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Mission and purpose inform church design trends

A variety of architectural styles help churches enhance ministries and foster community.

By Tony Martin

As church leaders begin to consider the design features that they wish to include in a new building, campus or renovation project, they usually explore options with an architectural design team. After sitting across the table from a variety of church clients in these discussions, I’ve seen several trends emerge.

Today, church leaders no longer view the campus master plan as a luxury. It is rare that a church can build all that it needs in a single phase. Leaders realize that through due diligence and strategic planning it is possible to spend more wisely with a plan for how their entire site can be used more effectively and efficiently. Many churches now consider the cost of a master plan essential to good financial stewardship in a long-range plan.

Another aspect of stewardship addresses the responsible use of our natural resources and has led some churches to embrace the idea of sustainable design. In the last few years there has been a large increase in the number of buildings throughout the commercial, residential and institutional building markets that are designed to be energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.

Sustainable design

The most commonly accepted guideline and standard for sustainable design has been developed by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) and is called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). It is generally accepted that there are added design and construction costs associated with the LEED process but many practitioners would submit that these additional costs can be recovered. In fact, notable savings may be achieved when the life-cycle of the building is considered.

This long range perspective is particularly relevant for churches given that most plan to occupy their buildings for the long term. Even if a church decides not to pursue LEED certification for its building they can take advantage of the operational cost savings and gain satisfaction in having used renewable products and created a high performance building.

The trends in form and format are evolving in a variety of directions. Now more than ever churches are focused on being relevant to culture and community. There is resurgence among some congregations to return to traditional elements in the design of their churches. Somewhat related to the design of many of today’s planned communities, the nostalgic appeal of traditional architectural forms is integral with the idea of mixing uses and creating communities where people have more opportunities to connect. Some churches simply want to be recognizable as a church.

At the same time there are seeker-friendly churches that create an environment that is a departure from what is traditionally thought of as a church. These churches recognize that there are people who might never enter a traditional church building because of preconceived ideas about church. A building that doesn’t look or feel too “churchy” provides a neutral ground for churches to reach communities.

A place to foster community

In a seeker-friendly church the format and style of worship is a critical key to differentiating from the norm. Coffee shops, cafés and bookstores within the church premises help make the church the “third place,” a concept made popular by Starbucks. Complementing the home and the workplace, the third place is an informal meeting place that fosters a sense of community. In fact, many churches — especially those with a contemporary appearance — have become bona-fide community centers offering recreational and social programs for all ages along with the spiritual component of their ministry.

There is a large contingent of churches supporting each of these views with variations in between. What may be culturally relevant in one community may not be in another; this divergence is spawning a broader range of buildings being used for worship and ministry.

Other models include churches that are developing satellite campuses for limiting the distance people have to travel in a metropolitan area. These churches are sensitive to the idea that they can reach a greater population by being in multiple sites as opposed to one large campus that requires many congregants to travel outside their local community to attend worship.

Additionally, many people find these smaller congregations more conducive to feeling connected. As an alternative to building larger worship spaces some churches are choosing to create multiple smaller venues that feature live worship and a video simulcast for the
main teaching.

Adaptive reuse of commercial and retail structures is also attractive for some congregations. By renovating an existing building and adapting the space these churches are finding an economical way to build while they reclaim buildings in communities that might otherwise struggle to maintain their usefulness.

Regardless of aesthetic and stylistic differences churches are striving similarly in this age to attract people and provide worshiping communities where people can comfortably connect.

Tony Martin, AIA, is vice president of design for CDH Partners Inc., Marietta, GA. [cdh-partners.com]

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