Surprising Faith Attractors

Every now and then research throws up something that turns your perceptions about evangelism upside down. New research from the UK suggests that church buildings are more effective in attracting young people to the Christian faith than youth groups. It also suggests that more young people are committed to the Christian faith than previously thought (as much as one in six). But what about the attractional nature of buildings? What can we learn in Australia from this research, if anything?

The study, commissioned by the Christian youth organisation Hope Revolution Partnership and performed by ComRes, found that 21 per cent of people between the ages 11 and 18 identify as active followers of Jesus. Thirteen per cent of these individuals report actively practising Christianity and attending church services. The present research found that the increase might be due to visits to churches or cathedrals. In the study, approximately 13 per cent of teenagers reported choosing to become Christian after visiting a church or cathedral.

Jimmy Dale, the Church of England’s national youth evangelism officer, said that the results were shocking in an interview with The Telegraph. “There was disbelief among the team because the figures were so high,” he said.

The research showed that about 13 percent of teenagers decided to become a Christian after a visit to a church or cathedral. In fact, visiting a church building was more significant than attending a youth group, going to a wedding, or speaking to other Christians about their faith, the research found. “This shows the power of church buildings – they are powerful for all sorts of reasons,” the Bishop of Worcester, John Inge, said.

One in five said reading the Bible had been important, 17 percent said going to a religious school had had an impact and 14 percent said a spiritual experience was behind their Christianity.

Church tourism
Recently a friend of mine on Facebook posted a photo from inside a church in Italy where she is holidaying. Her caption was “Churches are beautiful here. In one street about one kilometre I counted four”. She was captivated by the beauty and ornateness of the decoration. They are out of the ordinary and of course are designed to communicated aspects of biblical teaching and to be expressions of worship. Most of these buildings are grounded in a long history and many are designed to inspire awe and wonder.

Bricks and Baptists in the ‘burbs
This is a long way from the architecture of suburban Baptist churches in Australia. Our congregations seem to be drawn from the middle of the middle classes. We are a safe culture not given to extravagance. We certainly watch our pennies when it comes to architecture. The typical traditional suburban Baptist church features a modest brick wall frontage adorned with small white lettering in serif font : ‘(insert name) Baptist Church’.

Our largest churches are very modern in architecture, and whilst being pleasing to the eye are functional in nature: ecclesiastical convention centres. People don’t flock to our largest churches to sit in their cavernous auditoriums to wonder at the ornate architecture or sacred art. The exception to the rule of our minimalist Baptist architecture are our inner-city tabernacles. They are however, few and far between.

Our tradition of eschewing any formal liturgy is reflected in our architecture. We are high on extempore and low on symbolism. We are an off-the-cuff culture. Often within our buildings it’s hard to detect any artwork that identifies the building as a place of worship. We certainly have sacred objects. Ask any pastor who has tried to change the communion table or decide not to use the Berlin-wall sized pulpit that was gifted decades earlier and hand crafted by one of the church’s establishment. There are sacred objects within our churches but not the kind that the research indicates attracts young people.

So, in short we don’t have a hope here in Australia as Baptists cashing in on the attractional nature of buildings. We can learn however, from the fact that symbolism, art and architecture are important elements of spirituality that have been in play for centuries. If there’s any aspect of our culture that our current leaders need to encourage exploration in, surely this is worth considering.

Why buildings instead of people?
One aspect of the research which sits uncomfortably with me is the choice by many to use architecture as a stepping stone to faith rather than people. What does this say about attitudes towards Christians? It’s a hard fact to swallow but many people who aren’t Christians don’t trust us. Many find us to be hypocritical and judgmental. We aren’t always the most popular crowd in town. Sometimes that is due to the unavoidable conflict between the Gospel and the world. The test of the Gospel has never been widespread popular acclaim. Where we can help our bad press is where it’s deserved.

Bad press is hard to fix if there is no proximity between yourself and those who have the negative perceptions. The more proximity our church members have with their community, the better the perception of us by our peers in the community. That’s because Baptists are generally salt of the earth people who lovingly and sacrificially serve their local community and have done for decades. The more emphasis a church places on mission from both an attractional and an incarnational point of view, the more connected the church is to the people who should matter to them in their surrounding neighbourhood.

Youth Groups re-evaluation
I’m not sure what they are doing in youth groups over in the UK but I would have thought that they should be a big plus anywhere. Perhaps the acid test of whether a youth group cuts the mustard with local teens is determined by how insular or outward focussed it is. I’ve known youth groups to be pretty much for the teenagers of the church parents. That’s fair enough, in that parents in church have a reasonable expectation that the church will have a functional and faith nurturing youth group. However, if that is to the exclusion of non-church teens I can understand why that would not be an attractive environment for outsiders.

The role of Christian schooling
Whilst we don’t have inspiring architecture, we do have a growing independent Christian school sector which serves as an extension of the church by way of passionate teachers who are committed followers of Christ nurturing new generations of young people. As a Baptist minister, I am continually approached by many non-Christian friends to support applications for their children to attend a Christian school.

These schools present an attractive proposition for many non-Christian parents from an educational point of view. It demonstrates an openness to the Christian faith (at least on their children’s behalf). These families become exposed to the Christian faith by being part of the school community.

Christian teachers invariably leave a positive legacy in the lives of children through their professionalism, character and passion for faith in Christ.

God is at work
In summary, the research points to aspects of faith attraction that are beyond our control, namely that young people are having ‘spiritual experiences’, reading the Bible and praying. They also point to a brighter picture of the amount of young people who identify as believers. We all too easily forget that the sum total of what is happening in relation to people being drawn to God is not encapsulated in our efforts alone. God is at work everywhere, and we can be too busy hatching our own plans on his behalf instead of joining in on what He is doing.