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Design Guidelines for Church Renovations

As you begin thinking about why and how to renovate your church, consider gathering a group to talk through these priorities and discussion questions.

As you begin thinking about why and how to renovate your church, consider gathering a group to talk through these priorities and discussion questions.

Church architecture that welcomes visitors

Jeremy C. Fretts, president of Humane Design in Fishers, Indiana, often blogs about how elements in the built environment shape the way people interact with each other.

He says the following design priorities can help a church be more welcoming to visitors.

  • Make entrances clear. “The church building should be open and inviting, with a clear sense of where to enter. Too many churches have odd side doors used as primary points of entry both during the week and on Sundays,” he says.
  • Choose good interior navigation. Ideally, this is more than signage. The building should be intuitive and comprehensible.
  • Use signs to welcome, not alienate. For example, think twice before posting signs that warn “Private property, keep out.”
  • Put entrances close to pedestrians. “Many churches are almost hidden behind a sea of parking. But if your church is in an area even remotely urban, then bring the church up to the sidewalk,” Fretts advises. Adding canopied entrances is one way to do this.
  • Be transparent. Fretts notes that being able to see a little bit of what's going on inside makes church seem less intimidating and secretive to visitors. Think of it as window-shopping, adapted to churches.  
  • Add neighbor-friendly features. Fretts has worked with a church that built a Cracker Barrel Restaurant-style porch so neighbors feel free to hang out. Churches can also build playgrounds and volleyball courts available to all.

Within the church building, Fretts says a key way to encourage community is to plan things so people cross paths. For example, you might build a coffee shop in your church and make it available to community groups.

Church architecture that melds with the neighborhood

Eric Jacobsen, an ordained Presbyterian pastor and author of Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, offers ten design tips to help churches be good neighbors. These tips help churches maintain a clear identity and yet meld with their surroundings.

  • Fit architectural character to the neighborhood. “A church in a primarily residential neighborhood doesn’t have to look like a house. There is a difference between fabric buildings (which should blend in) and monumental buildings (which should stand out), but both should feel right for the neighborhood,” he explains.
  • Be sensitive to massing. Churches generally need fairly large sanctuaries, but this doesn't mean that the scale of the sanctuary building should overwhelm the block. Jacobsen suggests asking, “Can the volume of the building be maximized near the center and then stepped down as it meets the property line? Can large planar surfaces be broken up with interesting human-scaled details?”
  • Go easy with parking. Though church growth experts claim that parking is crucial for growth, Jacobsen notes that oceanic parking lots kill neighborhood texture and often discourage anyone from trying to walk to church. Can parking be shared with other commercial or institutional buildings in the vicinity? Can street parking be used? Many older churches have no onsite parking. This not only helps the church integrate with the neighborhood, it means that members will disperse from worship through the neighborhood, hopefully patronizing neighborhood cafes and appreciating neighbors’ roses.
  • Consider siting. “Buildings must not be seen as independent objects floating in space. They also play a key role in defining urban space. As much as is possible buildings should help to define the block by coming right up to the property line. Exceptions can be made to this for plazas or courtyards, but not for parking. A traditional neighborhood church meets the sidewalk with its doors (or stairs to doors). and people can be literally drawn in to worship by the music wafting through the doors. A typical block has four sides and a church should ask how its building(s) help to define all four sides,” he explains.
  • Create permeable campuses. Churches that span more than one block should try to ensure that their campus is permeable—so they don¹t kill the neighborhood texture. People should be able to walk through the church property using multiple routes.
  • Follow urbanism aesthetics. If it is at all possible, prominent architectural features (bell tower, steeple, windows) should be lined up so that views of them are framed by a street on approach.
  • Choose inviting doors. Church doors should be prominent, majestic, and inviting. They should express Jesus’ invitation to “come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I shall give you rest,” rather than “always low, low, prices.”
  • Plant trees. Jacobsen says it sends a good message when a church works around a mature tree to expand its campus. “So much of the modern world sees development as flattening nature in order to over-write it with this year¹s totalizing vision of the good. He thinks that the church can make a wonderful countercultural statement about redemption by working with contingencies rather than against them,” he says.
  • Preserve buildings. “Ditto for cool old buildings on a church¹s property. It is incredibly disheartening to lose a battle with the local historic preservation society, but can often lead to some wonderful outcomes,” he adds.
  • Pay attention to signs. Jacobsen quips that if you need a sign to tell people that they¹re in the Fellowship Hall, then you probably have a design problem. But signs do communicate the ethos of a church. “I happen to prefer ‘This is a house of prayer for all nations’ over ‘No skateboarding on church property.’ I also think that the marquee is the least interesting sign on the property,” he says.