Some folks may have walked into our auditorium on Sunday and wondered if they were at the right church. Things looked a bit different. While I have heard only positive feedback, I imagine some folks quietly thought to themselves: Am I comfortable with this? Does this portent a direction and a set of priorities that will compromise our core vision and mission to stay focused on the Gospel? Are we caving to social pressure and trying to be hip and attract as many people as possible? Is this us? I thought it might be helpful to unpack the reasons why the auditorium experienced a bit of an aesthetic overhaul.
First, some history. Chapel Hill Bible Church was planted in 1971 as a group of believers who wanted an evangelical church to bear witness to Jesus in Chapel Hill. It met at Gerard Hall on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill for several years. I wish I could have been a part of those years. From the stories I hear, it warms my heart to think about this church and its life in that period of its history. Many lament those days are over, days of meeting in a rented space, with the bare minimum of devices to set up and plug in to make a simple worship gathering occur. CHBC was a church committed to the essentials, so the thought of putting a lot of time and money in a building and aesthetics and media was just not a priority. In fact, as I have been told by key founders, it was actually a priority to stay away from those things. There was something important about viewing a building or space as just that, a building and space. The church was the family of God, not a building. The NT seemed to represent the church as a Jesus-devoted, ragtag group of people, thrown to the margins, obeying and worshiping and waiting for Jesus. The idea of buildings, branding, professional leadership, media, etc, was not a priority. I admit, it is hard to argue that the NT early church was not a building-less, smart phone-less group of disciples.
However, and this I also get from key early leaders, a response to excess can sometimes lead to an overcorrection that also leads to excess in the opposite direction. So, for many years our church eschewed aesthetics as it pertained to its building and space in favor of a sparse atmosphere. This decision was made in earnest, with good motives, and with pure hearts. I love that emphasis. But, sometimes the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. While many in the church really loved art and aesthetics, and were/are gifted artisans, and art was occasionally installed in hallways and during functions, the desire was to keep some distinction between art and our worship life, and the art that was accepted was either high or folk art. Most things modern were avoided, due to fears that things might become about appearance, numbers, and compromise. To be sure, many churches were cleverly devising brand image and high tech media in order to attract people, and yet there was little substance once people arrived and got plugged in.
Now, I value the decisions made to stay away from that mindset and ministry strategy. But, I think there is room for balance. In fact, in overreactions one misses out on blessings and opportunities that God has given as a good thing. One of the reasons I think the Lord brought me here is that he designed me with the same core theological and ministry values as CHBC, but I don’t share some of the cultural factors and shapers in my approach to life and ministry. I wonder if part of what I and the leadership team that God has assembled will add to this community is a balance of principle and progress, with both being expression of careful Biblical thought, wisdom, and worship.
With that said, we felt like it was time to add some aesthetic grip to our worship space. Let me reiterate, this was not done: to be hip, to signal that everything is about appearance, that we are becoming seeker driven, to reveal we are caving on core ideals to be like other well branded area churches, to draw us away from our mission. Quite the opposite. We believe adding a bit more aesthetics to our life together will enable the following.
- As a church we will experience and reflect God’s creativity. God loves beauty. God creates with beauty. Aesthetics and church life go hand in hand. Beauty should not be an idol, but it should not be rejected either, like any other part of creation. I think our worship services will grow deeper and be more vital for all of us precisely because we are inviting a gift God has given to our assembly space.
- We will be able to create an atmosphere that will engage people who are visually stimulated. Many people care about how space is devised. Lack of aesthetics, especially along with signals that aesthetics don’t matter, can repulse people who would ordinarily benefit from a Christ-centered, Word-driven worship service. It can hinder mission to not care about appearance. It can stimulate mission to invest in it, with carefulness and wisdom of course. To illustrate, one could dump food on a plate. It might be really good food, but it is just dumped on the plate without any thought for presentation. It looks unappetizing to most people that way. So, a caring chef not only cooks with great ingredients, and prepares with excellence, but she plates the food with care, aware that the first bite is taken with the eyes. This is just the way God has created the world, and we want to apply this to our church life, too. *For those of you who don’t care, well, this is not really for you. And, this is where we want to call you to jump in with us, not because it does much for you, but because it does help many people feel comfortable, stimulated, and ready to hear God’s word. If a bit of visual appeal will get a youth, or collegian, or older adult to focus and praise God with us, sit under careful expository preaching, and then plug into community and mission, then I think we need to do this out of a responsibility to faithful gospel ministry.
- We will be able to model what it looks like to be a church striving for balance in the middle of the spectrum of ministry application, rather than far to one side. With balance comes tension, the art of sacrificing for others, committing to things not because they are our preference but because it will help others engage the church, and with balance comes the constant need to reflect Scripturally. But, it is worth it. God will bless this commitment to balance. By the way, the changes that have been made in the last few years all put us about in the middle of the spectrum in terms of how progressive our use of media and technology is. If you do the research, you will find that these changes have been modest, slow, and done with theological carefulness. They may seem big because we inhabited a far edge of the spectrum.
So, if you love what you see, great. If you feel neutral about it, that is fine but try and join us in this holistic mission, and one day the particular stage set up might really impact you. If you feel cautious or even put off, try and evaluate your feelings Biblically and theologically. Are there any inherent wrongs in the general commitment to aesthetics as part of a worship space or to the particular way our leaders have chosen to apply that principle in our worship space? If you think there is, come speak with us. We can walk with you in a healthy and respectful discussion. But, if you don’t think it’s an issue of right or wrong, consider some of the points made above.
One of the things this is boiling down to is that we want to be a church on mission, which informs and calls forth certain decisions, in areas we have freedom to do so, to reach people far from God. This is not a numbers things, this is a loving the lost thing. Certain things will not change. Core things. Our preaching will be expository and deep. We will be God centered. Our mission will be about God’s glory. We will value our community and stress relationships. We will not let things be driven by numbers and fame. We will not compete with other churches. But, in order to help people put down walls in order to experience the power of the Gospel in our church, we need to be open to Biblical progress in setting the table and plating the food with excellence and innovation.