Sunday, June 25, 2017

Church Buildings Matter

Church buildings matter.  Architecture speaks.  And a church building can be a factor in attracting and even converting people to the Christian faith.

Empirical research backs this up, as a recent article in The Telegraph attests.  "One in six young people are Christian as visits to church buildings inspire them to convert," reads the headline.  Here's an excerpt:

One in six young people are practising Christians, new figures show, as research suggests thousands convert after visiting church buildings.   
The figures show that more than one in five (21 per cent) people between the ages of 11 and 18 describe themselves as active followers of Jesus, and 13 per cent say they are practising Christians who attend church.   
The study, commissioned by Christian youth organisation Hope Revolution Partnership and carried out by ComRes, suggested that levels of Christianity were much higher among young people than previously thought. ... 
Around 13 per cent of teenagers said that they decided to become a Christian after a visit to a church or cathedral, according to the figures. 
The influence of a church building was more significant than attending a youth group, going to a wedding, or speaking to other Christians about their faith.

This is very hopeful and extraordinary news!

I shared this article with a friend who serves as a priest in the Church of Ireland.  He wrote back to say that this report has been getting a lot of attention in his neck of the woods, not least because it challenges the assumptions driving youth ministry and evangelism for the last decade.  

Too often the assumption seems to be that in order to reach young people and the unchurched, we have to downplay, minimize, or even jettison key aspects of the Christian faith. And so traditional doctrine, liturgy, music, church buidings, etc., come to be seen as impediments.  

This research coupled with data on church decline, suggest that this assumption is just wrong.  What if we can do a better job of evangelism by living more deeply into the traditions we have inherited, including church architecture that speaks of the transcendent in a world flattened out by suburban sprawl and smartphone screens?  

While it's true that the Church cannot be reduced to a building, this research serves as testimony to the incarnational truth that buildings (like bodies) matter.  Sacred space can speak the Word just as ceremonial, ritual, sacraments, and preaching do.  

A quote from Roman Catholic priest Romano Guardini comes to mind:

When you step through the doorway of a church you are leaving the outer world behind and entering an inner world.  The outside world is a fair place abounding in life and activity, but also a place with a mingling of the base and ugly.  It is a sort of marketplace, crossed and recrossed by all and sundry.  Perhaps "unholy" is not quite the word for it, yet there is something profane about the world.  Behind the church doors is an inner place, separated from the marketplace, a silent, consecrated and holy spot.  It is very certain that the whole world is the work of God and His gift to us, that we may meet Him anywhere, that everything we receive is from God's hand, and, when received religiously, is holy.  Nevertheless, men have always felt that certain precincts were in a special manner set apart and dedicated to God.  [quoted in Patricia S. Klein, Worship Without Words: The Signs and Symbols of Our Faith]

Fr. Guardini is right: walking into a church is like stepping into another world, a space that speaks of another reality, a world that is bigger, more mysterious, and more beautiful than much of what we experience day to day. 

There's a hunger for that "inner world," that sacred space that's set apart from the frenetic world of information and calendar overload.   And while it's certainly true that in our evangelism we need to go out and meet people where they are, we do well to not overlook or downplay the riches we have to offer inside sacred space where the mysteries of the Gospel are offered in Word and Sacrament.