Churches want to be places that are open for people outside the congregation to visit. But are they perceived as such by those who aren’t Christian or who don’t currently have a church home? Understanding the external perceptions and expectations of church buildings can be key to outreach and mission.
In Making Space for Church Visitors, a Barna briefing produced in partnership with Aspen Group, we look at seven insights that shine light on the significance of the design and function of today’s churches, and how this impacts a church community’s ability to welcome visitors.
In this excerpt, we’ll highlight two of the seven insights featured in the briefing. Be sure to subscribe to Barna Access Plus so you can be one of the first to read the full release.
Visitors to Your Church Might Feel More Comfortable in Honest, Safe Spaces
To make space for potential church visitors is to make space for trust, transparency and safety. Barna’s Spiritually Open project repeatedly highlights how the general population today, including those outside the Church, are eager for honest faith. In fact, nearly one in three unchurched teens and adults (31%) tells Barna they would be “very comfortable” attending a Christian church where the pastor or priest openly discusses their doubts about Christianity as a manifestation of authenticity. In Making Space research, we also see that U.S. adults, including the churched and unchurched, seem to gravitate to what feels “authentic” versus “professional,” by wide margins.
At the same time, the unchurched may initially be hesitant to personally embrace authentic, vulnerable conversations within a church. When it comes to topics concerning daily life—such as loneliness, depression, anxiety, relationships and career—unchurched respondents in the Making Space survey rarely choose a Christian church as a comfortable environment for meaningful conversation. Respondents in this group also say they rarely visit a church if they are feeling lonely, depressed, introspective or even social.
Church buildings don’t appear to be inviting to outsiders for holistic, whole-life conversations and growth, except as it concerns specific and explicitly spiritual aims. Unchurched adults desire authentic dialogue, but they don’t see church as a place where this can happen. Why? How “safe” an unchurched person feels may play a role.
Thinking about Christian churches, close to half of unchurched adults (45%) strongly agree churches should be a safe place for hurting people. Additionally, when asked the purpose of a church building, second on the list among unchurched adults is providing safety and security (36%).
Church Visitors May Be Looking for Inner Peace
Beyond the physical aspects of the church, just over half of unchurched adults (53%) tell Barna they believe that church is “a sacred space” rather than “just a building” (30%). This group also points to nature (69%), memorial sites (50%), churches (48%) and cathedrals (46%) as being transcendent or “a place that brings a person closer to experiencing connection with something beyond the physical world.” U.S. adults, across all demographics, associate this transcendence with “a sense of peace or calm.”
Although they are aware of transcendent places, most U.S. adults fail to visit these types of spaces. For unchurched adults, this is even more true (just 14% of unchurched adults regularly visit places they would consider transcendent). For the unchurched, what could be missing because they tend to occupy less-than-transcendent environments? Perhaps it may contribute to a deficit of the very feeling they report makes a place transcendent: peace.
When people experience a lack of calm in daily living, its presence can signify something otherworldly. Here the Church is uniquely positioned to offer something the world cannot. As C.S. Lewis put it, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”1
This peace is something potential church visitors—especially those who are spiritually open—may be seeking. Research from Spiritually Open hints at this: When Barna asked U.S. teens and adults to share what, specifically, they are looking for in their spiritual beliefs, the plurality chooses inner peace (37%), followed by hope (35%), healing and forgiveness (30% each).
Churches have a special opportunity to draw in visitors with spaces that provide a feeling of peace, purpose, safety and more. How might your church do this? Consider emphasizing church design and use that evokes characteristics of the places, feelings and experiences we’ve described.
About the Research
Research for Making Space consists of data and analysis based on an online quantitative survey of 2,000 U.S. adults, conducted from February 28–March 9, 2022. The margin of error for the sample is +/- 2.0 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. For this survey, researchers used an online panel for data collection and observed a quota random sampling methodology. Quotas were set to obtain a minimum readable sample by a variety of demographic factors, and samples were weighted by region, ethnicity, education, age and gender to reflect their natural presence in the United States population (using U.S. Census Bureau data for comparison).
The Spiritually Open project is based on a survey of 2,005 U.S. adults and teenagers (ages 13-17) conducted online from December 13–22, 2022 via a consumer research panel. The margin of error for the sample is +/- 2.0 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. Quotas were set to representation by region, race / ethnicity, education, age and gender based on the U.S. Census Bureau. Minimal statistical weighting has been applied to maximize sample representation.
Additionally, a survey among 511 U.S. Protestant senior pastors was conducted online from December 13, 2021–January 3, 2023. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Proprietary Pastor Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size.
1. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: William Collins, 2012) 50.
© Barna Group, 2023.
Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.
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