Riverside, Calif. —As an architect, Dr. Matthew Niermann aims to use his training and research to understand and refine the relationship between evangelism theories and church design.
Niermann is the new associate dean of the College of Architecture, Visual Art and Design at California Baptist University. He has studied evangelism theories that have affected church architecture in the U.S. since the 1970s.
One such theory, known as “architectural evangelism,” proposes that traditional church architecture is an evangelistic barrier because steeples, crosses and other elements of church architecture are unfamiliar and uncomfortable for the non-churchgoer. Architectural evangelism theory has led to a trend among American Protestant congregations to construct buildings featuring more secular exteriors.
Niermann, who has also serves as a consultant for several church committees, confirmed that many congregations make architecture decisions based on creating a campus environment that is welcoming and comfortable.
Niermann’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Michigan examined the theory of architectural evangelism and ultimately produced research results that challenge the norm. He reviewed the judgment and perceptions of a cross-section of churched and unchurched individuals drawn from Riverside and Ann Arbor, Michigan. In the study, people participated in a series of image-based activities during an in-person interview, which revealed the underlying structures of each person’s perceptions and decision-making processes.
One of Niermann’s key findings in his research was that “comfort” or “welcoming” environment was not a primary consideration for the unchurched. They instead based their understandings and judgments on what they found to be more beautiful, typically structures that looked more like a church and less like a secular building.
“We need to stop asking what the unchurched find comfortable and start asking what they find beautiful,” Niermann said. “Even their sense of comfort is driven by their sense of aesthetic quality.”
Additionally, architectural evangelism makes an argument for buildings that are simple and austere, so that churches will not be judged as hypocritical by spending more on a building than on serving others, Niermann said. However, his research found the opposite was true.
“The results actually show that if a church constructs a really plain, low-cost looking building, the unchurched perceive that the church cares more for itself than the community,” Niermann said. “Architecture is a public art. Therefore, if the building has a high aesthetic quality, it is perceived as a gift to the community at large and thus the church is perceived as caring about the community.”
The results ultimately make a case that aesthetic considerations are not superfluous, but fundamentally a mission and evangelism category, Niermann added.
From a church outreach standpoint, Niermann encourages congregations to engage the non-churchgoers to better understand their perspectives.
“We need to be cautious of deducing our own understanding of the unchurched without having spoken with them,” Niermann said.