DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" ""> The Unchurched Prefer Sacred Spaces Over Common Spaces
Tribal Splash

The Unchurched Prefer Sacred Spaces Over Common Spaces

The idea of sacred space is not lost on the unchurched, it seems. Recent research by Lifeway has revealed a surprising fact about our church buildings:

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 unchurched preference for medieval cathedrals over utilitarian or all-purpose church buildings should not be reduced to mere whims of architecture. The preference is rooted in unconsciously expressed theology and our deep need to worship and inhabit sacred spaces. Our contemporary multi-purpose, conference-like halls do not offer enough of a break from the world’s common spaces to facilitate the dance with the sacred we naturally look for during worship times. This research should not be ignored or hastily discarded.


  1. Mak
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    I would agree with that. I wonder how alternative spaces play in to this.

  2. Shawn
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    @Mak: Are you thinking pubs, living rooms, gallerys, and the like? I’m willing to bet the unchurched (for lack of a better word) feel the same about those spaces as they do the generic multi-purpose spaces. Truth be told, it seems like church dropouts are the ones who dig meeting in alternative spots. I haven;t seen many - if any - unchurched people flocking to the pub to have church, have you? It’s usually a majority of burnt-out church goers.

    Good question.

  3. sagely
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    interesting, and definitely significant for how we construe the place of art and creativity in both church worship and church community.

    but i shy away from making sweeping anthropological statements too quickly. we also have the historical baggage we all take with us, especially “the unchurched”. Two thousand years of stone church buildings with gargoyles and rose windows (alms for the poor turned into flying buttress funds) hang in the back of our cultural understanding of what it means to do church. the warehouse/gymnasium approach is much too recent on the scene for it to have left a lasting imprint on our cultural consciousness of what it means to be church. how do you disentangle anthropology from history? it’s tough.

    all this to say: how did the early church do it? i’ve worked in places where a basement storefront is deemed sacred by the crucifix pinned to the wall and the communion elements kept in the broom closet. maybe part of being the church is teaching people (most of whom can’t afford cathedrals) how to make spaces “sacred” (how to together meet with God).

  4. nick
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    Wow, this really surprised me, I would have thought they would be drawn to the more alternative places, minus the pubs.

  5. Ben
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    That’s just plain fascinating. I totally buy it though. I’ll probably include this in my review of Pagan Christianity.

  6. jeremy bouma
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    wow. i wonder in our spiritually bleached culture if we are not adding to that “bleachness” through such modern, utilitarian buildings…people crave the spiritual and maybe the “medival style” engenders that spiritual experience. Is that why “emerging churches” that incorporate icons and candles and liturgy and spiritual practices are becoming such great missilogical platforms?

    good stuff!

  7. Shawn
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    @nick: Yeah, me too!

    @Ben: Looking forward to that review! I’m curious about the direction you’ll take.

    @jeremy: Perhaps. I’m not so sure I’d brand “emerging churches” as great missiological platforms just yet, unless one’s mission is to reach church dropouts and burnouts. It works great for that demographic, but I’m not sure the “unchurched” are flocking just yet. In fact, I think the totally “unchurched” have no where to go, really. Something to think about, no?

    I do think you are on to something as far as our adding to an already “spiritually bleached” culture via modern, utilitarian buildings and the like …

  8. Mak
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    yep, I’m talking about those places. I haven’t seen the unchurched FLOCK anywhere. And I am dubious about such surveys because they’re hypothetical. The handful of “converts” I know have gone to storefront churches, coffee shop churches and a loft space above a warehouse. So my experience certainly doesn’t bear that out but that’s not to say we shouldn’t listen.

    We’ll still keep meeting in our coffee shop basement space though :) Where yes, the unchurched do come…but mostly, we go to them, the unchurched do not flock to church period…any church.

  9. Shawn
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    @Mak: Well, the NT has a few examples …

  10. Shawn
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    … which is just to say that maybe we can listen and learn something.

    I hear you and honestly hope this study doesn’t result in a bunch of new building projects that are themed around medieval architecture! I can see that happening too! It would be a parody of monumental proportions!

  11. Mak
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    of course the nt does :) I’m talking about NOW friend. I hear WAAAYY too much talk about doing this that or the other thing to get in the unchurched when in reality, it’s not happening. Because we’re not supposed to be doing stuff to get the unchurched to come to us - period. and even in the NT, Jesus and later the early church was living life well amongst everyone else AND they didn’t have midievil architecture ;)

    I think we can create sacred space anywhere. My guess is that the unchurched generally don’t experience sacred space in any context but in a cathedral it at least feels more sacred automatically.

    If we learn anything from this it’s that the human soul years for something set apart, something sacred…which doesn’t necessarily need to be a cathedral.

    I also think this is societally conditioned in our culture.

    I personally much prefer something more “classically sacred looking” but a coffee shop basement is what we’ve got and we are cognizant of making it a sacred space in the way we live and love in that space.

  12. Shawn
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Right on, Mak. I think you nailed in that 3rd paragraph. Right now, we are meeting in an art gallery. :)

  13. Shawn
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    … one more thing (I have to stop hitting “Post Comment” to quickly!):

    I get what your are saying about incarnational mission. I excpect you to preach that from your emergent perspective. I don’t think, however, that it is holistic, at least by itself. I think ministry in any context requires a well balanced expression of incarnation and attraction. It’s just how it is. In fact, if I were to push this conversation to the extreme, I’d say that large aspects of incarnational philosophy are inherently attractional in scope. Make sense? The NT is full of examples of incarnational and attractional mission. I personally want to sail between both while making sure whatever it is people are attracted to is honest and based in kingdom values.

    I digress … but you raise so many good points in your comment.

  14. Mak
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    I don’t disagree - I’m not sure where you’d get the idea that I don’t think attraction plays a role at all. Maybe you’re assuming that because of my context.

    I agree that there needs to be a bit of both - but I’m not talking about ecclesiology so much as missiology and in our missiology, our primary understanding should be from the command to go.

    Clearly, we have to have a safe, “attractive” community where we can “bring to” and we should also be “attractive” people, but if our missiology is first attractional, we’re going to get into big time problems as we’ve seen in the past 10-20 years

  15. Shawn
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    We’ll to be honest, I did assume as much, given your emergent expression/context. :)

    But you also wrote, “Because we’re not supposed to be doing stuff to get the unchurched to come to us - period.”

    That reads like a pretty hard break away from anything attractional.

    Beyond this issue, I think we are talking the same language, Mak. I also get a kick of how many words and phrases you and I put between quotes! LOL!

    Rock on, Mak!

  16. Shawn
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    @sagely: Sorry! I just rescued your comment from the spam dungeon! You make a good point about “sweeping anthropological statements!” Great thoughts!

  17. Adam Moore
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Interesting that this is about “people who don’t go to church.” They prefer sacred spaces over common spaces but ultimately they most prefer to stay home!

  18. Mak
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    Adam - hehe…that was pretty much my point about how all of this is hypothetical.

    Shawn - I can see how you would get that from that statement but in my head that’s not what I was getting at…didn’t you crawl in my head? how silly of you ;)

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