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Renovating Churches to Build a Sense of Community

Good architectural choices can improve worship participation, promote a sense of community, and make neighbors feel more welcome. A feature story exploring how church renovations can build a sense of community.

On a recent summer Sunday, Leah Robberts-Mosser preached on the lectionary’s gospel lesson. In this passage Mark explains how the kingdom of God is like a man scattering seed and like a mustard seed.

“Rarely did Jesus talk to people on an individual basis. He spoke to people in communities, as we are,” Robberts-Mosser began. At several points during the sermon, she suggested, “Look around you.

“Look around, because maybe God is trying to grow something in all of us ….Look around and see the beauty of God reflected in each face….See one another for what we are—a creation of God,” she continued.

Her repeated suggestion was a good strategy for engaging worshipers at First Congregational Church in Battle Creek, Michigan. But it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well before the church renovated its worship space.

As First Congregational and other churches have found, architectural decisions can make or break a church renovation goal of creating a sense of community. Both interior and exterior design choices affect how people interact during worship and whether church neighbors feel welcome.

Flexible space changes worship

The reason that First Congregational worshipers can easily smile at each other is simple. During its 1990s renovation, the church removed its 1907-era balcony and replaced straight pews with a mix of curved pews and moveable chairs.

“Everyone feels closer, more intimate,” says Wes Kimble, an usher and long-time member.

Kimble recalls that the choir used to sit behind the chancel, facing the congregation. “Choir members felt left out, because they could only see the back of the minister’s head,” he says.

Now the choir processes in, through seated worshipers, to a section of curved pews. Instead of feeling like a backdrop to the preacher, the choir is part of the congregation.

Robberts-Mosser says she and the interim senior minister, M. Jacob Kaufman, move seating from half round to full round “when the church needs to remember we’re a community.” All the pulpit furniture is moveable, so when chairs are set up in a circle for communion service, the communion table goes into the center. Pastors stand amid worshipers, rotating as they talk.

 “We go into the round for World Communion Sunday, when our fifth graders serve Communion from chalices they’ve made. We often stay in the round through Advent.

“Our Longest Night service on the winter solstice speaks to people who are depressed or who have lost loved ones—so find the holidays hard. Being in a circle is important on a night of lament. None of us has to spend our longest night alone,” she says.

She expects that flexible seating will be a boon as First Congregational begins an alternative evening service aimed at unchurched neighbors or once-churched people who have questions.

Light signals God’s presence

Like many churches built in the 1950s, First Presbyterian Church of Encino, California, was built as an A-frame. Its dark, subdued interior was meant to make worshipers feel reverent as they faced forward and watched the minister lead worship.

The First Pres tagline is “The Community of Possibilities.” During its 2002 renovation it asked architects for affordable ways to add more light and show that worship is something you participate in, not watch.

Besides rearranging the seating, architects gave form to all that vertical space by adding asymmetrically curved white ceiling panels and 14 skylights. They extended the cross from the wall so it appears to reach out toward the new white communion table and baptism font.

“The new seating arrangement shows our inclusive belief that worship is an act of the community,” says Janelle Tibbetts-Vaughan, associate pastor.

Shifting patterns of natural light play across the cross and communion area, reminding people that God is always at work in their lives.

“Before we added white panels and skylights, worship felt much more somber. Even celebrations such as Easter did not feel as filled with light and energy. Today, worship is more joyful, more Spirit-filled. It’s amazing how, even if all the other elements are the same, the sanctuary can add to or detract from worship,” Tibbetts-Vaughan says.

Your building speaks to neighbors

True to its slogan—“There’s a place for you”—First Congregational of Battle Creek renovated to include four new canopied entrances and more obvious directions within the building.

Clear entrances help visitors know they’re welcome. Once inside, they see the welcome desk. “We no longer have people slipping in a door somewhere and walking around unnoticed,” says Leah Robberts-Mosser.

Likewise, Faith Missionary Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, wanted to be more welcoming in its neighborhood. “They were a church where everyone entered a side door and wound through a rat maze to get to the sanctuary.

“Now, prominent entrances on both sides of the building enter straight into a central fellowship hall. From the reception desk at the fellowship hall, you can literally point to every destination within the building,” says Jeremy C. Fretts, president of Humane Design in Fishers, Indiana.

When Emmaus Lutheran Church redid its dark worship space and expanded the building, they “were very conscious to feature characteristics which would present a message of welcome,” says Steve Carlson, pastor of the Eugene, Oregon, congregation.

Emmaus Lutheran is now bright with natural light and inspirational murals painted by liturgical artist Richard Caemmerer, co-founder of the Grünewald Guild. The earth-friendly building also hosts community groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Everything in the sanctuary is moveable, including pews and a reconfigurable chancel platform.

“The building fits well into the eclectic Eugene community. Home to the University of Oregon, Eugene has been dubbed ‘the Berkeley of the North,’ ” Carlson says. In fact, the renovation by architect Jan Fillinger won a People’s Choice award (scroll to third entry.)

Profile: Eric Jacobsen on Community as a Physical Place

If your church is thinking of renovating, then some members may have suggested another solution—relocating. Eric Jacobsen offers several reasons why it makes sense to stay where you are. Jacobsen, an ordained Presbyterian pastor, is earning a Ph.D. in theology of the built environment and teaching Fuller Theological Seminary’s first class on the subject.

Rethink the definition of community

Community used to mean almost exclusively those people who lived in proximity to us. Community couldn’t easily be divorced from the idea of physical presence,” Jacobsen writes in Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith.

But today, he says, people talk about a community as a group of people who share an interest, such as the gay community or the Christian community. There’s no expectation that these community members live near each other or even know each other.

If churches rejoin the ideas of physicality and community, then they will pay more attention to how their church and congregation exist in and connect with the neighborhood surrounding the church.

In other words, instead of thinking your corner church is somehow lesser because it’s not a mega church, you can join God in the community that already exists in and near your church.

That’s why, when Bidwell Presbyterian Church in Chico, California, outgrew its sanctuary, members decided to build a second church downtown instead of relocate to the suburbs.

“Encourage what is good in our communities…Oppose that which is destructive. What we cannot do, however, is to reject our communities in order to pursue some kind of abstract and idealized community that is devoid of human messiness,” Jacobsen writes in a recent essay.

Steward your space

Churches in cities and inner ring suburbs often have beautiful historic buildings, peaceful courtyards, and attractive lawns. Jacobsen encourages churches to be good stewards of these assets, offering them as public space, not just something available for church members.

His former church, First Presbyterian Church in downtown Missoula, Montana, has hosted a community-wide Persons with Disabilities Bible study, public school music groups, and neighborhood council meetings.

Other congregations make their lawns or parking lots available for neighbors to garden or play ball when the church isn’t meeting for worship.

In San Diego, California, First Lutheran Church didn’t have a big budget for renovation but wanted to show neighbors it was “in the city for good.” Adding a new steeply pitched steeple and skylights (which glow at night with interior light) strengthened the church’s identity.

First Lutheran’s small chapel, which can be locked off from the rest of the building, is open for community activities. Homeless people are welcome to sit in the church courtyard, which extends to the sidewalk. The church also offers medical help, food, and more to people in its community.

“Tabernacle” like Christ

Jacobsen often talks about how Christ left the comfort of heaven and put on flesh to “tabernacle among us.” He points out that John’s vision in the Book of Revelation is not a return to Eden. Instead the God-given vision portrays the renewed creation as a holy city, the new Jerusalem.

Seeing a city as a context for God’s redemption, rather than a big bad place you drive to so you can “do ministry,” will be a shift for some congregations.

When your church chooses to stay put and be more a part of the community, a couple things will happen, not all of them comfortable.

First, when you start thinking of your church property as public space…or start walking in the neighborhood around your church…then you’ll have to relate to people who aren’t like you. “Public spaces force us to think about and interact with people we don’t necessarily know,” Jacobsen says.

Second, and you may enjoy this, you’ll get to talk with people on the neutral ground of public space. You’ll notice class differences. But you’ll experience them more as a bridge to understanding rather than a barrier that prevents you from seeing each person as someone Jesus treasures. You’ll start to see yourself and those you meet as ordinary people going about their daily activities.

Finally, as some of your church neighbors join you in worship, you’ll want to rejoice with those who rejoice and grieve with those who grieve. These bonds may nudge your church toward getting involved in issues that affect the whole community, such as zoning laws, environmental impact, or accessible public transportation.

Learn More

Listen to Mark Torgerson speak on the importance of church architecture choices. Ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church, Torgerson teaches worship arts at Judson University in Elgin, Illinois, and consults with churches considering a new design or renovation. 

Gather a group to read and discuss Eric Jacobsen’s book Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith

Jacobsen explains that many principles of New Urbanism resonate with churches that minister in cities. Jeremy Fretts explains why urban planners should care about churches. Meet others involved in New Urbanism. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, believes more congregations should plant churches in cities.

Find resources to help you evaluate the joys and challenges of being a church in the suburbs. Consider reviewing this book and donating it to your church library: One Body, One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches by George A. Yancey.

Marva Dawn offers excellent ideas on how to build community in worship. Read a Reformed Worship story on the architecture of hospitality. Learn why First Baptist Church of Gardiner, Maine, studied its own historywhile renovating its building.

In Pasadena, California, when Lake Avenue Church realized most youth program kids lived outside the neighborhood, the church made a conscious, and successful, effort to bring in neighborhood kids as well.

Browse related stories on accessibility in worship architecture, baptism and architecture, church renovation, creating worship visuals, and peace and justice in worship.

Start a Discussion

Talk about how to create a sense of community on your next church renovation.

  • What does your church architecture, both interior and exterior, say about your theology or practice of worship and welcome?
  • This story mentions several design choices that can help create community, such as flexible seating, natural light, clear entrances, and intuitive navigation. If your church plans (or has recently completed) a renovation, how would you describe the renovation purposes? Which design choices best achieve these purposes?
  • Would your church neighborhood miss your congregation if you would relocate? Would your congregation miss the neighbors?
  • What do you think about the idea of staying put in the city, especially if your church has been losing members?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to address and talk through priorities in church renovation? 

  • Did you find a resource—visual, online, printed, multimedia, or seminar—that helped your church think through how and why to renovate?
  • If you have surveyed other congregations in your area or denomination regarding their most creative renovation ideas, will you share the best ideas that you discovered?
  • Did you canvass your neighborhood before determining renovation priorities? If so, will you share your survey method and results?