Does the Environment at Church Matter?

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I’ve been thinking lately about the power of an environment. A little while ago I was able to go on a trip with my wife Lisa to the Dominican Republic. We stayed in a resort where we could literally walk onto the beach. One morning we woke up before the sun and so we ventured out to watch the sunrise. I can’t remember the last time I did that and I never had done it on a beach on an island. Before I go any further, I should tell you I grew up around a lot of amazing technology, watched movies where they could do amazing things and populate my desktop background images with the most amazing pictures you could imagine. And yet as I stood there waiting, watching the horizon, it happened, the same thing that happens everyday whether I’m there to see it or not – the sun rose. It sounds so cheap to write that, because the sun didn’t just rise, it exploded in the most majestic, dare I say holy array of colors. Immediately I wondered, who am I that God would think of me? I mean look at what He can do and look at what He does with barely a thought, everyday whether someone is there to admire it or not. What that environment did to me was nothing short of miraculous. My mind rushed with awe, love, admiration, worship and humility. I was impacted by what God did and continues to do. And I realized something, God creates environments and it’s in environments that God does some incredible work. And what was also fascinating is how hundreds, thousands of people can experience the same environment I did and not be changed by it, drawn to Jesus and transformed, but that’s probably for another blog post.

So I guess what I want to do as I start this discussion is establish that environment is not a neutral thing – it impacts and affects us all. Some of us grew up in environments that were difficult to say the least and they shaped us, made us feel things and had a profound impact. I think we can all agree that environments both good and bad have an impact. The second thing I want us to see is that different environments are more conducive to different things. There are some restaurants where the noise level is so loud it’s hard to have a conversation, especially one of substance. Going for a walk in the woods, I find very conducive for prayer aloud and you could say I’ve “met God there”. Sports arenas create incredible excitement and shared passion for our team that can’t be created in a living room alone with a remote and a bag of chips. So not only are environments not neutral, they are not all the same. And to be fair, they can also be somewhat personal — an environment I find relaxing others may find anxiety-filled. So there is no real science when it comes to environments, but on the whole, there are large similarities among us on what environments are conducive to what..

Where am I going with all of this? Well I think one of the challenges we have in a church is what environments are best. I’ve found people who have been in the church for a long time, already feeling comfortable, tend to downplay the importance of the environment and even fail to see how a newcomer would feel in the environment that they’ve become so accustomed to. In fact this becomes incredibly evident when money is spent on anything environmental. Some of us are quick to point out how the money is better spent here or there completely forgetting the two key points we mention above. Our environments in church are not neutral they say something about us and more importantly they say something about God. Secondly, the environments can either be conducive to what we want to see God do in those environments or actually unconducive to it. Does that mean God can’t work? Absolutely not, but I’ve heard the same logic applied to pastors who don’t study or put time into preparing their sermons. Their thinking is, God can and even will work through the sermon regardless, so why put any time into it? Obviously that’s just stupid and I would say being a poor steward of what God has given. Now all this to say, I’ve seen abuses using the logic presented in this blog. Some have gone way overboard in the name of “environment” and without knowing their hearts, seem to an outsider like me, that it was poor stewardship on the other side. So the point is not to go to extremes but also not to do nothing either.

There has been some criticism of churches that serve coffee or even have a coffee bar. On one hand I can see this, and yet on the other, coffee bars and shops have been the jumping off point of many a good conversation and the beginning of a transformational relationship. While it’s not true of everyone, there is a comfort, a dropping of defenses and an openness that often happens when one enters a coffee shop. Why? Because environment matters. When people are rushed into an auditorium and escorted to their cars quickly afterwards with little to no places to socialize, begin a friendship over a cup of coffee etc, our churches can simply become entertainment venues or one way communication venues that don’t foster the kind of relationships necessary to fulfill God’s intentions. Can this be accomplished without a coffee bar? Absolutely!! That would be ridiculous to say it can’t. I’ve had a lot of holy moments that I didn’t need to go the Dominican to experience, but to tell me it was unnecessary or even wasteful for me to go on that trip, I would think would be taking it too far.

My reason for writing this to simply encourage us to think a little different about the power of environments because it plays in to more than you may think. In fact, I would guess there are certain things you expect in most environments you attend that have become so assumed you would be outraged if they weren’t there. However, I am not trying to say every church needs a coffee bar, a fireplace or even a lighting system or sound system for that matter. I merely am asking us all to consider the impact that the right environment (or the wrong one) can have on us and can have on people who matter to God and who we’re trying to reach with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Each church leader needs to prayerfully and wisely consider what would be the best and most conducive environment to reach the people we are called to reach and for God to do His best work among us!

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