Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Does Where We Are Overwhelm What We Do?


"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us."  Winston Churchill

Does where we are overwhelm what we do? Every now and then a question pops into my mind that I am not sure I want to answer because to answer it would me the admission of a truth I may not want to accept.

As a student of both psychology and sociology I am well aware that the environment you create molds and shapes the attitudes of those that experience it. You know this too. You know that McDonalds, Hardees and Burger King (and a lot of other restaurants) use the color red in order to inspire hunger so they can sell more burgers, fries, and shakes. You know that some buildings make you feel heavy and closed in while others life your spirits just by entering them. The building essentially tells you who “we” are (the normal inhabitants), it tells you who “you” are (those outside the normal community) and it tells you what is expected from you. If we are not careful where we are overwhelms what we are seeking to do.

The building tells you who “we” are. When you walk into a church (or a home, or a store, etc.) you experience the environment. You immediately make assumptions, true or false, about the people who frequent that building. The elegant appointments may make you feel uncomfortable with the formality of the space, like you felt in your great aunts home where everything was breakable. The seats may be pretty but uncomfortable. I am not saying that these assumptions are accurate about the folks who regularly use the building, and they may even be unconscious or subconscious assumptions, but from that moment on they inform everything you experience.  The building tells you who “we” are, right or wrong, it makes a statement.

The building tells you who “you” are. Perhaps even more troubling is that the facility tells you who “you” are. “You” are a welcome guest, a tolerated visitor, or an outsider who is going to have to learn the secret passwords and master navigating the maze of the space. The building tells you where you are to sit as one who is just passing through. Some buildings make you feel right at home almost immediately, others give you a sense of wariness and unease because it feels like you are invading the inner sanctum of the “others” who normally frequent the space. The building tells you, without a word, who “you” are.

The building tells you what is expected. Whenever I enter Duke Chapel I feel the need to whisper, even if I am the only one there.  My conscious mind knows that this is a ridiculous assumption, but somehow the space demands reverence and austerity. Every building we enter places upon those inside certain expectations. When we operate outside of those expectations, intentionally or unintentionally, we fill ill at ease, as if we are breaking some unwritten rule. The building has clear expectations placed upon those who dare to enter the doors.

Winston Churchill said, upon making preparations to rebuild the House of Commons following World War II, “"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." This is never more true than for churches. I have been consulting with a couple of pastors, and struggling with my own congregation, about attracting guests to worship. Styles have been changed, music has improved, welcome strategies have been implemented, and invitations issues but they don’t come. Or worse, they don’t come back. At first I though we weren’t being friendly enough, when I inquired about that with those who had visited, that was not the case. Then somebody said, “It just feels too churchy.” My inside voice said, “of course it did, it’s a ‘church.’”

This morning I was reliving that conversation from a month or so back and it hit me. That’s when the question started forming on the edge of my mind, “Does where we are overwhelm what we do?” Does the building shape who “we” are, who “they” are, and what the expectations are to the extent there is some disconnect between our objectives and the outcomes? I mean, to be completely honest, I am baffled. At St. Paul we have, arguably, some of the best worship music in the community (I know I am biased, but just try it). As a communicator, I would not claim to be gifted, but I do present a solid, biblical message in an engaging way (ie. I don’t suck). Our team is friendly, engaging, and considered very warm without being pushy, and yet momentum evades us. So now I have to really ask the question, “Does where we are overwhelm what we do?” What would it mean for us to answer that question? What would it mean for you and your congregation to answer that question? The possibilities are absolutely terrifying! Yet, I remain:

Consumed by the Call,
Marty
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