The Unchurched Prefer Cathedrals over Contemporary Churches

Sam Rainer

April 4, 2008

A brand new LifeWay Research report concludes, “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.”

Some highlights of their report:

“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.

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.”

Like Stetzer, I’m surprised at the findings – it’s almost as if we’ve come full circle with what the unchurched expect a church to look like. I believe that contextualizing the gospel and meeting people where they are is most important for a church, but there is a portion of people that will always “come and see” your church before you connect with them. And while I don’t think that building a horde of gothic-looking churches is going to solve any of our health woes, perhaps there’s something to be said of human craftsmanship. And maybe those stain-glass windows do actually mean something…at least the ones without people’s names in them. So, what do you think of these survey results?

7 comments on “The Unchurched Prefer Cathedrals over Contemporary Churches”

  1. Tony Kummer says:

    Sam – In our little Indiana town (Madison – not too far from you guys) it seems like people expect church to “feel like church.” I can see how building style could add to that feeling.

  2. Sam Rainer says:

    Tony – I spent 2 years of my childhood just outside of Madison. I was young (about 5), but that was where my Dad’s first church was located.

  3. Susan says:

    Could it be that young people are avoiding the churches of their parents? The “grass is always greener” syndrome?

  4. Jennifer S. says:

    There is something to be said about the reverence of a church that has such things as stained glass windows. I think contemporary churches have, by and large, gone too far in their attempts to meet people where they are at to the detriment of churches not being distinguishable from other buildings. Maybe some, though not church attenders, at least still recognize that there should be something distinct about churches since they are, after all, the meeting place of those who are called to be set apart in a dark world.

  5. Scott says:

    I do know that Contemporary services have watered down the message, just so they can proclaim that “we meet people where they are” forgetting that the role of the church is not to spread Christianity, but to preach the gospel.

    God help us.

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