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Survey Says . . .

I’ve seen now a number of references to a study conducted by LifeWays Research claiming that the “unchurched prefer cathedrals to contemporary church designs” (as the LifeWays report/press release put it), or that unchurched people prefer “traditional” churches to “contemporary” ones.  Often, this study is used as confirmation by those who prefer “traditional” church architecture themselves, while more interesting discussions center on speculations as to why this preference might be.  But the before we can understand that, we need to understand what the survey really tells us.

The framing in the study results made me suspicious. “Traditional” and “contemporary” are words that can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. So probably the first useful piece of context for this study is that LifeWays Research is primarily associated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The next question is, what do they actually mean by “traditional” and “contemporary” and how did they determine these preferences? I dug up the original report, and the slightly more informative powerpoint deck, which you too can get from the LifeWays site. Only don’t, because I’ve already waded through them so that you don’t have to. Which you should thank me for, because the PowerPoint deck is like a case study in how not to present survey data.

Here’s how the survey actually asked about preferences in church architecture:
respondents were presented with 4 pictures and asked,

Please indicate your preference for the designs by allocating 100 points across the four designs giving more points to those you prefer and less (or none) to those you like less.

Now, from a survey design standpoint, this is actually a reasonable approach to take; one could quibble over whether 100 points is a good number to assign across 4 pictures (vs a smaller number, like 10), or whether 4 is the right number of pictures. But that’s not the real problem here. The real problem is the pictures:

survey buildings

Take a good look at each of these.  While you are doing so, I’ll sing “One of these things is not like the other” . . . .

Okay, ready? Did you get it?

If you said “D”, you’re absolutely right! The survey designers appear to have put in 3 pictures of what they consider “contemporary” architecture, and 1 of “traditional” architecture.  This completely breaks the question format they have set up.  There should be an even distribution of analytical categories in the choices presented, i.e., if the underlying question is “do respondents prefer contemporary or traditional architecture”, then there should be equal numbers of contemporary and traditional buildings to choose from.  As it was presented, respondents who prefer contemporary architecture are forced to distribute their points among 3 very similar buildings, while those who prefer traditional architecture have only to pile their points on the one building they do like.

Not only this, but they used very similar pictures of 3 fairly similar buildings for the “contemporary” buildings: they all are landscape orientation, similar amount of sky, all obviously taken from the parking lot, probably all suburban, similar angles on the building. Whereas building D is not only very different architecturally, the picture of it is very different, taken from up close, looking up the steeple, cutting off the bottom, very little sky in the frame, and all in a portrait orientation, making it stand out from the other three even more.  And of course, there are a lot of different examples  and styles–both “contemporary” and “traditional” that could have been offered as choices, but were not. For example, none of the examples look much like the white clapboard churches common across New England, nor are there any examples of some of the more agressively modernist designs coming out of the 1960′s.

And so the survey results are pretty much what you’d expect: building A averaged 18 points, B averaged 19 points, C averaged 16 points, while D averaged 48 points.  Buildings A-C are more or less indistinguishable, while building D clearly stands out.  But that is true regardless of actual preference. While it may be true that respondents really did prefer the traditional architecture, the selection of the pictures includes too many distractions to feel confident in the conclusion.  Maybe the results really mean that respondents don’t like big suburban churches.  Maybe it means they prefer the more interesting picture. Maybe it means that they prefer Roman Catholic churches.

That was the question that led to their headline result.  There were some additional questions in the same format that showed interior pictures, of church foyers and church sanctuaries. These had less dramatic differences in presentation, and less difference in results, too.  The main take away I found was that the survey suggests that unchurched folks prefer churches with a cross up front, or possibly prefer churches that are recognizable as churches, rather than theaters, conference centers, hotels, shopping malls, or coffee shops.  Which I guess is an interesting refutation of the idea that “seeker friendly” churches should try and model themselves around these other secular models, but seems rather removed from the question of what kind of church architecture they prefer.

Which is too bad, because it would be interesting to have some data to support discussions of church architecture as user interface, and what kinds of architectural features make for a building that is accessible to unchurched people.  That survey could be done, but this one isn’t it.

Even if we had that study, there’s also a bigger picture problem: how to interpret the church preferences of people who don’t go to church.  Do they like churches that look like churches because they’re easier to stay away from? Or because they think church should be clearly differentiated from secular activities?  Or does the architectural preference exist because of associations they have with the theology, practices, or social attributes of the denominations that build each type?  Do the unchurched long to feel connected to tradition in a fractured and changing world (and if so, why don’t they join?),  or do they prefer traditional churches because they expect that the congregations there would be more likely to leave them alone?  Knowing the preference without a clear understanding of why that preference exists is of only marginal utility.

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