How a Lack of ‘Visual Clarity’ May Be Driving People Away from Your Church Blog Feature
Marian V. Liautaud

By: Marian V. Liautaud on November 06, 2014

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How a Lack of ‘Visual Clarity’ May Be Driving People Away from Your Church

One of the key ways a church conveys authenticity is by ensuring that what a person sees and experiences when he or she walks into your worship service is consistent with the messages heard or communicated in the service. The Aspen/Barna study Making Space for Millennials refers to this consistency between experience and messaging as visual clarity.

“Visual clarity is huge,” says Taylor Snodgrass who embarked on a church road trip to discover churches that were doing a good job of reaching 20-somethings. “We walked into a few churches that didn’t have good signage, and we just wandered around. We weren’t sure where to go—and Millennials don’t want to ask. We just want to go in and experience the space without having to ask someone, especially if it’s our first time at church.”

Practically speaking, Millennials in the Aspen/Barna study expressed an appreciation for clear signage for where to go once they enter the church and where to find information.

“We don’t want to feel stress when we go into church,” Snodgrass says. “The logistics of a building shouldn’t be a barrier for people coming into church. The biggest thing is to create a welcoming space that isn’t confusing.”

“More philosophically, Millennials want to be able to answer the questions ‘Where am I?’ and ’What’s expected of me?’ by looking for cues in their surroundings,” says Barna Group President David Kinnaman.

“Old church [buildings] were built to connect people to God,” Kinnaman says. “The altar, the stained glass windows, the soaring ceiling that pointed to the heavens—every element was designed to create a link between human and divine.”

“The cathedral is powerfully symbolic, connecting our world to the one above,” says Derek DeGroot, director of design and integrated services for Aspen Group. “But it’s also a common symbol of church in the secular world, frequently featured in TV shows, movies and in literature. Perhaps this standard Hollywood depiction has allowed the traditional church to be a standout symbol of Christianity, where the modern day church works so hard to blend into its culture.”

Many modern churches are explicitly constructed not to look and feel too much like a religious place. “A modern church is designed to host activities, and these activities point the people to God. But strip away those activities, and you might as well be at a community college or a performing arts center or, heaven help us, an airport terminal,” Kinnaman observes.

So do we need to start building cathedrals again just because so many unchurched people are fond of them? Not so fast.

When Barna Research asked Millennials to choose from word pairings to describe their vision of the ideal church, a two-thirds majority or greater picked “community” (78%) over “privacy” (22%); and “casual” (64%) over “dignified” (36%).

Words like “sanctuary,” “classic” and “quiet” could be associated with more traditional church buildings—yet less than half of survey respondents preferred the word “traditional” over “modern.”

“Though many of them aspire to a more traditional church experience, in a beautiful building steeped in history and religious symbolism, they are more at ease in a modern space that feels more familiar than mysterious,” says Kinnaman.

Instead of building cathedral-type structures, churches would do well to focus on designing for clarity.

“Someone once told me that when you walk into a space, you decide within three seconds if you like the space or not,” says Snodgrass. “It’s true. I’d walk in and say, ‘I hate this space,’ or ‘I love this space.’”

He recalls a visit to an old church in Portland, Oregon, that lacked “slick Helvetica signs.”

“It wasn’t a problem because there was just a flight of stairs to walk up into the worship area,” Snodgrass says. “No lobby. Upstairs there was a rag-tag bunch of chairs set up everywhere and a drum set that had never been used, and people walking around with coffee. There were no pews. Something about it was very Portland.”

This church didn’t offer any traditional visual cues that it was a church, and yet Snodgrass’s experience highlights the power of visual clarity—people can tell immediately what a space is for and what they should do next, and the physical space rings true to the culture of the church itself.

Good design can make it crystal clear who a church is, what they believe, and what they are there to do. “Budgets are and may always be the biggest hurdle to overcome in creating great space,” says DeGroot.

So how do you create great spaces on a shoestring budget that resonate with Millennials?

DeGroot advises churches to first concentrate on one or two areas and make those spaces feel special.

“Instead of spreading funds equally throughout the facility, make your spaces utilitarian in general but go the extra mile in a few areas. Keep your structures simple, and instead invest more of your building budget on finishes, furniture and technology that display great thought and care. Limit expensive materials to a few choice facades or a special landscape feature.”

Is your church visually clear? Do people know where to go and what to do once they enter your building?


About Marian V. Liautaud

Marian is former Director of Marketing for Aspen Group.