By Mel McGowan
A highlight for me during 2017 was the opportunity to revisit the world of my favorite movie of all time—Blade Runner—with the release of an updated installment called Blade Runner 2049.
More people likely would have seen the original Blade Runner in 1982 but for its misfortune of coming out the same summer as E.T. But for me, the original was life-changing. It is the movie God used to drive me to study film and architecture and, ultimately, to instill in me a lifelong passion for creating the future.
Sci-fi author William Gibson said, “Blade Runner changed the way we look at the world and the way the world looks.” I couldn’t agree more. Here are three things I learned from an obscure 1980s cult classic that I believe are relevant to church and culture today.
Prior to Blade Runner, the future was 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek—white, minimalist, and squeaky clean . . . basically an Apple store. While this “modernist” aesthetic works well in product design and in iconic institutional design, it can have disastrous and deadening results on larger-scale efforts like cities and campuses (i.e., projects that include social housing, civic centers, and many church and hospital facilities).
Blade Runner was set in and filmed in Los Angeles; it used buildings (some abandoned) such as Union Station, the Bradbury Building, and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ennis House to create the perfect setting. Rather than a placeless and generic modernist design that could be any “Mall of Generica,” airport, or chain hotel, the film’s immersive setting is more authentic, believable, and “real” because it has a design logic, or “backstory” of technology and graphics that have been layered over decades of actual streets, buildings, and spaces.
In our church design work at PlainJoe Studios, we have found the unique, soil-specific setting of each location’s natural, urban, and historical cues are better launch points for design inspiration than simply copying other megachurches or malls.
Cities and the Future
Blade Runner influenced the look of The Matrix, Batman’s Gotham City, and many other sci-fi cities through its crowded acid-rain and neon cityscape. This stood in stark contrast to the American dream of owning a detached home on a plot of land surrounded by a white picket fence with as much space as possible between my family and the neighbors.
Our culture has been deeply influenced by a long-term negative association of cities—from Babylon to Broadway—with sin, crime, corruption, and decay. Governmental policies (e.g. mortgage interest deductions, freeways, school district boundaries, and funding) have fueled an anti-city agenda for decades. Over time, the big-picture results have been social isolation, long commutes, air pollution, educational disparities, and a lack of quality civic spaces and squares. However, our suburban expansion has reached limits. Recently, humanity reached a turning point and America is joining the world as an increasingly urban nation. For the first time in history, a majority of people live in cities.
Rather than the 1960s Jetsons vision of the future as mid-century modern homes, malls, and drive-through businesses, we are returning to a classic version of urbanity: walkable, dense, and diverse cities where one can live, work, and play within a 30-block radius, rather than a 30-mile radius. This syncs up with the awakening of millennials and aging boomers who are rediscovering how God has “wired” us for community.
Many Christian leaders are realizing that the metanarrative of the Bible features a story arc that starts in a garden but leads humanity toward community and a city of Heaven, not back to a garden. Pastors are finding God’s heart for their cities and are falling back in love with urban areas, and not just trying to create a retreat from them. Churches are figuring out how to be a blessing to their cities, helping to fill the economic and social black hole.
A Focus on Purpose
Blade Runner’s plot is propelled by an unlikely Messiah figure (played by Rutger Hauer), a “replicant” (android) who is driven to meet his maker to find answers, extend his life, and ultimately find his humanity in the salvation of another. The “Christ” imagery is made clear by a nail in his hand and a dove resting on him. A parallel character in the sequel—a replicant played by Ryan Gosling—again finds purpose and dies saving another.
According to economists, we are transitioning from a commodity-driven economy (think Walmart: bigger, cheaper) to a transformational economy in which people will select and pay a premium for products, services, and experiences that allow them to change themselves or change the world. (For example, 79 percent of customers prefer to purchase products from a company that operates with a social purpose, according to data published in the Economist earlier this year). In fact, purpose-focused marketing has been identified as a top megatrend in 2018.
Tesla spent about half of 1 percent of the advertising budget of their closest competitor (Mercedes) and outsold them by 300 percent. Rather than telling the world to buy their product, Tesla was able to align conversations around something that people care about—making the world a more sustainable place (without giving up style or performance).
People are wired for purpose and are seeking something (or someone) to give themselves to. Churches have the opportunity to elevate the conversation above calendar events to meaningful community connections, and beyond Sunday attendance to neighborhood impact.
As you focus on your church strategy this year, is there room to apply some of the things that can be learned from a highly unexpected place: a sci-fi, cult-classic movie? Food for thought: start by looking around your community for unique social and historical cues, lean in to learn what new urbanization looks like for your area, and find a new narrative around cause-based, purpose-driven issues versus the church calendar. These are the things a culture (and church) can grow around.
Mel McGowan is cofounder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios. He is a leading master planner and designer of churches in America.