Loneliness, the Digital Age, and Church Design–From the Church Architect's Desk
Recent data shows that the Gen Z generation (people born roughly between 1997 to 2010) spends an average of seven hours a day on their phone, but 79% of Gen Z people say they’re lonely. In a reality that’s become increasingly digital, there is still a strong need for physical community.
This week on Barna’s ChurchPulse Weekly, Ben Windle, Australian pastor and author, and Jay Kim, author of Analog Church, sat down with Carey Nieuwhof to discuss making physical space for community in a digital era.
This week we continued the conversation about the unique value that physical space brings in a world where digital church content is easy to create and distribute. How do churches establish a sense of rootedness and define community in the digital age?
Ben Windle says that our pandemic foray into exclusively digital church “has amplified a deep need for real community and friendship.” He said that the Gen Z generation spends over seven hours a day on their devices, but they’re still lonely, which is to say, online communities aren’t meeting our deep relational needs.
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I discovered Jay Kim earlier this year when I read his book Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age. As a pastor of a large Silicon Valley church, I am so grateful for his nuanced perspective that digital is a great resource, but it still remains only a front door for the full Christian life.
"One of the great benefits of digital is that it’s given the church a uniquely broad front door, but the reality is, the front door is an entry into more intimate and meaningful spaces." –Jay Kim
I think this is a perfect metaphor for how churches should think about digital resources. I would never want a guest to hang out at my front door and never come inside my home. At least not one who meant something to me as a friend! I would want them to become comfortable enough to come in, to see my space and the chair where I decompress every night. I would want a close friend to sit down and have sense of belonging, eventually to participate in the preparation and clean-up of a meal. If we never get past the front door, we’ll never experience the fullness of community.
In the same vein, Ben Windle says in an upcoming white paper called Online, Together, and Lonely, “Casually attending an in-person church service does not necessarily provide all of [the necessary] elements of community . . . That’s why the conversation should not be, ‘is in-person better than online?’ Rather, it should be, ‘What is Biblical community, and how can we use every tool at our disposal to achieve it?’”
As we’ve slowly moved into the post-Christian era of American life over the past few decades where spending time at church no longer counts for much cultural currency, church leaders have been wondering how to get people to come more deeply inside the house of faith. We spend a lot of time with pastors creating lobbies and connecting spaces, where people can feel a bit more settled in and start to participate at their own pace. We program thing like a welcome booth where people can go to “get more information about our church.” But it takes so much more than just a lobby and a Next Steps Booth to create a sense of being at home in a church.
I love the term Jay coined here—“lingering spaces.” These are spaces that not only permit, but encourage people to stick around—to have an extended conversation—to feel at home. Ben said, “There’s a search for physicality and a longing for simple things like a meal.” Community doesn’t just happen in structured, programmed times, but when people can connect in the simplicity being together—of experiencing full participation in a conversation as well as sitting through the pauses and lulls where we occupy space together without any burden to prove ourselves.
"Where we can find in-person community touchpoints to wrap around our digital discipleship, it only enhances—it’s a compliment to discipleship— because at the end of the day, discipleship is not knowledge transfer, it’s not information, it’s a relational communal experience." –Ben Windle
In Analog Church, Jay highlights the “Four Laws of Media” originally written by a man named Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s. McLuhan said that these four questions should be applied to every form of media, from telegraph, to television, to the internet:
- What does it enhance, improve, or make possible?
- What does it push aside or make obsolete?
- What does it retrieve that was previously pushed aside or made obsolete?
- What does it turn into when pushed to an extreme?
Jo Saxton mentioned last week that internet has certainly improved many aspects of long-distance relationships, but it’s kind of a long shot to make the argument that online church has improved local church relationships.
But there are many ways to innovate to make both digital and physical connection more fruitful for discipleship. I’ve been playing with the word “interplay” lately, as a concept to push creativity in church design. We don't win ground for the kingdom when we pit digital against physical, or preaching against community engagement, or serving the church against serving our neighbors. We win when we bring those things together in the spirit of unity that Jesus embodies in John 17.
"We don't win ground for the kingdom when we pit digital against physical, or preaching against community engagement, or serving the church against serving our neighbors. We win when we bring those things together in the spirit of unity that Jesus embodies in John 17." –Derek DeGroot
The interplay of digital and physical means what Ben said about “finding in-person community touchpoints to wrap around digital” efforts. The digital world is here and Christians are late to the game, but there’s still a lot of opportunity for Christians to innovate about how we use digital resources to create a bigger front porch, invite people in, and show them who we are. But once people are on the front steps and about to knock, you’d better have a living room, a comfy chair, and some drinks and snacks. Because if they only stay on the front porch and never take their coat off to sit down, that friendship probably won’t go very far.
About Derek DeGroot
Derek DeGroot is Vice President of Design and Integrated Services for Aspen Group. After graduating from University of Illinois-Chicago’s architecture program, Derek began his career in residential design. At the same time, his church was embarking on a building project. Derek quickly realized that churches needed to find a better way to build. Soon after, he discovered and joined Aspen Group in 2007.