Inside the Church Building of 2017

In church architecture, there are important movements that church leaders should consider before embarking on a church building project, a renovation, or a remodel. We asked Marian Liautaud, director of marketing for Aspen Group, to identify the top trends.

1. Let There Be Light

For decades, black-box sanctuaries were the rage. These highly-controlled environments, devoid of windows and natural light, allow production teams to cue lights, sound, and visuals for an emotive worship experience, free of distractions from the outside world. Today, though, churchgoers, and especially Millennials, prefer a less-produced worship experience, and they crave nature as a means for experiencing God.

“We're seeing churches take worship spaces back from the Dark Ages," says Dave Wilde, senior project architect for Aspen Group. "The black box is dead. Windows are in."

"We forgot about the outdoors when we closed all the blinds," says Derek DeGroot, lead architect for Aspen Group. Churches are starting to look outside their buildings to capitalize on the natural beauty of their grounds. "Churches are adding jogging paths, nature playgrounds, outdoor chapels, and amphitheaters to their campuses," says DeGroot. Mark Underwood, a principal at Hitchcock Design Group, a planning and landscape architecture firm in Illinois, says the most popular outdoor church spaces allow people to gather: patios, plazas, fireplaces, water features, and trellises. Brian Felder, principal and architect at Felder Associates, sees memorial gardens for the interment of ashes becoming more common too.

2. Connecting Space is King

"After worship, church is a social center," says Dave Wilde. The church lobby (or narthex for traditionalists) no longer serves as merely an anteroom to the sanctuary. Churches are using this space to create a place for fellowship and connection on Sundays and throughout the week.

We're seeing churches take worship spaces back from the Dark Ages.

Holy Family Episcopal Church in Carmel, Indiana, a steepled church with the signature Episcopal red door, had a small narthex surrounded by the church's offices. Nobody lingered before or after services. People simply brushed their feet off and shuffled into the sanctuary for Sunday services. By moving the offices to the far end of the church, Holy Family opened its narthex to create a comfortable connecting space. Now people mingle longer, and Father Mike Galvin says they're seeing more people sign up for adult education classes between services.

3. A Place to Play

Many churches are following fast-food restaurants by incorporating kids' play areas. DeGroot says, "This year alone, we've designed three churches with extensive play areas for kids and café spaces where parents can meet and have coffee while their kids play." These play areas work best for outreach in neighborhoods where no such alternative exists. The Fields Church in Mattoon, Illinois and Calvary Church in Springfield, Illinois have found their play areas are a big draw for people outside of the church.

Similarly, there seems to be a resurgence of churches adding gyms into their building plans. But experts caution churches to do so with care. "Churches mean for their gyms to be for community use," says Matthew Niermann, assistant professor of architecture at California Baptist University in Southern California. "But after a new church gym goes in, there's typically a closing of the ranks—'Awana meets on Wednesday, so we can't rent it out to a league.' " According to Niermann, churches that use their gyms well seek partnerships with organizations like YMCA, Upward Bound, or other sports ministries.

4. For the Common Good

To better steward resources, churches are finding creative ways to draw people into the building throughout the week. For example, many churches provide shared workspace for remote workers who need Wi-Fi and a place, other than Starbucks, to plug in and work.

Community Christian Church—Naperville Yellow Box, in Illinois, added a first-and second-floor lobby and a training room when they renovated their church in 2014. The lobbies feature sturdy, high-top tables with seating for four to six people—perfect for a meeting or to plug in with your laptop. Naperville Yellow Box also features a glass-enclosed training room, which is tech-ready with video capabilities and Wi-Fi and seats up to 40. The church invites local businesses to use the room for training events and meetings.

We're seeing more churches go multisite instead of building large auditoriums.

Just as people more frequently shop local, they want their church to be in and for the community. According to Lynn Pickard, interior designer for Aspen Group, this value is reflected more often in church interiors. "Christ the Rock Community Church in Menasha, for instance, is situated in an active outdoor community. This is reflected in the church's new lobby space. Similarly, when Yellow Box designed their children's space, they based the interior theming on local Naperville landmarks."

5. Small is the New Big

Churches aren't investing in big auditoriums anymore—at least not at the rate we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s. “We're seeing more churches go multisite instead of building large auditoriums," says Lynn Pickard. This squares with the soon-to-be-released data by the Cornerstone Knowledge Network and Barna Group, which looks at multisites and church plants.

"We see growing churches mitigating the risk of building through a multisite strategy and standardization of program and facilities," says Randy Seitz, an architect with Blue Ridge Architects in Harrisonburg, Virginia. "In Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, we're not seeing many main—or sending—campuses larger than 2,500 people. Receiving campuses typically seat 700 to 900 people, and there is an emphasis through service format, décor, children's ministries, and such to make the experience the same across all campuses. This standardization helps control costs and enable churches to move more quickly from rented facilities to more permanent facilities."

Marian V. Liautaud is director of marketing for Aspen Group, an integrated design-build-and-furnish firm serving churches throughout the Midwest and Southeast.

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