Engage and Change

Volume 44, Issue 4

As I was preparing to fly east to Charlotte to chair the 2011 Faith & Form/IFRAA Awards jury, I had just received news from the National Episcopal Church that the numbers were in. The Episcopal Church is officially in decline. We are closing three churches a month and opening only one. That is the equivalent to losing one diocese every three years. This is not only sad news; it is “unsustainable,” to use a current buzz word. And we are not the only ones. Every mainline denomination across America is hearing similar news. Even the non-denominational Evangelical churches are beginning to feel the pinch. I work with many megachurches, and they are saying that they cannot keep their youth. The youth are telling them that they do not want to go to their parents’ church where they are told one thing but see adults doing another. Ten years ago the average stay at an Evangelical church was eight years. Today, I am told, it is 18 months. There is definitely something in the air and it is “change.”

In the last issue of Faith & Form, in this same space, a young woman stated that she did not see the church as relevant to her generation. To her mind, the church is stuck in the past and is not “engag(ing) the time we are living in.” Leave it to a teenager to be profound! We adults know she is right yet we are still arguing over issues that, as a whole, society has accepted. Teens want an innovative and current Church that leads the conversation on global ethics, global warming, and global peace. And yet, I have found, they still want the Church to look like a church both inside and out. They want our beautiful buildings, our sacred liturgy, and our history (even the sometimes sordid history – think the Tudors and the Borgias on Showtime). They want what we Episcopalians call “the bells and smells.” But they also want the Church to be transparent and honest in its dealings. Perhaps the Church needs a “Christian Spring”!

This is why I was pleased to see the many, many, beautiful projects submitted to this year’s awards program. The quality and integrity of the buildings and sacred art were innovative and honest in their execution yet honored the historic traditions of each faith. Consideration for sustainable design, carbon footprint, and LEED design and construction were actively pursued in several cases. Artists incorporated contemporary mediums such as video into traditional themes that required the onlooker to become involved in their piece in real time. Young people submitted innovative projects that utilized technology yet were housed within monastic-like settings. All this gives me hope.

Unfortunately, we could not give everyone an award, but I found the submissions promising a greater future for the good of all faiths. We in the religious architectural, building, design, and art communities must meet “change” in new and prophetic ways that will engage the rapidly changing world while maintaining our history. After all, our call for centuries has been to “engage the time we are living in.”

Cindy Evans Voorhees, Principal of Voorhees Design, Inc., is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Los Angeles.