Abstract: Protestant churches are experiencing a decline in attendance in young adults aged 18 to 25, showing little interest in attending services yet the spiritual interests among them are high. Historically, cultural shifts have necessitated change to church facilities such as spatial arrangement, technologies and interior aesthetics. Some churches however, have chosen not to make these changes to its interior design style. The purpose of this study examines the effects of the interior aesthetics within a worship environment on the attendance of the 18 to 25 age population.
Using grounded theory, pretest-posttest survey results conclude that participants (N=13) prefer more contemporary interiors including darker lighting, religious symbolism, close spatial arrangement that encourages community, and the creative uses of architectural elements.
We all know lighting can add to the feel of a room; color, brightness, and even cleverly placed lamps can all contribute to how we respond to an environment. Many of us hate the bright lights of a hospital or office building that can feel harsh and intimidating, yet appreciate the dimmed lighting of a restaurant as it can put us at ease.
The same is true in worship. Lighting has the power to distract us from God or enable us to draw closer to him, and it was our aim to use lighting as a way to allow people to meet God in more profound ways. For generations, people have gathered among great cathedrals or small country churches yet still, others have congregated in school gyms, cinema theatre or public parks to be able to listen the Gospel preached.
Overly ornate church interiors, to some, a grandeur as they worship the Christ, yet Christ himself was born in a stable (Zondervan, 2008). As of now, Protestant church attendance is declining among younger generation. One solution might be to create worship spaces more appealing to this age group while maintaining design features that also welcome older members of the congregation. Younger people report that they are drawn to dimly lit interiors, such as deep color palettes such as greens, golds, and browns, which is earth tones and appears more spatially intimate and mystic (McLaren, 2006). And stated as being less interested to traditional church architectural elements such as cathedral ceilings, bright interiors (i.e., color or lighting applications) and extravagant religious symbolism (McLaren, 2006; Badaracco-Padgett, 2005).
An interior designer April Grieman, is quoted as saying, Design must seduce, shape, and perhaps more importantly, evoke an emotional response. If through interior designs can effectively evoke an emotional response during a worship experience, perhaps current approaches to church facilities should be reconsidered, in order to best attract and enhance a younger generation worship experience and not wanting to attend church. Older generations typically prefer more traditionally styled church interiors and spatial arrangements while younger generations prefer contemporary, concert-like aesthetics (Seasoltz, 2005; McLaren, 2006). The latest technologies many bring benefits visually but some churches are curious to know the actual causes and effects of the decline in church attendance prior to making changes to their interiors, investing potentially thousands upon thousands of dollars in the space (McLaren, 2006).
A lot of churches in the United States are seeing a rapid decline in the attendance within the 18 to 25 age population. A recent study produced by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reported that of over 14,000 students surveyed, across 136 U.S. colleges and universities, an interest in spiritual matters was still very high although college students’ church attendance was in decline (Christian Century, 2008). Originally, the students were given the survey in 2004 asking questions about their spirituality. Three years later, the same students were given the identical survey and results showed that more than half of the students attended church services about as much as they did in high school. Forty percent, however, said they worshipped less than they had previously (Christian Century, 2008). While some postulate that a more contemporary “Starbucks” interior including warm earth tones, dimmed lights, multi-media visuals, concert-like worship and little to no religious symbolism is more effective to reach this generation, others argue a less “worldly” approach is more effective (Hutchinson, 2008).
The purpose of this study is to conduct research involving young adults, aged 18 to 25, to assess positive or negative responses, if any, to the interior aesthetics of a worship facility. Young adults, aged 18 to 25 are the future of the churches’ growth therefore, specifically chosen to survey the age group’s responses to church interior aesthetics. A literature review will be conducted to explore the historical significance of changes within church architecture and interior designs. The review will also examine current church design trends among traditional, contemporary and transitional church facilities. Specific attention will focus on lighting, spatial arrangement, multi-sensory aesthetics and the psychology of color palettes and their respective meanings. Within architectural and interior trends, current implications and/or theories of the rapid decline in church attendance within the 18 to 25 age population will also be reviewed
For interior designers or architects wanting to create relevant church facilities for the 18 to 25 age population, findings of this study may assist designers and decision-makers to have a better understanding of young adults desires for church interior aesthetics which may help influence the retention of this age group. It may also provide helpful information for a ministry staff expressing similar concerns of a young adult declining attendance.
Fifty university students (aged 18 to 22), were interviewed about church interiors. The students were asked questions regarding churches’ interiors, what they liked or disliked and their initial responses upon entering a worship space. Other young, professional individuals (aged 22 to 25) were asked similar questions. Those struggling to attend a church consistently, or who did Church Interior Aesthetics 42 not attend at all, were asked about their particular struggles or complaints and if they were related to the interior aesthetics of the church. Survey questions were developed by using portions of instruments used in qualitative and quantitative studies that focused on subjects’ responses to an environment or effects of consumer psychology (Argyle, 2000; Sinderman, 2005).
Out of the 20 asked to participate, 13 completed, pre- and post-test surveys were returned. The number of respondents in each age were as follows: Age 18 had n=0; age 19 had n=3; age 20 had n=0; age 21 had n=3; age 22 had n=4; age 23 had n=0; age 24 had n=3; and age 25 had n=0. The participants overall mean was 21 years of age. The number of female respondents was 8, with a mean age of 21.5, and the number of male respondents was 5, with a mean age of 21.6.
Data Gathered from Observation
A simple wooden cross stands to one side of the platform with little to no other religious symbolism in the space. Words to music or scripture references are projected onto a large screen behind the platform for easy viewing by everyone in the space. A few spot lights are used for the platform Church Interior Aesthetics 53 but the ambient lighting is a harsh, high intensity discharge lamp, often associated with gym or parking lot lighting (Winchip, 2005) On average, the service has a younger demographic, primarily those aged 35 and under. Life Light’s pre- and posttests were generally reported to be the same. Lighting was adequate for taking notes or reading the projector screen without causing eye strain and participants agreed that the space was open, informal and inviting. They did not believe that the space appeared to be visually formal, closed in or busy.
The findings of this study, while diverse, imply that yes, young adults do tend to prefer a more contemporary setting, such as that found at Life Church. The interior had multiple images projected, concert-like stage lighting, and loud music, as well as other multi-sensory elements happening at the same time; yet it was reported as not too busy visually. This implies that young adults aged 18 to 25 are accustomed to many things happening simultaneously and do not find it distracting but rather important to the overall environment and worship experience, in accord with McLaren (2006). Although on average, at St Luke’s United Methodist traditional service, participants did not want to return, they still felt it was inviting, due to the colorful stained glass windows, architectural surrounds, and semi-circular spatial arrangement of the congregation. The Church Interior Aesthetics 60 separation however, according to participants, occurred due to the formality of the presentation style rather than the interior itself. This may imply young adults are in fact attracted to color and interesting architectural elements. Architectural elements could be displayed as typically seen in a traditional style church interior or displayed creatively in an untraditional manner. Religious symbolism is also reported as not being distracting but rather expected; some participants suggested at a minimum, displaying a cross.