Chris Aho knows a thing or two about worshiping in contemporary spaces, like churches which meet in theaters, schools or former retail spaces.
“There is a sense of young churches trying to take away all the symbolism that was baggage for people, to make it generic,” said Aho, pastor at Oxford Baptist Church in Oxford, N.C.
But sometimes newer generations arrive who don’t want their worship spaces to resemble the malls and movie theaters and big-box stores they frequent the rest of the week, Aho said.
“There are people longing for tangible symbols now like they weren’t 25 to 30 years ago.”
That’s also part of the reason First Baptist Church in Athens, Texas, recently installed a steeple on its building where one had never stood before, a minister there said.
And church historians and coaches say that while the steeple and other Christian symbols have ebbed and flowed throughout church history, the presence of traditional structures is by no means the death knell of efforts to appeal to Millennials and other young Americans.
“My hope is that future generations will see traditional architecture is very different because we do something very different” in the church, Aho said.
‘Something with meaning behind it’
That was a big part of the motivation of First Baptist in Athens, where its new steeple was erected in October, student pastor Scott Shelton said.
In fact, there were a lot of reasons the congregation opted to replace an aging, leaking cupula with a traditional steeple. They included stopping the leaks and helping travelers spot the church more easily, he said.
“Now people can say we are the church with the steeple instead of the church behind the Taco Bell,” said Shelton.
But there were spiritual goals, as well, including using it as a teaching tool for what steeples were always meant to be about: pointing the way to Christ.
Kyle Henderson, pastor of the Athens church, outlined each component of the structure, from spire to lantern to clock, and their biblical significance.
In a story published by Texas Baptist Communications, Henderson explained that the cross atop the steeple represents Christ and contains a rolled up scripture inside: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself (John 12).”
The lantern represents the Bible being Christians’ guide, and the base symbolizes grace, the article said.
“We were motivated to make the statement that we are people of the Cross,” Shelton told Baptist News Global.
The question of whether younger generations could be turned off by a steeple was part of the conversation church members had about the steeple. But that was dismissed, Shelton said.
“If they are not looking for that, they are going to go someplace else, anyway.”
Besides, the facility has aspects that communicate the congregation’s embrace of functionality and fun — including a kids’ slide from the third to the ground floor, a game room and a tree house that extends off the side of the sanctuary, he said.
“Our church architecture is trying to show that we are a church for every segment of the population — old, young — and that we care about them equally,” he said.
And one thing about Millennials, he added, is they respect authenticity — including in architecture.
Young people want “something with meaning behind it,” Shelton said. “What we do as a church speaks louder than anything else.”
But there are no sure turn-offs, architecturally, for the unchurched, said George Bullard, an author and congregational coach with the South Carolina-based Columbia Partnership.
“Non-church-looking architecture will more likely attract a larger percentage of nones and dones,” said Bullard, referring to what researchers respectively called those with no religious affiliation or who have left organized religion.
“However, there also will be a minority of nones and dones who like the ‘mystery’ of the architecture and the ‘mystery’ of the formal liturgy,” Bullard said in comments emailed to BNG.
What usually matters most is how welcoming a congregation is, he said.
“Unchurched people want to see church facilities open to people like them and relevant ministries that fill the building 24/7 rather than a few hours on Sunday,” Bullard said.
And Millennials, he added, are much more interested in what’s happening outside a church than in its architecture.
“Millennials want relationships so ‘tall steeple churches’ must work harder to connect with them in relationships outside church buildings” before they will come inside, Bullard said.
‘Timeless and life-giving’
Steeples and other traditional forms of church architecture have enjoyed varied levels of acceptance throughout American church history, church historian Bill Leonard said.
Protestants initially rejected steeples and ornate buildings as symbols of Anglican and Catholic churches in Europe, Leonard told BNG. Instead those groups opted for simple meeting houses devoid of symbolism.
“They wouldn’t call them churches, since the church was the people,” said Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Steeples gradually caught on as a way of identifying sacred spaces, particularly in small cities and towns.
“Baptist churches, particularly as they moved up the economic ladder, tended to use steeples or even more formal architecture — towers, stone,” Leonard said.
For churches like Oxford Baptist in North Carolina, that means finding creative, perhaps new ways to do ministry while celebrating the traditional structure and symbols it has inherited, Aho said.
“Whatever the changing world throws at us, there are aspects of us that are timeless and life-giving,” Aho said. “And our architecture symbolizes that.”
Jeff Brumley is assistant editor of Baptist News Global.