About a decade ago, I was hired to serve as the youth and worship pastor of an old Methodist church in Central Florida. Early on in the hiring process I learned that the youth room was in the church’s basement! This may not seem like much to many of you, but to Floridians this is pretty cool because basements are rare. Between all the insects, damp soil, and flooding from storms, someone along the way wisely decided that floating foundations were not tenable in Florida and that basement-less slabs were definitely the way to go. At first I thought it was so fun and unique to call a basement our youth home. We would just need to throw up some cool lights and call it “The Underground.” It would be a sure-fire hit! But then I actually saw the basement—and let’s just say some poor aesthetic choices were made along the way.
The youth room looked like the place preschools go to die. The walls were bright yellow(!) decorated with painted shapes. The shapes were weirdly interacting too, like they were playing tag. There was a wall full of colorful hand prints from past students. Another had a massive beach mural painted on it—it must’ve been from a past VBS. The drop ceiling was broken in several spots and many of the lights were out. All of the furniture was mismatched with several decades worth of “donated” couches.
I knew I had to do something with the space, but what?
When I thought about redesigning the youth space, a couple questions came to mind: Can the aesthetics of space help young people develop character and virtue? Can wall paint and décor really make students more forgiving or compassionate towards others?
At first glance, aesthetics and the development of virtues don’t seem to go together. The proper home for dealing with virtues seems to be moral development. Aesthetic development, on the other hand, deals with matters of taste, fit, and what makes things beautiful. Do these two fields ever cross paths?
Yes, they do!
Both ethics and aesthetics are linked because both deal with what we value. The difference is that in ethics, our values run along concepts of morality as we try to figure out what actions should be deemed good or bad. Through aesthetics the mind evaluates what we see and feel, and judges our responses using terms such as “beautiful,” “ugly,” or “sublime.” In other words, through ethics we assign moral value to things, and through aesthetics we assign artistic value to things. But more often than not, we ascribe both types of value to the same object or event. Our aesthetic reflections on our experiences shape our memories and feelings—especially when it comes to pivotal life events. So the way objects look and make us feel help us gain a sense of ourselves and the world.
So what does this have to do with youth ministry? Well, youth ministry deals with the holistic formation of young people in the church. We hope to instill Christian virtues in students as they discover who they are in Christ. Research shows us that aesthetic experience is a crucial part of a person’s holistic formation
Spaces shape memories
Our views of the world are physically structured by the spaces where we dwell. When we repeatedly walk along the same streets, or spend hours in the same rooms, our whole experiences are colored by those familiar surroundings. Our memories take on particular looks and feelings. You remember the old stained wood cabinets of your grandmother’s dining room, or the creaky doors of your father’s shed that housed all the gardening tools. You remember the small details of spaces. Sometimes these details bring comfort; sometimes distress. If you grew up with a chronic illness that caused you to frequent the doctor’s office, the plastic plants, sterile-looking wall paint, and motivational posters of the office likely imprinted onto you, so wherever you see similar things, you grow uneasy.
We develop a sense of “place” by repeatedly visiting the same spots. Our memories of our experiences stay with us, and how they looked and felt help structure our views of the world. Because of this, I strongly believe youth leaders can think about how we make our youth ministry spaces aesthetically fitting to foster positive, fruitful responses.
Think about the huge, glorious gothic cathedrals in Europe. What if you visited one of these multiple times a week? You would see the tall, stone walls adorned by streams of beautiful color shining through the stained-glass windows. You might take a seat on one side of a long wooden pew and feel minuscule amidst all the magnificent surroundings. And while you would repeatedly be confronted by the grandeur and holiness of God, you might also come away with the feeling that God is distant, far off, and perhaps unattainable. The aesthetics of space have not only shaped your theology, but your sense of the world (both spiritual and physical), and your place in it.
A theology of space
Different church environments highlight and promote different theological commitments through their aesthetic sensibilities. While no single style is particularly ideal or holy, our decisions about space can reflect the ways we think about God. To the degree that it’s up to us, we should design the spaces our students inhabit in ways that are purposeful and foster growth. Whether your desire is to highlight the grandeur or God, the experience of God through worship or rituals, the knowledge of God through the preached Word, or connection with God through relational community, design your space in a way that structures and reinforces what you’d like to emphasize. Here’s a brief list of some questions you can ask yourself as you think through designing your space:
- How does the arrangement of your space encourage (or distract from) gathering, prayer, worship, connection, reflection, or fun?
- Is your color scheme cool or warm? What does that communicate?
- What kind of lighting and projection software do you use during worship and why?
- How does the space communicate your ministry's values and meaning—are there symbols of faith, like a cross, dove, flame, Communion/Eucharist cup, or others?
- Are there Scripture verses or other words you want to display or paint on a wall to emphasize particular messaging? How will you display them?
- Will you arrange chairs or other furniture in rows facing a platform, in a big circle facing each other, or in small clusters around the room?
- How will you demarcate spaces for different activities like worship, games, teaching, small groups, etc.?
- Are there Bibles in your youth room? Where are they? How do students access them?
There are many more questions you can ask yourself, but hopefully this list can get your creative juices flowing and help you get started.
Creating space that forms character
Generate communal buy-in from your students by designing and constructing the space with them. This is a good way for youth to attain a sense of belonging and ownership in the ministry. Re-creating a space can become a social event. But while we want students to have a sense of ownership over the space, that doesn’t mean a free-for-all. We may end up with a room that’s sentimental but mismatched and unpleasant for anyone else who might encounter it—both now and decades from now.
Regulating possibilities is like using a limited palette while painting. Limiting color choices makes you think about color and balance in fresh and unique ways, and helps you avoid mixing and matching colors that do not belong together. In the same way, limiting color schemes and furniture choices when students select a design assures aesthetic coherence, while still allowing students the ability to take ownership of the space.
Back to my adventures in the old church basement, our youth group started making plans. We had to build a stage, paint the walls, remove the drop ceiling, and paint the ceiling black so it could look modern and industrial. But I couldn’t simply change the students’ room around without them! I was the new guy, and this was their room. So we held a meeting. I asked why the walls were yellow in the first place, and they said that’s what they had voted on. (See, that’s what happens when you don’t have regulations. One of the youth will try to be funny, and if their voice is loud enough, you might end up with bright yellow walls!) I asked the students what they would like to see changed, and took a bunch of notes. I told them I would come back with a plan.
A week later, I presented three different designs with varied color schemes and invited them to vote for their favorite. I’d limited their options, so I knew any direction they chose would actually work! Because they had voted, they felt ownership in the decision-making process too.
Then we went to work. With some help, we built the stage, painted the walls behind it black, and used a bunch of grey, silver, blue, and white throughout the rest of the room. We redid the floors, removed the drop ceiling, and painted it. I even brought back some of the nostalgia by having them use glow-in-the dark paint to create handprints that would colorfully illuminate under a black light. They put their handprints on the walls by the stage. Now they had added something special to the process that was uniquely theirs, as if they’d covertly signed their artwork.
When we were finished, we had a space where students felt proud to bring their friends. They felt ownership of the room. This was their space. Soon we began hosting youth services and local outreach concerts at “The Underground.” Mission accomplished.
Including young people in the design of their youth space impacts virtue development in a few ways:
- they practice aesthetic reflection for their holistic formation as they make judgments about beauty and fittingness of their worship space,
- they recognize how communities are strengthened when people come together to enhance their shared surroundings, and
- they form as leaders as they take ownership in the project.
As you think about the aesthetics of your youth space, consider inviting your students into conversation about the ways they might like to make changes that can help nurture their own formation and character.
Tweet this: Spaces shape memories. If you’d like to redesign your youth room, read on to learn how to lead a process that forms both your space and your students’ character.
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