Designing a worship environment that fits
By Gary Nicholson
Building sacred space is a spiritual endeavor. A church building is often where people meet God, learn about the Bible, and grow in relationships with other believers. The environment you create shapes the way people engage God and interact with one another.
Before your church decides on a design for a new building, ask a few important questions. What makes your church different from the church down the street? What does your church do that no other church in the community does? What do you do better than any other congregation?
Unfortunately, most churches skip those questions and instead try to copy what other churches have done. Of course, there are things you can learn from other congregations and their facilities, but that’s not as important as having a clear and concise view of who you are as a congregation and the type of ministries that make you unique.
Modernist design says form follows function. But for churches, why not let form follow faith? In other words, let your church building tell the story of who you are and what you are about.
The space you design should reflect the ideas your church embodies. Your faith should shape the immersive experiences your people inhabit.
Does your church major on celebration in light of forgiveness, or quiet contemplation of the wonder of God’s grace? Is your church known as a healing place, a shelter from the storm?
Is it a crossroads where people from all walks of life intersect and share God’s truth, or a prophetic post where God’s truth confronts the darkness of this fallen world? Hundreds of metaphors could describe the place where we gather as a church. All of them might be biblical, but not all fit your church’s DNA.
Each church, based on its unique, Christ-centered calling, should build a facility that emphasizes its strengths and addresses needs specific to its people and community.
A good designer will tell your story and create the right environment that fits your DNA with lighting, sound, materials, textures, and other tools at his or her disposal while addressing the need for a certain number of seats in worship, the right amount of parking, etc.
Blindly imitating another church’s facilities is like going to the store and purchasing a pair of shoes because they look good, but never checking to see if they fit. You may spend millions on these shoes, and you will be stuck wearing them for a long, long time.
At stake is your church’s ability to maximize its resources to influence the world for the gospel. No matter what you see in other designs, every church does not need a café that looks like Starbucks.
I’m cautious when asked a question like, “What trends do you see in worship facilities?” Although there can be some value in knowing these trends, there’s also the danger of building a facility that fits the latest trends but doesn’t meet the congregation’s needs.
So, let your mission and unique purpose drive your design for worship instead of chasing trends, which change from year to year. Here are some guidelines to think through as you plan for your new facility.
• Partner with a wise architect who knows what worship is all about, and who can design not only for function, but also to tell your church’s story and express who you are as a church.
• Understand who you are, then tailor the design for the intended audience.
• Design for flexibility in the way you worship—it will change.
• Let technology enhance the environment, but not dominate it.
• Do not design in a vacuum. Design in the context of a master plan for your property and facilities. This can help avoid the unfortunate problem of designing too large or too small a space.
• Design to help people—individuals and families—feel comfortable as they arrive and are welcomed into the church. The effort to design for worship can be for naught if there is a bad experience before your guests ever get to the worship space. Excellent signage and an intuitive building layout are key to helping people feel comfortable in a new place.
• Think about connections: connecting people to God, connecting people to people, and connecting people to the various places they need to go in the building.
GARY NICHOLSON is studio director for Visioneering Studios @ Lifeway. Learn more about church architecture and design at Lifeway.com/Arch.