July 15, 2016
When churches embark on a building project, the focus of the building committee is typically on getting the most amount of square footage at the cheapest price. Spending money on architecture and interior design often seems frivolous, a poor use of ministry resources. Churches want to spend money on missional activities, like serving the community, and every dollar that goes toward a building robs the church of resources for ministry impact. Or so the thinking goes.
“In the church, there’s a narrative that says we shouldn’t spend money on buildings. It’s somehow ungodly or frivolous to spend ministry resources on anything but ministry programming,” says Matthew Niermann, an architect, researcher, missiologist, theologian, and professor of architecture at California Baptist University in Southern California. “We go cheap on church buildings because we want to show the community that we care—and that we care by spending the church’s money on programs that serve the community.”
For the past three years though, Niermann has been studying the relationship between church design and people’s perception of the church, especially the unchurched. His research, which is funded by a Rackham Research Grant and Radcliffe/Ramsdell Fellowship and is in the process of being published, delves deep into hundreds of responses to visuals of churches and architectural details. According to Niermann, one of the biggest surprises from his research is the myth of frugal facilities.
“It was surprising to find that the buildings that were judged by survey participants as the simplest, most austere, and least expensive were viewed as churches that are most concerned about themselves—not the community. Low cost austere church design communicates self-interest. However, a building with higher aesthetic quality adds beauty to the community and is perceived as being community focused, and speaks more deeply to the unchurched,” he says.
According to Niermann, churches need to think differently about building design. “In building committee meetings, we ask how to make the unchurched more comfortable. Yet, the starkest revelation from my research is that the unchurched understand buildings via physical elements and don’t have conceptual categories for church design, such as whether they’d feel more comfortable or not in a certain type of church.”
When asked questions about what would be a more comfortable worship setting, he says the majority of unchurched responded with, “Huh, I’ve never thought of that before.”
“People are drawn first and foremost to a church that is physically attractive,” he says. “No matter how much the church says it’s there to serve the community, if the building says otherwise, people won’t believe your intention.”
When a church launches into a building project, Niermann suggests the leadership team ask a new question. “We need to stop asking what makes a church feel comfortable and instead ask what makes it beautiful. The church has to begin to see aesthetics as a core missional category. It’s a not a side topic. It’s not a waste of money.”
According to Niermann, creating beautiful architecture is central to the church’s purpose to connect people to God, to others, and to serve the broader community. Investing in the aesthetics of a church building—its architectural and interior design—may, in the end, be one of the most missional activities a church can invest in.