3 Urgent Issues Facing the Church, and Design Solutions to Address Them
Even as the new year starts, churches across America are facing ongoing challenges brought on by the pandemic. Added to the effects of COVID are tectonic shifts in culture that are changing the way churches will reach people with the hope of the gospel.
Aspen has been partnering for years with Barna to explore how to leverage data and design to build a better future for the Church.
In early 2020, the pandemic created an opportunity for a shift in Barna Group’s research. “Literally, a week before the pandemic broke out, we were getting ready to launch The State of The Church, which is a huge project we do every decade,” says Mark Matlock.
As in so many areas of life, the pandemic brought disruption to everyday life, including the release of Barna’s new work. However, it also provided a unique research opportunity.
“What we quickly realized is that this wasn’t a momentary experience. This is a long winter. This is an ice age, not a snow day. We realized we had to pivot. We started monitoring churches by doing a church pulse program where we had leaders check in every week.” These interactions led Barna to crucial insights about culture and the church’s future.
Data + Design for Ministry Impact
Three prominent themes emerged from Barna's data, highlighting new opportunities for church leaders to observe culture shifts and adapt their ministry settings and strategies to meet current needs:
1. Emotional health and well-being: Across demographics, we know people are sad, lonely, and 3 in 10 say they are depressed. Fifty-eight percent of U.S. adults indicate a relationship in their lives that is affected by mental health. People are in desperate need of an emotionally-connected church.
Derek shares, “I think about how to help in facilities, specifically how the church can be a safe place and what aspects people might be looking for when they're coming into a church. As a design team, we're trained in health, safety, and welfare, but it's not just physical health, safety, and welfare. It’s about emotional and mental health as well.”
He believes emotional well-being is inherent in good design and can be accomplished by the interplay of art and architecture, of indoors and outdoors.
“Let’s create spaces with a clear purpose that allows people to engage intuitively. Another thing we have to learn is how to design better as respite. We have a very chaotic and busy world, and respite is critical to emotional health. We used to think of respite as a destination, someplace where you can go off the grid. But there's nowhere ‘off the grid’ anymore. Respite has to be created as part of the journey in our spaces, for example, spaces that inspire us to actually behave in a different way.”
2. Integrating physical and digital church: Leaders are wrestling with church engagement, having been forced to adapt quickly to a digital world. Millennials want to participate and contribute, not just consume. The challenge is that streaming often happens in isolation. How do we foster connections in the digital world?
From a design perspective, Derek notes that churches will need to continue to focus on the interplay of the digital and physical worlds, to engage people in a discipleship journey, meeting them in the digital world to connect them to the physical world. And so that means we need to be innovative about that.
“We can move beyond websites, to layer spatial experiences onto virtual engagement. We can invest in physical spaces that can play with digital ones. Imagine being so intentional about crafting the interplay between digital and physical that someone could still experience the ethos of your church, whether they're live on Sunday or saw 10 minutes on Tuesday afternoon.
“We can design for beauty, behavior, liturgy without divorcing from technology. We can do that with our physical spaces. We don't want to abandon our physical engagement, but we want to augment it with technology.”
What if the church designed a better interplay between those two worlds? What might that look like? This could be a prayer walk with hotspots to access a curated liturgy on their device. Or a virtual model of your building so people can experience it in advance—reducing anxiety and opening them up to connection.
3. Engaging Gen Z: Gen Z, born after 1996, is a post-truth generation—only one in three believes that lying is wrong. The typical 15- to 23-year-old is experiencing about 2,700 hours of screen time in a year. Flooded with information but lacking context, they wonder how to process their doubts and curiosities safely. As we think about increasing connections with Gen Z, studies show that college-age students are more likely to return to their home church when they have intergenerational relationships Yet, we still create spaces in our buildings that separate generations.
Derek stresses the importance of creating spaces where various generations are comfortable and excited about coming together for shared experiences, similar to what we experience in everyday settings like restaurants or sports venues. “When it comes to the children's wings with seemingly excessive, single-use aesthetics, I think they're going away. We need to get to create more of this interplay across generations.”
As Mark points out, the pandemic has changed us and our churches in ways we can’t fully understand yet. But, we do know that we’ll continue to address the needs in our congregations and communities, to reach future generations with hope and faith, and to find ways to merge and strengthen the physical and digital ministry spaces.