the churches that look like a cathedral are in decline. Just because someone has a preference for the aesthetically pleasing Gothic churches doesn’t mean they’ll visit the church if that’s the only connection point they have to the congregation, he said.
“Buildings don’t reach people; people do,” Stetzer said. “But if churches are looking to build and are trying to reach the unchurched, they should take into consideration the kind of building. Costs and other considerations will play into the decision, but the preferences of the unchurched should be considered as well.”
The survey also looked at what the unchurched thought about other elements of church design. While still favoring a more traditional look, the preferences of the unchurched were less pronounced on internal elements of church design. Respondents allocated more than a third of their preference points to the most traditional worship space option they were given – which received more than twice as many preference points as the most contemporary choice.
The more church design mattered to unchurched respondents, the more likely they were to prefer the more traditional and ornate worship setting. Those who said church design would affect their worship experience allocated an average of almost half (47 points) of their preference points for the most traditional worship space.
The unchurched also preferred the traditional-looking church foyer, although the preference allocations were more even for this question. All of the foyers received an average of at least 20 preference points. While older unchurched people (70 and older) were the least likely to prefer the more traditional exterior, they were more likely to prefer the traditional foyer than the youngest segment surveyed.
Finally, the survey looked into what sociologists call “third place” gathering spots. First place gatherings are where a person lives, Stetzer said, while second place gatherings are where a person works. Third place gatherings are where a person comes “to hang out,” he said.
“In the last few years churches have begun creating third place environments where the lost can come and just hang out,” Stetzer said. “This study asked the question, what kind of places do the unchurched like to come to do this?”
More than three times as many people chose a sit-down restaurant (47 percent) rather than any other single response. Other locations that topped the list include: a bar or nightclub (15 percent), a local coffee shop (13 percent), and a sporting event or recreational activity (5 percent).
According to the survey, the reasons they meet with friends where they do is because these places are relaxing (62 percent), casual (55 percent) and fun (29 percent). When asked to describe in their own words design features of the kind of place they’d like to meet a friend, 16 percent of respondents referred to a quiet environment. Another 14 percent mentioned comfortable seating as a factor, while 12 percent said the spaciousness and openness of the setting were important.
“CKN wanted to give churches another tool for churched and unchurched people to connect well to each other,” Stetzer said. “One of the things this study revealed is the importance of space in relationships. Insights into these preferences enable churches to include space in which community can be built.”
The online survey was conducted Feb. 4-5. The representative, national sample was controlled for a variety of factors including age, race, gender and region of the United States. The sample of 1,684 unchurched adults provides 95 percent confidence that sampling error does not exceed 2.4 percent for the total sample.