Comfort or Beauty? Assessing Aesthetics and Mission in Protestant Church Design

Over the past several decades Evangelical Protestant churches have sought to build buildings that differ from traditional church architecture in order to attract unchurched individuals to the church. (I use George Barna’s definition of an unchurched individual as someone who has not attended a Christian church service within the past six months, excluding special services.)

This missions-based theory of church design is known as architectural evangelism. It proposes that traditional church architecture acts as a barrier for the unchurched and thus churches should build buildings rooted in secular typologies, using few or no ecclesiological markers, and constructed with low-cost materials. Familiar with this kind of building, the unchurched will be more apt to attend.

Supported by national conferences, monthly periodicals, and specialized design firms, architectural evangelism has visibly altered the religious built landscape of America. However, there has been little study of whether it does what it intends. In the past ten years, two studies examined how unchurched people responded to church architecture. Both Barna Research Group’s Making Space for Millenials and Lifeway Research Group’s “Sacred Space” concluded that they preferred more prototypical or traditional churches over secular-based churches.

Yet, these studies tested only a handful of images and did not explore the architecture. This paper looks at the results from an in-depth research study exploring the efficacy of architectural evangelism. Specifically, the research aims to explore the nature and relationships between the exterior design of Protestant churches and the judgements and preferences of unchurched people.

Influence of Evangelism

American Protestant church design has developed prototypical formulations through reflections on the relationships between liturgy, worship praxis, and space. It is also deeply influenced by the missionary or evangelistic call to reach individuals with the Gospel.

Historically, Protestant leaders have moved out from their churches, relocated to unchurched areas, and used non-church types of architecture, including warehouses, tents, schools, and theaters. This changed with the advent of the missionary theory known as “Church Growth theory”—the foundational missions theory of architectural evangelism.

Church Growth theory, developed by Donald McGavran and Americanized by his students at Fuller Theological Seminary, sought to utilize sociological tools to gain an understanding of a setting’s social, linguistic, and cultural context. Church leaders could then develop, refine, and utilize evangelistic tactics that were reproducible, effective, and contextual. (See McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth for an introduction to the theory.) Church Growth theorists found that in mass evangelism efforts like Campus Crusade and the Billy Graham crusades, a large number of individuals were converted yet few ultimately integrated into a church.

Church Growth theorists developed and propagated the idea that a more effective evangelism tactic would be to use the local church as the source of the evangelistic call. They shifted the direction of mission efforts from “going out” to reach the unchurched to “attracting” them into the church.

The rise of Church Growth theory was fueled by the adoption of its principles by several prominent Evangelical megachurch pastors. Among the best known are Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral, and Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, both in southern California, and Bill Hybels, former pastor of Willow Creek Church outside Chicago. They used sociology to understand the unchurched. An example of such work is journalist Lee Strobel’s book Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry & Mary. They tried to create a church with no barriers to unchurched participation.

This included architectural design. As a heading in a 1996 Willow Creek Leadership Conference brochure read, “Traditional church forms can be barriers to our communicating with unchurched people.” Therefore, the question for church architecture became how to design a building that would remove barriers of communication such that the Gospel could be presented to individuals familiar with contexts such as the modern office building. An example of this work is Martin Robinson’s A World Apart: Creating a Church for the Unchurched.

Architectural Evangelism’s Prescriptions

Their discussions ultimately produced a missiological design logic for unchurched church architecture. Several design prescriptions formulate the basics of architectural evangelism’s missiological logic.

In short, the logic states that traditional church design is a barrier for unchurched and therefore churches should: be designed with more modern and familiar secular styles; remove ecclesiological markers; and avoid ornate buildings to avoid perceptions of hypocrisy. Unchurched individuals will have a higher level of preference, sense of comfort, and ultimately will be drawn to the church.

To examine the efficacy of architectural evangelism’s design prescriptions, a research study was completed using what is called an image-based sorting task interview. It used four case studies, with 200 participants.

The study used four churches in two locations: southeastern Michigan and southern California. In each location two churches were selected, one that had adopted the tenets of architectural evangelism and one that had not. Each had a worshiping population between 500 and 1500. Each selected self-affiliated with Evangelical Protestantism, the trans-denominational movement which has the highest adoption rate of architectural evangelism.

Two hundred individuals participated in the research: twenty-five from each case church and twenty-five unchurched people living close to each one. The churched individuals were chosen in proportion to each church’s age and sexual demographics. The unchurched participants were recruited so that there were corresponding age and gender demographics with the churched participants.

Image-Based Sorting Task Interview

The research utlized an image-based sorting task interview. Each participant was interviewed in a one-on-one in-person format for approximately one hour.

Twenty-five exterior images of churches constituted the set of test images. The images were selected according the design’s use of four architectural characteristics:

1. Ecclesiological elements

(strong, moderate, none)

2. Historic styling

(historic, non-historic)

3. Roof design

(pitched, flat)

4. Compositional hierarchy

(pre-modern, mixed, post-modern)

The images were selected to create a fully-crossed set with each image designated as a combination of the design criteria. (We’ll look at 1, 3, and 4 here.)

Participants were asked to respond to a series of prompts which asked them to rank the images according to preference and to sort them according to their:

1. Sense of comfort in approaching or entering the building

(comfortable, uncomfortable)

2. Perception of aesthetic quality

(beautiful, ugly)

3. Perception of proto-typicality

(looks like a church, does not look like a church)

4. Past experiences

(looks like a church I’ve had experience with, does not look like a church I’ve had experience with)

The data was analyzed for statistical significance and correlation using standard statistical tests (the Kruskal-Wallis statistical test with corresponding post-hoc measures and Spearman’s Rho correlation analysis.

Mariner’s Church Chapel represents the high end of the scale of the case study research (most preferred, most beautiful). Photo: Visioneering Studios and davega photography 2009

Mariner’s Church Chapel represents the high end of the scale of the case study research (most preferred, most beautiful). Photo: Visioneering Studios and davega photography 2009

East Hills Church in Riverside, California, represents the low end of the scale of the case study research (least preferred, least beautiful). Photo: Author
East Hills Church in Riverside, California, represents the low end of the scale of the case study research (least preferred, least beautiful). Photo: Author

Preferences for Exterior Church Design

The interview asked individuals to rank the set of images according to their preference. Architectural evangelism expects that unchurched individuals would have a higher preference for modern non-church architecture, for architecture with few to no ecclesiological elements, and with flat roofs and post-modern compositional hierarchies.

However, the results suggest that this may not be the case. On the effect of ecclesiological elements, we found that unchurched respondents strongly prefer church buildings with a strong use of ecclesiological design elements, followed by a moderate use, and least prefer buildings with no use of ecclesiological design elements. Churched respondents also prefer church buildings with a strong use of ecclesiological design elements, and vary on secondary preference for moderate or no use of ecclesiological elements. Churched individuals that attend churches that adhere to architectural evangelism had a higher tolerance for no ecclesiological markers.

On the effect of roof design, we found that both unchurched and churched prefer buildings with sloped roofs over buildings with flat roofs. And on the effect of compositional hierarchy, we found that unchurched and churched respondents do not prefer churches designed with a modern compositional hierarchy. Churched individuals who attend architectural evangelism churches prefer more mixed façade composition hierarchies.

Overall, both groups preferred the use of traditional ecclesiological design profile. This result stands in stark contrast to ideas found within architectural evangelism theory.

Comfort with Exterior Church Design

The participants were also asked to rank the set of images according to the level of comfort they would have attending the church for a church-sponsored service or event. They were asked to rank the images within a 5-point Likert scale from Very Comfortable to Very Uncomfortable.

On the effect of ecclesiological elements on the participants’ perception of their comfort in being in the church for a church event, we found that the unchurched consistently found church buildings with stronger use of ecclesiological elements in their design to be more comfortable. Churched individuals from architectural evangelism churches were more comfortable in mixed compositional hierarchies than pre-modern hierarchies.

On the effect of roof design, we found that everyone felt more comfortable with church buildings with sloped roofs than church buildings with flat roofs. And on the effect of compositional hierarchy, both churched and unchurched judged buildings with a modern compositional hierarchy as less comfortable. Unchurched individuals find buildings with a pre-modern or mixed compositional hierarchy to be more comfortable than modern buildings. Churched individuals agree, with a slight variation. Churched individuals from architectural evangelism churches find mixed compositional hierarchies to be more comfortable.

Overall, the use of traditional ecclesiological design correlates with higher judgments of comfort by the unchurched. Again, this finding is contrary to the design prescriptions of architectural evangelism—suggesting that the efficacy of the prescriptions may be in error.

Importance of Beauty

In addition to comfort and overall preference, the interview asked participants to complete a ranking and sorting exercise based on their perception of aesthetic quality, prototypicality, and past experience. Some of the key observations are:

First, participants found churches designed with a strong use of ecclesiological elements, sloped roofs, and pre-modern use of compositional hierarchy to be the most beautiful.

Second, they judged churches designed with low-cost or austere construction methods to have the least aesthetic quality (i.e., to be ugly).

Third, they judged a church to be prototypical if the church’s design made strong use of ecclesiological elements, had a sloped roof, and utilized a pre-modern compositional hierarchy.

The study then sought to explore the relationships between the judgment criteria via statistical correlation. This revealed an important observation.

Most notably, the strongest correlation to unchurched preference is not comfort, as predicted by architectural evangelism. The strongest correlation to both preference and comfort is judgments of aesthetic quality—or an individual’s perception of beauty. Furthermore, this is stronger in the unchurched than in the churched.

Second, comfort and preference is positively correlated with judgments of church prototypicality. This observation stands in contrast to architectural evangelism. Finally, past experience, while positively correlated, plays a much lesser effect on comfort and preference than aesthetic quality.

Efficacy of Architectural Evangelism

The research suggests that the efficacy of architectural evangelism’s design prescriptions may be limited. Unchurched individuals are not primarily driven by perception of comfort, nor do they prefer churches designed with non-prototypical secular based modern forms. Rather, they, like churched individuals, are primarily motivated and drawn to perceptions of beauty—which are best understood as churches designed with prototypical form, including strong use of ecclesiological elements, sloped roofs, and pre-modern and mixed compositional hierarchies.

Ultimately this research suggests two ideas contrary to architectural evangelism: First, the Protestant church interested in attracting unchurched individuals should stop asking what the unchurched find comfortable, and begin asking what they find beautiful; and second, aesthetics is not a superfluous expenditure for a church, but at its root, is a part of its mission.

Rev. Dr. Matthew Niermann serves as the Associate Dean of the College of Architecture, Visual Arts and Design at California Baptist University. Situated at the intersection of architectural empirical aesthetics and Christian missiology, Matthew’s research explores the contextual compatibility of Protestant church design in the United States.