Designing New Churches to Build a Sense of Community

Building a new church lets you rethink the message you send through its interior and exterior design. Good architectural choices can improve worship participation, promote a sense of community, and offer your church as a welcome "third place." A feature story exploring the design of new churches to promote community.

When you walk into Trinity Christian Reformed Church in Rock Valley, Iowa, the first thing you notice is smiling faces and friendly handshakes. In a way that’s no surprise. After all, Rock Valley is in a part of northwest Iowa known for close ties among churches, schools, and families.

But its small town location doesn’t totally explain the congregation’s sense of community. The architecture of its new church building plays a role as well, according to worship coordinator Deb Vogel.

As Trinity and other churches have found, architectural decisions can help or hinder a sense of community in new church buildings. Both interior and exterior design choices affect how people interact during worship and whether church neighbors feel welcome.

Knowing who you are

Trinity dedicated its new worship space in November 2003, so has had time to evaluate the difference made by its new layout, seating, light, and pulpit furniture placement.

“Our new worship space is more wide than deep. The old sanctuary was dark, long, and narrow, with straight pews all facing the pulpit. Now we can see each other’s faces during worship,” Vogel says.

Though some members had thought of pews as more sacred than chairs, Trinity chose chairs for versatility. “We are a church with a very warm greeting time during worship. You can’t climb over someone in a pew, but you can go around chairs and greet people further away. When a worshiper comes in a wheelchair, we just remove a chair so they can sit with everyone else instead of be bumped out into the aisle.

“For a Lent and Easter sermon series on the Old Testament tabernacle, we made the center aisle wider and put chair rows in a V shape, so everyone could see the big basin, showbread, and incense burner. We’ve talked about moving chairs into small groups for prayer, maybe once a month in an evening service,” Vogel says.

The new sanctuary has a light cement floor, light walls, clear windows, and a knotty pine ceiling. “It feels like being in an upside down ark together. Not that we would have said we were depressed in the old sanctuary…but lightening up everything makes worship feel more joyful,” she says.

Trinity did an extensive study of Donald Bruggink’s Christ and Architecture: Building Presbyterian/Reformed Churches before building their new worship space. “We read how the Word is central in Reformed worship so needs to be above where the sacraments are. It may seem unusual, but we put the communion table on the same level as where the people sit.

“Some of our members are in their 50s and have never taken communion. They grew up in traditions where people hardly heard the name of Jesus and struggle deeply with knowing whether they’re saved. We didn’t want to place the communion table on the platform, where it would seem high and above them,” Vogel explains.

Slowing down

In contrast to Trinity’s rural setting, Hope United Methodist Church stands in an industrial park in Voorhees, a south Jersey suburb of Philadelphia. Senior pastor Jeff Bills says the congregation asked architect Richard Conway Meyer to design a church that would appeal to a transient, secular culture.

The cross on one corner of the roof identifies Hope as a church, but the glass and steel structure also blends in well with nearby branch banks and factories. From its ample, clearly-marked parking lots, visitors can see through glass walls to the worship space and worship platform.

Bright entry spaces—including a large lobby, café, bookstore, and activity center—help non-churchgoers and lapsed ones feel comfortable stepping inside.

“Our ministry approach is to be transparent and open. Even the pulpit is transparent. Non-church people describe our facility as ‘familiar,’ ‘inviting,’ and ‘creative,’ ” Bills says.

Hope has flexible seating but mainly moves chairs for community events, weddings, or in summer, when attendance lags. “After nine years of setting up and taking down chairs in rented spaces, before we built here, we are happy not to move chairs each week,” he says.

Attendance has nearly doubled since Hope dedicated its building in 1999. Additions since then have focused on providing reasons and space for people to linger before and after worship or midweek activities. The youth room, for example, is getting computers and a small soda bar.

“We are not in competition with other churches. We are competing against Starbucks, Panera Bread, and other venues that invite people to slow down and be in community,” Bills says.

New church, new community

Faith Community Church purposely decided to build in the middle of a new residential neighborhood in Noblesville, Indiana.

“They were intentional about building a Cracker Barrel-style porch to invite people to hang out. We planned their site for eventual expansion right up to the sidewalk,” says Jeremy C. Fretts, president of Humane Design in Fishers, Indiana.

The young congregation wasn’t flush with funds, so Fretts designed a modest yet versatile building. Most of the floor space is a multipurpose room used for worship, fellowship, and other activities. “The main idea was to co-locate activities and amenities that cause people to cross paths. This is programmatic—making your facility available to community groups—and physical, creating central gathering spaces through which all users pass,” Fretts explains.

Since 2002, when Faith was dedicated, the congregation has used many ways to become part of the neighborhood. Senior pastor Al Hazen says these include regularly blanketing the neighborhood with door hangers inviting people to a church “serious in service, casual in style.”

The church’s outdoor basketball hoops and playground have proved a bigger draw for neighbors than its porch chairs or volleyball court.

“We host neighborhood association meetings. During Holy Week, we’ve set up a midweek prayer labyrinth and stayed open late.

“Lots of folks are moving into this neighborhood. Some have tried us and stayed. We’ve tried lots of seating configurations. What works best for us is putting chairs in rows in the middle, with tables on the sides. Sitting at a table feels familiar. It’s an easy way to be with friends, take notes, or let kids color,” Hazen says.

Learn More

Read profiles of Rock Valley, Iowa (pp. 48-53) and Hope United Methodist Church. Spring Lake Wesleyan Church is profiled in Jack Lynn’s Clear Vision: How 16 Churches Harnessed the Power of Shared Vision.

Browse related stories on accessibility in worship architecture, baptism and architecture, church renovation, creating worship visuals, and renovating churches to build a sense of community.

Start a Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your council, worship, or building committee meeting. These questions will get members talking about how to create a sense of community in your new church building.

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