Fostering Meaningful Relationships in a Digital Age and the Role Physical Space Plays–From the Church Architect's Desk
Throughout the pandemic, the digital experience has been a lifeline for our relationships, but is technology a replacement for interpersonal connection? Jo Saxton, author, speaker, podcast host, and leadership coach, shared on Barna ChurchPulse Weekly how physical space still plays a huge role in building meaningful relationships, and supporting the discipleship journey.
If you haven’t listened to the episode, “Jo Saxton on Fostering Meaningful Relationships in a Digital Age, Understanding the Gaps in Digital Discipleship, and the Incredible Statistics on How Women Have Been Impacted by the COVID-19 Pandemic,” you can listen here, and don’t forget to download the free discussion guide!
I’ve always summed up the purpose of church—and church buildings—as space to connect with God and to connect with people. Jo Saxton dived into something that I think we all know somewhat innately—that relationships have suffered in the past couple years and digital connection has, at best, allowed us to maintain relationships. But only in a few cases has technology really improved our relationships, especially in the church.
As Carey said, most of our relationships are predicated on shared experiences—and there is no richer shared experience for Christians than worshipping, serving, and eating and drinking together. “The physicality is an integral part of our spirituality—there’s something distinct and unique about what you do when you’re in the same place.”
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What do people experience about God through gathering in a physical church? One answer to that question is a real, tangible experience of being part of the universal church, the Body of Christ. It is an essential part of our Christianity to rub shoulders with people who are different from us—people who have different political beliefs, different jobs and interests, different socioeconomic status, and even different values. Because to be part of a church is not about sharing the same opinions on everything—it’s sharing in the body and blood of Jesus our salvation.
Digital Christian content is a gift, and an absolute necessity in the age of the internet. And yet, a major part of discipleship is learning how to deal with people. The second great commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and Jesus demonstrates that when he speaks of “our neighbor” he does not mean the person we get along with the easiest! Even if we do our best to connect with our friends while we consume some digital church on Sundays, that is not the depth of discipleship that Jesus intends for us.
"There’s something about seeing people’s faces and the physicality that’s an integral part of our spirituality and our relationship building." –Jo Saxton
Tish Harrison Warren wrote in her book The Liturgy of the Ordinary, “The church is not an entity outside of me. I do not stand on the outside looking in.” Digital church, while it fills an important gap in the ministry of the church, is the epitome of “standing on the outside looking in.” Jo reflects that standing in congregational worship reminds us that “you are the people of God, not just the person of God.”
As an architect, I think often about creating space for relationships. Often that happens in lobbies, in the children’s wing, and increasingly more in the outdoors and landscape of the church. But it also happens in worship. Listening to a sermon with others we might not know, singing (or just making joyful noise!), being silent in prayer together, and seeing others worship with us serve as reminders that none of our differences are as powerful as the salvation and the Savior we have in common.
Talking about the goodness of simple pleasures in The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis said that pleasure and pain are “unmistakably real and therefore…they give the man who feels them a touchstone of reality.” I would argue that, in our digital world where we have all kinds of content on-demand—including relationships through social media—the reverse of Lewis’s statement is also true: giving people an experience of reality through embodied worship with other people helps them once again experience the deeply human pleasure and pain of being part of the community of the Body of Christ—sharing with each other in weeping and rejoicing.
Being part of the church is hard. For those who are working through wounds inflicted by church, or for others who are unable to participate in person with a church body, digital sermons, worship, and other content is a great gift. And yet, as novelist Flannery O’Connor said, “The only thing that makes the church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ, and on this we are fed.”
We need to be spiritually fed not only by sermons, but by shared worship with people who are different from us, who might make us a little uncomfortable. Warren says, “Here too we see God’s power because, in this Body of Christ, we find a place where we can be gloriously and devastatingly human. Like a family—but even closer than a family—we can learn to live together, weak and human, in the goodness and transformation of God.” The relationships that shape our faith happen not only in the lobby or the chat box. They are forged in the sanctuary.
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.