The change is occurring in membership and in services. That, in turn, is affecting changes in the design of churches right down to the pews.
The Pew Research Center (pun intended) has documented the changes going on in church membership in the United States. For the past few years of surveying, the Center has found that there is a gradual decline in religious affiliation and commitment. More Americans are saying that they never attend services, while approximately 20 percent say that they are not affiliated with any religion. Almost a third of adults under 30 say they are unaffiliated.
On the other hand, so-called megachurches are growing. A 2011 research report from Leadership Network and Hartford Institute for Religion Research titled “A New Decade of Megachurches” found that megachurches have an average 8 percent growth over the past five years. The stated average attendance for these churches grew from 2,604 in 2005 to 3,597 in 2010.
The report also illustrates some of the changes in worship and delivery of services to its members. For example, 88 percent of the survey respondents said their church/pastoral leadership uses Facebook or other social media on a regular basis, nearly three-fourths do podcasts and 56 percent blog. The music in these churches include drums, acoustic guitars and other instruments. Some refer to their choirs as praise centers. Also, half of the megachurches have sites in more than one state, while another 20 percent are considering expanding to another state.
The changes in membership and service also affected the design of the church space. Megachurches, of course, tend to have what could be described as convention arenas. Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, is a non-denominational Christian church that seats 16,800 and has a weekly attendance of over 40,000. North Point Community Church, a non-denominational evangelical Christian megachurch located in suburban Atlanta, averages more than 24,000 people in attendance between its five campuses each week, making it the largest church in metropolitan Atlanta and the second largest church in the United States. Both these churches have their roots in small meeting spaces. Indeed, many of today’s most well-attended churches do not have roots in traditional denominations.
Today’s church services are also changing. Many churches have experimented with or incorporated contemporary services that include more modern music, conversational-style sermons, casual clothing and audio-visual enhancements on screens and walls.
One thing that does not seem to be changing, even in the megachurches, is the steeple. In the middle ages the purpose of the steeple was to be visible from any part of town or to those approaching the town. That is because the church was the center of everything in the middle ages. The market was nearby, the church provided education and the church even provided defense for the town in some cases. Many church steeples incorporate clock towers or bells. It is not uncommon in many cities to hear church bells on the quarter hour and the top of the hour. The most famous steeple in Mississippi is no doubt that of the First Presbyterian Church in Port Gibson. Its golden “Hand Pointing to Heaven” is often mentioned in travel guides.
And finally, there is the controversy over pews. Yes, pews. They came into prominence during the Protestant Reformation when the focus shifted to the sermon as the most important activity. Before then it was common for people in churches to stand. In England and even in early America it was not uncommon for some church members to own pews. Visitors had to be careful where they sat when they came to church. Even today some churchgoers are protective of their regular seats in church.
An Oct. 7, 2013 Wall Street Journal article titled “Churches Take a Stand on Pews, Replacing Them With Chairs” reported that many congregations are shifting to chairs instead of pews when updating their facilities. This has caused no small amount of controversy as longtime church members see the idea as an unacceptable move away from tradition. The marketing director at Sauder Manufacturing Co., an Ohio concern that is a top U.S. provider of church seating, said in the article that the share of pew sales is declining. Cushioned metal chairs, complete with hymnal racks, are now an estimated 35 percent of the market. A decade ago, these chairs were minor players.
It has been said that the only thing that is constant is change. Such is the case with churches, their spaces, their members and their services. Although the current pace of change is more rapid than in the past, there is no reason not to believe that change will continue as time marches on. One only wonders what will be next.
» Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Pease contact Hardwick at firstname.lastname@example.org.