The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Want to reach youth? Build a beautiful building!

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A recent Telegraph article reported a significant uptick of youth identifying as Christian in Britain.  According to the article:

The figures, show that more than one in five (21 per cent) people between the ages of 11 and 18 describe themselves as active followers of Jesus, and 13 per cent say they are practising Christians who attend church.[1]

This is significant, in part, because older studies put it at around between 5% and 6%. This has been so surprising that the data has been doubted, retested and reconfirmed. So I don’t think anyone knows what’s going on here, but the data is solid.

However, even more interesting than this increase in Christian youth in Britain is one significant piece of why they are identifying as Christians: the church buildings and cathedrals. Man I love millennials!!

What’s so interesting about this is that we live in a day and age where beautifying a church building is often seen as wasteful, at best, and contrary to the communication of the gospel, at worst.

But this is out of step with the history of the church. Some of the greatest buildings in the world are places originally designed for encountering God. Many times a particular congregation lacked the means to build beautifully, but they still structured their places of worship not merely for function but to foster a certain kind of experience.

Merely emphasizing function for communicating truth also seems simply out of step with how humans approach the world, in what we come to place our faith and affections. Reason and evidence are important and they are important for everyone (even ironically for those who decry reason and evidence). However, we also have deep longings. Mere truth doesn’t satisfy. Truth is, by definition, dispassionate. We may assent intellectually to something because it is true, but we don’t typically give our life for those things that are merely true.  We give our lives to things that are true, beautiful and good.

What’s in a building?

We build church buildings today almost exclusively for function. Function is of course not unimportant. If there’s no door to get into the building, then this is a problem. But we seem almost completely unconcerned about the kind of experience a building will give. There are some incredibly beautiful doors out there!

Does it sound strange to talk about beauty affecting our experience?

Consider what it would be like to read a book (even a really good book) sitting in a single chair with bright fluorescent lights in a high school gymnasium. Then consider what it would be like to read the same book here.

Or in a great coffee shop or out in nature.

The point is that the experiences depend in part on our environment. Being surrounded by beauty importantly changes and greatly enhances the experience. When we are surrounded by beauty, it more fully engages our souls. We are not just rationally engaged, but we are engaged in deep parts of our souls.

If this is right, then why wouldn’t we include beautiful aspects in our worship environments? When the experience is only rote and rational, then we have not presented the full picture of who God is.

Now I’m not saying that having a really beautiful building would thereby show the beauty of God. It has to be more than just this. But the general point is that we should surround our worship activities with beauty as a way to point to and reflect our brilliant and beautiful God.

God as the ground of objective beauty

The reality is that we have lost all sense of beauty in our current culture (both inside and outside of the church). When I have taught in secular settings, many students come into my classroom believing that truth, goodness and beauty are merely subjective opinion. This is not the case in my current Christian context. Almost all of my students come in thinking that truth is objective. Slightly less (but still in the majority) will think that moral goodness is also objective. But when it comes to beauty, this flips. Almost all of my students come in believing that beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder. It’s almost beyond comprehension to think that beauty is an objective value, that someone can be wrong about what one thinks is beautiful.

The reason people struggle with this, it seems, is because there is such a diversity of opinion when it comes to music, art, styles, interior design, etc. But notice we’ll be careful to say that a diversity of opinion about truth doesn’t make it such that there is no objective fact of the matter. People disagree about the shape of the earth, but this doesn’t make it the case that there’s no fact of the matter. It’s simply that some (maybe many) people are wrong in their opinions. We’ll also say that from the fact that there’s a diversity of opinion about moral values, it doesn’t follow that morality is subjective. It seems to me that the same exact thing should go for aesthetic values.

What also helps is getting clear on the difference of something’s being objectively beautiful and someone having a taste for something (i.e., being enjoyed or liked). I can like 80’s death metal (I don’t) or Funyuns (I REALLY don’t), but it doesn’t follow that these are objectively beautiful. Can we at least agree that Funyuns are lacking in the aesthetic value category?!

So if we can make sense of that, then I think it makes sense to ask what grounds the existence of this value (just as it does for other values like morality and logic). My own view is that beauty and aesthetic values make most sense on a theistic worldview. Just like moral values, God is the very source of objective beauty.

So though we are surprised that young people in Britain are converting, at least in part, due to the beauty of a building, we shouldn’t be. People can find the God of beauty in the beauty exemplified in the world and we would do well to make this part of the case we make.

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[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/17/one-six-young-people-christian-visits-church-buildings-inspire/

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