Do Looks Matter

I was lunching with my pastor earlier this month and trying to explain to him what I do for a living. I offered our firm's recent study of retail in Philadelphia as an example of something we work on. After noting that one of our key findings was that interventions that tended to send an aesthetic signal that a corridor was clean, safe, and attractive were the most positively contributing types of interventions, he asked me a beguiling question: "To what extent do you think that is true of churches?"

It brought me back to leadership discussions I remember from earlier this decade, when our team was split pretty evenly between folks who found the current physical plant completely unacceptable and wanted to spend lots of money to make things nicer, and folks who were leery of using physical enhancements to attract newcomers. While I saw the merits of both sides, my take was always much more practical: having just become a homeowner, and being a proponent of the old adage, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," I thought our facility decisions should be made based on how we could best steward our financial and physical resources, choosing to spend money on the building when it would prevent us from having to spend more money later.

But my pastor's question made me reconsider where I now stand on this issue. To be sure, American churches spend a disgusting amount of money on physical plant. I say "disgusting," given the fact that a church is not supposed to be about physical things or even about its own congregation, but is rather meant to be outward-oriented, ever pushing the principles of the Kingdom of God into the geographic and relational spheres of influence of its members. I recounted to my pastor my guilty pleasure of leafing through a free magazine I subscribe to called Worship Facilities, which caters to mega-churches seeking to utilize the latest and greatest in church exterior and interior design. He in turn noted a mega-church he had visited in the South which was so big and so rich that they made regular arrangements to fly their senior pastor by helicopter from one sanctuary to a second sanctuary.

We got a good chuckle out of these exorbitant examples of the use of the physical to enhance the spiritual. And my pastor has spent 15+ years in the mission field in Africa and South America, so he knows firsthand that the most vibrant of Christian communities can be housed in the most rudimentary of structures. But we both agreed that the notion could not be dismissed out of hand. Sub-consciously, the aesthetic does matter. Our congregation should know, filled as it is with artistic types who have often used their gifts - musical, sculptural, visual - to enhance our services and our structures.

More practically, my pastor noted that little things like clean and safe places to change your infant's diaper, delicate touches in the ladies' bathroom, and making sure not to leave paint jobs in prominent locations half-done, can convey an appropriate sense of care and consideration to a visitor. Conversely, being sloppy about such things, whether it registers prominently or subliminally, can tell a newcomer that a place isn't for them.

Ultimately, God draws people to himself and to groups through spiritual and relational means. But the aesthetic is not to be completely dismissed. Christianity is the earthiest of religions; why, God saw fit to come in human form. Aesthetics can mask a dead congregation: consider Jesus' comment about the leafy but unfruity fig tree. But aesthetics can also signal deep spiritual facts: consider Nehemiah's lament over the broken walls of Jerusalem.

Perhaps it is time for another discussion amongst our leadership team about our physical plant. Perhaps we will be similarly divided among those who want to make major improvements, those who are skeptical about utilizing our scarce resources towards physical enhancements, and those who think practically about how to best maintain an old but valuable asset. Wherever we stand on the issue, may we recall our purpose as a church, and determine the extent to which aesthetics can or cannot appropriately play a role in that purpose.

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