Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Church Environments and Transformative Experiences - Lessons from Anthropologie

Since moving to Canada four months ago, I've been busy listening and learning and connecting and dreaming. I've inherited the youth room in our church's building, a large cavernous basement chamber where we gather on Sunday mornings. The thing is, it's not just a youth room; it's also used for young adult gatherings, Alpha courses, membership classes, and a variety of other ministries. It's also an awesome space that could be used throughout the week as a safe place for young people to simply be, to rest and hang out and grow. There are all sorts of exciting possibilities.

I've been asking the question, what does our environment communicate? What story is being told here? What are new people to church experiencing when they enter the doors? What values are being reflected by our room?

A brief Google search of "church interior design" led to this post on Phil Cooke's blog. He shares an interview with a guy from Anthropologie, the creative women's clothing/decor store. The store displays at Anthropologie are some of the most creative and unique you'll find, and can be a great catalyst for ideas about designing youth ministry gathering spaces. Some of the insights find strong parallels with creating church environments that communicate Gospel values: 
What is your retail-design style? 
Any environment that gives you the “Aha!” moment. It might be the Cloisters; it might be Anthropologie. People walk in and take a deep breath. It’s a garden in a city, not somewhere to be hyper but a place for repose. My whole inspiration came from my experiences. So I wanted to differentiate. It doesn’t matter if you have an experience if it’s not a transformative experience.
How does the transformative experience affect shoppers? 
The reason you like Anthropologie is because the space is saying, “Stay. Wander. Make yourself comfortable.” There aren’t aisles telling you where to walk. You have a kinesthetic freedom. You can make choices and discoveries. You develop a relationship with the space, the context, the experience and therefore with the brand. That’s more interesting to us, rather than a grid telling us how to move and how to shop.
How will the transformative experience evolve?
In the future, we will see the merging of commerce, culture and community into a richer content landscape where people can make acquisitions in a framework, where people can share similar values. Commercial entities are going to have to be more cultural entities and vice versa. We’re all looking for a community in a global world.
What is the biggest sin a store designer can commit?
When retail establishments see a shopper as a consumer, and they see what they have as a commodity. They are not creating much added value there, no enticement. (Emphasis mine)

I want to create a youth ministry environment that fosters transformative experiences. If it doesn't lead to a transformative experience at some point, it's just chairs and programs. I want to have a gathering space that has the least amount of distractions and barriers to the sharing of the Gospel. If the medium is the message, then I want my environment to communicates the message of the kingdom. I have to be an environmentalist (a person who is concerned with or advocates for the protection of the environment). If that environment allows a person to make choices and discoveries, to develop a relationship with the space and context and experience, and therefore end up in a relationship with Christ, that's far more interesting to me than creating a "cool" youth room.

Now, I'm not saying that we should be all about expensive buildings (though God didn't seem to mind having His people build one). Plenty of other Gospel-related issues are more urgent and valuable. But if our church and ministry environment should have the least amount of distractions to the communication of the Gospel, we should be creative and good stewards of the spaces we've been given.

What do you think? What stood out to you from the Anthropologie interview? What does your current church environment communicate?

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