Designing Space for Mission

“We are called to dig postmodern wells where the Samaritan woman of today can get a drink and have a conversation.”

When thinking about creating space in today’s postmodern cultural context and economy, many of us feel like the survivors in the first episodes of Lost. Our knee-jerk reaction is to seek shelter in the wreckage of previous models. Others are getting a sense that there is a new reality that requires more of us. And like the survivors at Lost’s conclusion, we find there is more at stake than just our survival or shelter, but rather an epic battle with eternal outcomes.

The Shifting Ground Beneath Our Feet

Understanding the societal shifts of the past and present is helpful to finding the right approach to creating useful, meaningful space.

Just as our nation figured out how to rubber stamp suburbia across the country, the American church really nailed how to build the “contemporary,” big box, “multiuseless gymnatorium” church to fit “Autopia,” in which it was OK for the parking lot to sit empty or underutilized 6.5 days a week.

Some are questioning the relevance of this model. Some are questioning the relevance of building anything, choosing a “Gnosticism” of place in which bricks and mortar are deemed unspiritual. They are reasonably “shell-shocked” by the crippling effects of mortgage debt, poor stewardship, and superficial settings in which audiences are consuming experiences rather than being made into disciples.

Amid those questions, we are waking up to a new demographic reality as well. The upward, middle class, white, suburban American dream in which a “moral majority” drive their Married with Children nuclear family in an SUV from the megachurch parking lot to the big-box retail strip mall is fading away. As America and the world have crossed the tipping point in which a majority of people are city dwellers for the first time in human history, we are facing a denser, more diverse urban reality.

How Environments Facilitate Movements and Mission

As we encounter a new reality, the right physical environment can do much more for the church than previously realized, contributing to the overall mission.

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Just as we’ve figured out how to build earthquake-proof structures by digging deep and tying into solid foundations, we’ve also learned that building in flexibility, rather than rigidity, is the key to surviving shifting cultural ground. Blessed are the flexible, for they will not break.

Here are some lessons learned from our first 10 years of visioneering the next generation of sacred space:

1. Canvas: Facades and interior walls can be blank canvases waiting to be painted and re-painted with graphics, color and technology, rather than permanent architectural elevations bound to age gracelessly before Jesus comes back.

2. Story Circle: From the earliest tribal circles to the most elaborate theme park environments, spaces can facilitate story and the process of storytelling.

3. Soundstage: Simple, efficient and cost-effective structures can be used to create the most mind-blowing scenes and stories of all time.

4. Spaces between: Jesus accomplished quite a bit of ministry outside; why limit our definition of facility to indoor, air-conditioned space when we can use buildings to frame up outdoor rooms that can become the “third place” of community?

5. Diversity: Why not fill in the ocean of asphalt parking at some churches with community uses (retail, sports, arts, offices) that share the parking lot the other 6.5 days a week?

6. Connectivity: “Holy huddles” repel those outside, but as a species, we are wired with a hunger for authentic community. Physical and visual invitations can be designed into your culture, structure and site layout.

Some are called to design and build temples that make you feel like you’re entering holier ground once you’ve stepped inside. We are called to dig postmodern wells where the Samaritan woman of today can get a drink and have a conversation that includes words of eternal life.

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Mel McGowan, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is the co-founder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios, a multidisciplinary design firm focused on storytelling from branding to building. Mel combined his background in film and urban design during a decade long stint at the Walt Disney Company. Post-Disney, Mel founded and served as the president of Visioneering Studios, where he developed and led a team that won several Solomon Awards for “Best Church Architect” and “Best Builder.” At Plain Joe Studios, Mel focuses on strategic branding, multimedia, and spatial storytelling/architecture for companies and causes around the world. Mel speaks extensively on the intersection of story and space and is the author of Design Intervention: Revolutionizing Sacred Space. Mel also serves as an adjunct professor at CBU’s College of Architecture, Visual Arts and Design.