Turn your church inside out
By Gary Nicholson
Where we meet matters. Look at where Jesus decides to meet a thirsty woman.
Why was Jesus in Samaria at a well in the middle of the day and speaking to this woman with a bad reputation? Samaritans had a reputation for compromising their beliefs. The religious leaders would be at the synagogue, not at the well.
This was not the time or place to find people seeking God. This is where broken and lost people came to carry out the mundane and repetitive tasks of daily life.
Of course, that’s exactly why Jesus was there.
That’s the idea behind some of the facilities now being designed by Visioneering Studios. Many churches have partnered with them to design “modern-day Jacob’s Wells,” where believers can intentionally encounter the lost who are not seeking living water, but finding it nonetheless.
Mel McGowan, president of Visioneering Studios says, “The Samaritan woman of today isn’t planning on going to church any time soon, but that won’t stop the God of the universe from busting through space and time, through the geographic, spiritual, and cultural barriers to connect with her where she is trying to get a drink.”
Visioneering Studios is an envision-design-build ministry that provides help to churches in need of planning and building through five locations across the U.S., including the new Visioneering Studios at Lifeway.
The people at Visioneering Studios believe modern-day wells can be dug to facilitate the horizontal connection between people, as well as the vertical connection with the Creator and His creation simultaneously.
What does the modern equivalent of the Samaritan well look like?
To create places for these divine appointments to occur, Visioneering designs places as part of a church campus, or at the fringe of the church’s property, to serve as a bridge between the community and the church property.
For years churches have tried to incorporate cafes and coffee shops patterned after Starbucks into their facilities. The idea is to offer a comfortable, non-threatening environment for seekers to discuss life and develop relationships within the church walls.
These usually function on Sunday mornings and a few other hours during the week when church members are on campus. Unfortunately, the limited hours of operation often hinder the primary goal of engaging unchurched people.
What if these were turned inside out? What if churches designed a place to touch the community in ways other than a coffee shop for Christians? What if there were facilities designed to host ballet classes and music recitals, as well as worship services?
What if people didn’t have to enter the church building to visit our “watering hole?” What if these were storefront businesses built side-by-side or on a pad site on the church property that could be leased to outside compatible merchants and operated as separate ventures? These are some of the ministry opportunities Visioneering is currently exploring.
Northside Christian Church in Spring, Texas, built its facility around a community fishing hole it keeps stocked. Neighborhood families come to fish and, in the process, engage in the church’s culture.
The concept is simple, and the execution fits the DNA of the church, its context, and calling. The church’s desire was for the new location to be a gift to the community of an open, public park that also happens to have a church onsite.
Senior pastor David Garison says a majority of their first-time guests say they decided to visit the church because they drove by and were intrigued by the building and its surroundings.
Churches have spent millions building costly facilities like gyms, bowling alleys, and handball courts to entice the public into the church’s space. Unfortunately, they often function like Christian country clubs that serve to build fellowship at best, and at worst, to distract church members from their calling to serve and share.
Most of those facilities are inward facing, designed as part of a campus to serve only the membership and the few guests they invite. The difference in the modern-day Jacob’s Well is the general public comes in off the street to these facilities and is engaged in non-threatening ways by believers who are intentional about developing relationships.
These facilities can be used seven days a week, for anything from retail outlets to art galleries. They might house a restaurant, a dress shop, or a laundromat.
Tenants might pay rent and help fund a church-run ministry, which could be a coffee shop, a pizza joint, or artists’ studio—the sky’s the limit. The church provides incubators for start-up community-conscious businesses and healthy enterprises that make positive contributions and truly integrate the church into the community.
In addition to these commercial and retail uses, the church could even provide residential properties. This would open the door to even more ministry opportunities, including interim housing for the homeless, elderly housing, and low-cost housing for interns, staff, and the general population.
And it would provide even more opportunities for integrating the church into the community, greatly increasing the likelihood of encounters like the one between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
The new normal
Visioneering worked with the West Ridge Community Church in Elgin, Illinois, to design a master plan including residential town homes, commercial development, and a House of Blues-style worship venue called The Lightclub. Pastor Darren Sloniger has a master’s degree in urban planning and works as a real estate developer.
He understands the social and cultural benefits of embracing a mixed-use development approach. In addition to holding worship services on Sunday morning, the Lightclub offers live music throughout the week. Adjoining the worship venue is The Encounter Café, owned by West Ridge Church, but run by a local family who have all become Christians since opening the restaurant.
As time goes on, we expect more and more churches to be looking at such a model. Someday, this may become the norm for church facilities. The key is to be intentional about designing the facility to engage the community seven days a week.
“Even as we are designing walls, we are seeking to tear down the walls between the lost and the found, Christ and community, the audible message and those so thirsty to hear words of eternal life,” says McGowan.
What would your church look like turned inside out?
Gary Nicholson is studio director of Visioneering Studios at Lifeway. For those interested in developing your own version of this concept, call the Visioneering Studios at Lifeway at 615-251-2466, or email email@example.com.