In our first blog, Dr. Joel Thiessen outlined five aspects of flourishing congregations that will inform much of what we do together over the next few years of research and writing. Early in his blog, Joel made the following comment: “What binds the following together is intentionality. Like cultivating habits in one’s life, congregations do not flourish, develop, or thrive without intentionally seeking to do so.” If ever there was an element in the life of any congregation in which this is particularly true, it is in relation to the ‘where’ of the congregation, the place they meet, fellowship and worship as a body.
I am of the mind that this is particularly germane to the first aspect Joel mentioned, namely, a clear self-identity. A friend of mine, in a bout of friendly jousting once said to me, “Bill it doesn’t matter where we worship, only that we worship.” I assured him of my respect and for the fact that it was entirely within his prerogative to be wrong! A visitor or first-time attender to any church will have begun to assemble their understanding of who these people are well before any song is sung or sermon preached. In fact, this will begin before the first set of greeters is able to extend a warm handshake. People will read and interpret buildings before entering them. Yet unfortunately for many years and particularly within the evangelical world very little thought is typically given to what the buildings we design and construct might say to those we are hoping will attend. We are rightly concerned with what the building will do for us, but I am arguing that is not enough.
It is not difficult to show how far too many congregations have experienced the frustration generated by a built environment (either bought, built or borrowed/rented) that rather than facilitating the accomplishment of a vision or mission has in fact mitigated against it. The “where” of any flourishing congregation does matter! I understand the challenges of ministering in ‘borrowed digs,’ in situations when church plants, for example, meet in rented multi-purpose facilities such as town halls, gymnasiums or theatres. The omnipresence of God is not limited by the built environment. But to suggest, therefore, that the places where we gather as the Body of Christ are entirely inconsequential or at best secondarily important is to dangerously court a gnostic approach to spirituality.
Significantly, designers of shopping malls and restaurants seem to get it! They understand the effect of critical elements such as lighting, proportion and texture and they know that certain environments affect certain responses. As an example, the average fast food restaurant is designed to provide an environment that will be comfortable for the average patron for approximately 13 minutes. Hard, bold-coloured, seating, close proximity to other customers, and a loud acoustic ambiance all combine to discourage any undue lingering. By contrast other eating establishments with their soft, welcoming seating, subdued lighting, easy-listening music and often aromatic atmospheres are designed to foster and welcome visits of up to two or three hours. Elements such as generous amounts of natural light, running water and numerous lives plants have become very common features in more and more shopping malls. According to a brochure I found in a world-renowned mega-mall, the proprietors do not want people to ‘just shop’ there; they want them to have ‘an experience’ which of course, will encourage them to stay longer and likely shop!
Should churches, then, work toward replicating such commercial spaces? No, not entirely. However, I am reminded of a phone interview I was privileged to have with a member of the management team at Willow Creek Community Church a number of years ago shortly after they had moved from their 4500 seat auditorium into their new 7200 seat gathering place. I asked the question what did they want people to do or experience when they entered their new space? The answer was immediate and concise: “First of all, we want attenders to slow down. Most of our people, living in the greater Chicago area endure rather frenetic lives from Monday to Friday. We have created a space that will allow indeed force them to slow down. Secondly, and most importantly, we want people to have an encounter with the living God, and thirdly, we want people to experience genuine community.” My follow-up question was: “Are you saying that you believe that your new built environment has the capacity to facilitate or enhance those kinds of experiences?” The answer? “Without question! We have spent seven years in a detailed consideration of aspects such as lighting, material of seat cushions and seat backs, floor coverings, colors, knee space, sightlines and many more.” Such efforts seem to be paying off!
Well, we may say, once again that is within a context south of the 49th parallel, in the United States! And that is true. It is for that reason that I am looking forward to listening with my colleagues to many experts and various stakeholders from a variety of church traditions within the Canadian context and testing my conviction that place and space speak; that the where of flourishing congregations does matter. In the meantime, let me encourage you to read my earlier book on the topic, Sacred Space for the Missional Church: Engaging Culture through the Built Environment. I welcome your responses, and let us know what you think about this or other topics related to flourishing congregations.