Making Space—A Forthcoming Aspen/Barna Research Project
Almost ten years ago, Aspen Group (as part of a collaboration called the Cornerstone Knowledge Network) ventured into new market territory to commission a research project with Barna Group to better understand what this mysterious generation known as “Millennials” was drawn to in church spaces. We conducted surveys and focus groups, visiting church spaces in different cities with churchgoers and non-churchgoers to better understand the unique challenges facing the group born between 1982 and 2000.
That study was called Making Space for Millennials, and the results of that research changed the way both Aspen and Barna do business. It was the first time Barna published their research in monograph form (followed by scores of similar publications in the last eight years) and the design insights deeply influenced Aspen’s work and counsel to churches about what kinds of physical space to invest in.
Since the Millennials research was published, we at Aspen have been eager to invest in a similar project with Barna, so I’m very excited to share that a new research project is on the horizon. Surveying the state of the church in America right now, we see that although we have been missional and activist, many pastors and Christian leaders have highlighted a lack of deep discipleship in churches today. This observation led us to engage in a multi-year study with Barna looking at various aspects of how physical space impacts discipleship—a study we’re calling Making Space: Rethinking Church Building Design.
In this project, we’re seeking to provoke a conversation that is often overlooked:
How do spaces impact the formation of our desires, priorities, practices, and engagement in the world?
How do design choices impact spiritual growth?
Does our utilitarian approach to physical space lead to a more impoverished spirituality within our churches?
How can churches reimagine the physical world in order to address our pressing spiritual needs?
The first insight that has struck all of us so far is: This is very complicated! We have been trying to uncover a dynamic that happens often without anyone paying attention. (Some people are paying attention—and have been for a long time, specifically consumer and retail designers who tend to profit off of this dynamic between the physical environment and human desires/behavior.)
But most of us don’t spend our lives very aware of our surroundings, especially when they are comfortable for us. In many of our focus groups with churchgoers, we observed a struggle—unrecognized by the research subjects—to put words to the nuance of their experience of church spaces.
This reinforced to Aspen that even though we do thorough “Discovery” focus groups with churches at the beginning of every project, the default of churchgoers to put a positive spin on their experience in physical church spaces means we could probably go even deeper to get at the heart of what church design should be.
The research is still ongoing, but another observation I'd like to share is simply that this study has been extremely fun. One of the best parts of this partnership is the chemistry and likeminded pursuit of the church’s good we experience with Barna Group—the research team, church engagement team, and editorial team. Making Space for Millennials led to a lot of creative insights and experiments, and this project is moving along the same trajectory.
It’s also energizing as designers. Architecture has always been a bedfellow of philosophy, but that friendship often gets severed in a more pragmatic world. In our day-to-day work we are often swept along in the nuts and bolts of building projects—drawings, budgets, building details, scheduling, procurement, etc. It is a lot of fun to spend some time talking about the impact of space, especially on something as important as our spiritual lives.
Ministry impact is and always has been the drive behind everything we do at Aspen. Every day we hear stories of how our built spaces are helping people to hear the gospel, be served on a daily basis, and come to know Jesus.
If there is even a small chance that we could design space that not only draws people into the community of faith but invites them into a deeper knowledge of and relationship with God, that is the kind of space we want to build.
But we desire “ministry impact” to be more than just one-dimensional. If there is even a small chance that we could design space that not only draws people into the community of faith but invites them into a deeper knowledge of and relationship with God, that is the kind of space we want to build. And that is what this project with Barna is all about.
If you want to see some of what we’ve done already, you can check out some of these podcast episodes we produced with ChurchPulse Weekly. You can also receive updates on how the Making Space project develops here.
About Derek DeGroot
Derek DeGroot is President of 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.