This week on ChurchPulse Weekly, Skye Jethani (author, ordained minister and cohost of the Holy Post podcast) and Rev. Kimberly Deckel (Anglican priest and executive pastor at Church of the Cross in Austin, TX) join David Kinnaman to talk about the theology of physical space. Together, they explore how church leaders can better design meaningful gathering spaces that embody their stated values and theology.
On Rethinking the Purpose of Gatherings
Recent Barna data found that even after a year of digital innovations for the church, 44 percent of U.S. adults who have ever attended a church service say they would prefer primarily physical gatherings coming out of the pandemic. This is in comparison to 12 percent who desire a primarily digital gathering, 32 percent who prefer both physical and digital and another 12 percent who are not interested in attending any sort of church service after the pandemic.
As many churches continue ministering to both in-person and online congregants, it’s worth taking note what in-person services can offer that can’t be replicated online.
“I think we need wisdom around what is appropriate to disincarnate and what is not,” Jethani reflects. “They can get [sermons] anytime and anywhere through podcast, video, streaming and all kinds of means. What they can’t get anytime is the gathering of God’s people, an incarnate community, where they can engage their friends and colleagues and people in their church in a human way. ”
He adds, “Ironically, in a lot of evangelical Americans churches, we’ve done it backwards. We’ve built our buildings around the delivery of a lecture, and we’ve not built them around actual community engagement, which we expect people to do in their homes. I think we probably need to reverse that in the years ahead.”
On Aligning Your Values & Spaces
Congregants continue to hold a high value for these physical gatherings, with over three-quarters of U.S. churchgoing adults (78%) noting that experiencing God in a church service alongside others in person is very important to them. The role of church leaders in this moment is to figure out which elements of these physical gatherings are drawing people, and then maximize on those felt needs.
One way that Deckel’s church integrates its values within the structure of its service is by identifying a liturgy to center the gathering. She asks, “What does it look like […] to structure our services around creation, fall, redemption, restoration–so that each Sunday we’re steeped in the word, in the sacrament, so there’s less focus on the preacher or pastor?”
To learn how your church’s values are showing up in your gathering space, Jethani suggests taking an audit of your church building. To begin, sit in your building and make observations of the space. A few questions he suggests asking include:
- How was the church designed?
- What’s the visual focus of the church?
- What characteristics do you see?
- What symbols are present or absent?
After this, compare your observations with your church’s stated doctrines and beliefs. He says, “The goal in any church is for the implicit and explicit [doctrines] to reinforce each other–that what you say is reinforced by how you worship, by the space you’re in and the symbols that are present, by the design and orientation of the seating, whatever it might be.”
He concludes, “This is an opportunity, a reset moment, for all of us to think through, ‘How does my space and liturgy of gathering contradict or reinforce what I want people to be formed into?’”
On Returning to an Embodied Theology
As churches reopen, Deckel points out the opportunity to prioritize a more integrated and embodied theology. She says, “Remember the importance of our physical bodies and worship. Even for churches outside of more liturgical traditions, how do you help your people begin to recognize that their physical movement—standing, sitting and praying—during a service is part of worship, too?”
Jethani points out the impact of separating many church practices and traditions from our bodies, noting, “We’ve been behaving as if people are brains on sticks and all that matters is the passive consumption of a sermon or maybe passive (or semi-active) engagement with music.”
He adds, “Our ecclesiology in a lot of our churches is a disembodied one; it’s just information […] This is a moment that’s really uncovering our deficiencies.”
Even as these limitations are brought to light, Deckel sees an invitation for people to move from a comfortable consumption of a church experience to an everyday engagement with their faith. She concludes, “This is an opportunity for us to begin to think: what does it look like for our people to think about worship and a faithful life to God and mission all through the week and not just depend on a Sunday service?”
About the Research
The data shown above is based on a representative sample of 2,007 interviews with U.S. adults, ages 18 or older. The interviews were conducted online from April 23 to May 5, 2021. The margin of error is +/- 2.0 percent at the 95-percent confidence level.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2021