Church Design Trends for the Next Decade

Prepare to see more bulletproof nursery walls and outdoor fireplaces.
Church Design Trends for the Next Decade
Image: Illustration by Pri Sathler

When footage of an inferno engulfing Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris flashed across our news feeds on April 15, 2019, the world collectively gasped. What would Paris be without this iconic cathedral to anchor it?

One day later, the fire barely extinguished, $300 million was pledged to restore the nearly devastated 800-plus-year-old building. Before the end of the week, donation pledges had reached $1 billion and counting. People voted with their wallets: Sacred space matters.

Notre Dame Cathedral notwithstanding, it’s unlikely that we’ll see churches attempt to recreate the physical spaces of the past.

1. Using Big Data to Drive Design

Massive amounts of personal data—from facial recognition to detailed shopping history—is driving the marketplace. While many have raised concerns about how “big data” may be infringing on our privacy or transforming our democracy, some churches say there’s also ministry use in large amounts of aggregated data.

Some are turning to data analytics companies like Gloo to aggregate, analyze, and categorize consumer data. These churches are hoping to discover spiritual styles, motivations, and the strengths of both congregants and community members.

While many are still wary of these developments, churches in the next decade will lean more and more on big data to make decisions about their facilities. For instance, Community Christian Church, a suburban multisite church outside of Chicago, experimented with geofencing, a technology that allows companies to identify everyone who enters the church with a smartphone. Data companies can then track the footprint the church attendees leave behind based on their use of social media, online site visits and searches, and visits to other public destinations that also have geofencing.

“We learned that the issue people in our area struggle most with is marriage and parenting,” says Dave Ferguson, lead pastor of Community Christian Church’s 10 campuses. “One of the things we started to do annually as a result of this information is to host a conference focused on marriage and parenting. We open it up to the whole community, and a lot of people come who aren’t yet part of our church. Out of that conference, we also start all kinds of small groups, seminars, and other ways to help support their marriages and parenting.”

In an earlier CT article on Crossroads Church, Brian Tome, lead pastor of Crossroads’s 14 locations in and around Cincinnati, discussed similar ways his church collects data on its worshipers.

The church’s app streams worship services to locations across the US, acting as a data-driven feasibility study for possible new campuses. If more than 100 people convene regularly in a certain location to watch the livestream, Crossroads evaluates if it should begin providing on-location resources in that region.

In January, the newest Crossroads campus opened in one of the outlying Cincinnati regions where the staff had seen growing interest, and 8,000 people showed up the first weekend. To expand beyond the Midwest, Crossroads will continue to rely on technology to gather data—as well as its two full-time market researchers to crunch it.

2. Designing with Safety in Mind

In this heightened era of anxiety about active shooters and other safety concerns, churches will increasingly design their space with security in mind.

“You want to design churches that are inviting, hospitable, and safe,” says Tim Miller, president of LionHeart International Services Group and director of security at Christ Fellowship Church in West Palm Beach, Florida. “This can be a challenge. Pastors aren’t thrilled about having to enact security measures; they’re hoping the church doesn’t turn into an armed camp.”

“Security is the number one conversation churches want to have with us when we’re discussing a remodel or building project where kids’ space is addressed,” says Greg Snider, account executive for Aspen Group. “If first-time attendees bring their kids to church and they don’t feel assured that the nursery and kids’ ministry area are built with safety and security in mind, they are not likely to return.”

Jessica Bealer, a 20-year veteran of children’s ministry who has spent the last five years overseeing standards, systems, staffing, and atmosphere for the children’s ministry of Elevation Church in North Carolina, describes how the design of their churches helped create a secure environment: “Elevation built all of their buildings so that the children’s wing is a horseshoe,” says Bealer. “The only way to get in is through two doors. The same volunteers that secure the lobby could also secure the children’s wing doors.” That’s good news for parents and for ministry directors who struggle to recruit enough volunteers.

Restrooms are another potential danger zone for churches. “For toddlers through school-age kids, we try to design children’s ministry space with restrooms that are within this secured area,” says Aspen’s architect, Rosie Mitchell. “Churches can’t always afford bathrooms in every classroom, but at the very least, we try to include restrooms inside the large room space so children don’t have to leave this secure area.”

Frank Pollina, facility manager for three of the five campuses at The Orchard Church in Chicagoland, encourages churches to install cameras in strategic places inside and outside of the church. “We have security cameras throughout the buildings in the hallways and sanctuary,” says Pollina. “We can monitor every door and the outside of the church. These record on movement for up to three months. We’ve had theft happen. With the cameras, we can look back at the recordings and see who was there and identify them. We got most of our gear back a month and a half later.”

Tim Miller’s church uses cameras with analytics—“smart” cameras. “We can real-time search all of our cameras across all of our campuses for a person’s image. If there were a kidnapping situation, we could pull up a child’s image and see where the child is.”

Another emerging, sobering technology: bulletproof drywall mud. “We’re looking at what this might look like in our children’s ministry area,” says Miller. “What if we could provide a place where kids can flee and be safe from bullets?”

3. Building to Blend In

While churches that are clearly identifiable as churches aren’t going anywhere, many churches will design buildings to blend in rather than stand out. Derek DeGroot, vice president of design and integrated services at Aspen Group, believes the next decade will introduce more churches to the concept of placemaking, a holistic approach to designing built space so it’s connected to the larger community. “When churches are selecting sites and building, they should consider how to engage and incorporate nearby bike and walking paths, adjacent parks, even parking lots and small businesses. Be mindful of local traffic and residential areas in order to benefit the community,” he says.

South Harbor Church lies just on the outskirts of Grand Rapids, Michigan, which features a vibrant, local music scene and craft breweries. The first thing you see as you approach from the parking lot isn’t a massive steeple or stained glass windows; it’s the patio with a fireplace and heaters to extend the outdoor season, natural materials, and planters that incorporate more greenery.

“There’s a place for churches that look like churches,” says Tom Elenbaas, lead pastor of Harbor Churches. “Churches that look like churches do well to reach those who are de-churched—people who have a Christian memory and want to come home to a church that looks like a church. We don’t attract these people. We’re outsider focused. We’ll sacrifice what we want for what the outsider needs. Not every church can do this, nor would I advise this for every church.”

Elenbaas says Harbor Churches are building facilities that can be used by others. “If you make your building too churchy with a steeple, it won’t be useful for other purposes. We’re trying to build facilities that can be used by others now and in the future. When we’re evaluating church ministry space, we always ask, would a business use it? Could it be a school or a library?”

Because of their reputation within the Grand Rapids area and relationships they’ve built in local municipalities, Harbor Churches are now working on a master plan for the nearby Jamestown community with the church at the epicenter.

“The whole Christendom model in which the church assumed a role in the community is gone now,” says Elenbaas. “Surprising to us, though, we’ve found great reception and have experienced the embrace of the church coming back into the conversation about how to shape our community. There’s not a lot of pushback, though we still have to prove our place just like everyone else—why the church is as important as the doggie daycare or the yoga studio. We have to show why we matter.”

Harbor Churches’ strategy is based on a community-first mindset. “When we plant a church, we ask, ‘What is good news to these people at this time?’” says Elenbaas. “In Jamestown, there’s not a gathering space. There’s no central town square where people can hang out and nowhere to go at night. What would be good news to these people at this time? Green space, afterschool programs, gathering space for community, space to worship.”

Elenbaas’s vision is for Jamestown to be a seven-day-a-week hub that serves multiple functions that benefit the community. And on Sundays, it will host Harbor’s church services. “It seems like poor stewardship to build a single-use building that sits empty six days a week,” says Elenbaas.

4. Planning an Exit Strategy

Over the last few decades, ministry gurus have preached the importance of a good first impression. In the next 10 years, churches will learn the value of a good last impression. Churches are becoming more intentional about churchgoers’ exit strategy: What do people see, hear, and experience as they leave the church on Sunday morning, and does this experience equip them to go out and make more disciples? Creating an exit strategy is part of a holistic approach to designing for discipleship.

“Designing for discipleship is based on the principle that built space, if designed well, can help guide people on a spiritual journey,” says DeGroot. “The ‘exit strategy’ is another way of thinking about how to send people out to go and make more disciples.”

“Ideally, doors should exit out to a big, broad view of the neighborhood. Contrast this with stairwells and emergency exits that often have no transom or light coming through, or even a glass door that only looks out at the parking lot. Without consciously realizing it, people are drawn instead to the open, bright egress that showcases the mission field and excites them even as they leave,” he says.

Like restaurants that focus on flipping tables as fast as possible, churches are notorious for shuffling people out quickly. Now, instead of hustling people out to the parking lot, many churches are investing in connecting spaces.

“It used to be hard to convince pastors that the lobby was a critical space for ministry impact,” says Lynn Pickard, an interior designer who specializes in churches. “Now they’re realizing the benefits of having space for people to linger before and after services.”

Churches will also use outdoor space to create warm gathering areas, such as patios with fireplaces or fire pits. Chapel Pointe Church in Hudsonville, Michigan, for example, added several outdoor design features as part of its recent renovation. Set on a 39-acre lot, the new Chapel Pointe building showcases sweeping views of the surrounding forested landscape. Courtyards, patio space, and a balcony provide seating areas to take advantage of the site’s full beauty. Inside, a two-story lobby space features plenty of glass to let in natural light and provide views of the beautiful scenery.

Church facilities are just that—a tool for facilitating faith. Whether your goal is to encourage fellowship at the building or to propel churchgoers into service beyond the church walls, churches will have more design options in the next decade to facilitate discipleship.

Marian V. Liautaud is director of marketing for Aspen Group, a church design-build firm based in Frankfort, Illinois, and a former editor at Christianity Today.

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