Examining the role of “moments” in engaging church design

That was so special!  

That was the best thing ever… 


Ravi Waldon, AIA, LEED AP
Principal and Faith-Based Practice Leader
Michael Graves Architecture

Do you look back over your life and find that a moment, just a fleeting second, stands out profoundly?

The few moments of sitting on the park bench as a family at the top of Logan Pass at Glacier National Park on our cross-country camping trip looking over the enormity of God’s creation was just such a moment, for me. As a father to our two sons, it was literally a pinnacle moment; life felt so enormously wonderful.

Moments come and are gone before we even recognize how profoundly meaningful they are in our lives. Maybe for you it’s being at the beach, in awe of the vastness of the ocean. Or a sunrise, a sunset, a babbling brook. God speaks to us in an unsuspecting instant, in moments. 

Architects have a tough job — sure, we are asked to make a space practical and affordable, but we’re also called to foster moments. Our better work shapes experiences and creates meaningful spaces for a lifetime of impact. We must look into our clients’ minds and hearts, extract what they’re communicating, and turn it into physical reality.   

I was once interviewing a pastor about what he wanted the space to reflect. He told me he wanted the Glory of God to be evident. 

“What does that look like to you?” I asked.  

“Like the Grand Canyon,” he said.  

“I’m sure I’m not that good!” I admitted.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach

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This article isn’t a ”how-to” about creating special environments that enhance the experience of worship by executing certain formulaic strategies. Rather, it’s advocacy for thinking more carefully. 

When architects work with church leaders, many pastors have seen another church that “works” or gives them ideas. That’s wonderful, to be sure, and we want that information; but what we’re seeking is deeper still. 

Creating an experiential moment requires more than the ability to draw rooms with square footage that meets the program; it’s also an enlightened vision of how the space should feel.  

What are the undefinable qualities that make space a place that people want to spend time and hang out?  

How does one craft a space that has a timeless quality, that has meaning?

And what does that mean in the first place? (Should it even be a goal?)

Obviously, the Holy Spirit does the work of touching hearts. The best we can do as architects is to create using texture, color, natural light, scale, materials, and any other design opportunity to engage the senses, while avoiding ugly distractions. We need to design spaces that allow people to become calm in spirit to receive the Word being communicated. God spoke to Elijah not in the thunder, but in the “still small voice.” 

Some firms focus on designing “cool.” Others push the latest in AVL technology. All can be good in their places, but they shouldn’t dominate the qualities that make good architecture. Chasing a trendy design  goal has a very limited shelf life.

What engaging looks like, now

Post-pandemic, the integration of nature and landscape into the overall design vocabulary of a church design has emerged. Bringing natural landscape into the indoor and outdoor spaces work to make a space more tactile.  

Humans are creatures of feeling, and we need fellowship. As architects, we must design spaces for gathering that enhance fellowship, that enhance opportunities to meditate, and that point us to God and His Glory. But no architect can do all that alone; all we can do is not complicate things by adding static to His voice coming through. 

This article is a call for church leaders to ponder about the nature of worship in light of the built environment. It’s true that we don’t even need buildings to worship God; but let’s face it, we all travel the world to visit works of beautiful architecture that have stood the test of time.  

My best memories of devotional time with the Lord are sitting on a promontory at Mesa Verde and seeing 90 miles in each direction, and of sitting alone at a cove in Maine watching the sea. 

Recently, I was sitting in a quiet chapel. The morning light was flowing in. The view of the garden, the appreciation of the soft character of the room, the lovely trusses — all contributed to the space. Only a few of us were there, and we were listening to a piano version of “Jesus Is The Sweetest Name I Know.” I confess to a misty eye.

My friend turned to me and said, “That was a moment.”


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