Changing Spaces—Make Your Building Work for You

At some point in the life cycle of a church, large or small, leaders must decide either to renovate or to build a new worship space. Whether remodeling or diving into new construction, church leaders must consider a number of issues in order to create the most accommodating and inviting atmosphere to serve current church members and attract visitors.

Getting Started

If church leadership decides it is time to build a new facility, the next step is selecting what approach they want to take to their building project. For example, design-build projects bundle designers and developers under the same contract, and project phases happen simultaneously. Design-bid-build projects, however, contract designers and builders independently. Project phases are defined and happen sequentially. 

Charlie Daniels, president of Churches by Daniels, has been in the construction business for 50 years, 35 of those in church construction. He has worked on such churches as Christ Place in Lincoln, Nebraska; Church on the Move in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; Forward City Church in Columbia, South Carolina; and Winter Haven Worship Center in Winter Haven, Florida. The team at Churches by Daniels, which is a design-build construction company, prides themselves on being an educational and informational resource to ministers.

“We start with the budget and then tell the client about how many square feet that will get them before starting down the design road,” he says.

Mel McGowan, co-founder and chief creative officer at PlainJoe: A Storyland Studio and a contributing editor at Outreach magazine, always looks at the unique values of each church to determine the best course of action when designing church auditoriums. 

For example, PlainJoe transformed the 3,000-seat worship center at the Saddleback Lake Forest campus into an indoor/outdoor gathering space that allows year-round worship in the Southern California climate. They did this by replacing floor-to-ceiling windows in the main worship center with large airplane hangar doors and covering the north and south patios with an operable canopy. They converted metal stadium seats into theater and terraced platform seating in the back of the worship center. Plus, the north patio was redesigned to flow inside out, and vice versa.

“In these instances, we try to make the architecture almost go away so you feel like you’re in God’s creation,” says McGowan, whose projects include the Mariners Chapel in Newport Beach, California; Granger Community Church in Granger, Indiana; and Grace City Church in Wenatchee, Washington.

Setting the Stage

Leadership teams should determine their goals for the new building in advance, and see if they align with the needs of the people they want to minister to. These goals filter down and affect the environment of a new church building.

“A core part of our approach has always been what we call architectural evangelism, which is designing for those who aren’t yet in the building or who aren’t even in the conversation a lot of times,” says McGowan. 

He strives to determine the DNA of the church and the unique culture that needs to be conveyed by asking his clients about their demographics and aspirations. 

“The senior pastor may want to build the biggest possible church they can afford whereas the average newcomer might just be looking to have a conversation with somebody,” McGowan says. “While one person is focused on an efficient delivery system, the other longs to have a human connection.” 

Church environments have changed over time, says McGowan, noting that church architecture used to center on hearing the choir and congregation singing. Then there was a shift to performance-oriented worship. Auditoriums became more like performing arts centers than traditional church buildings, with a pie shape being optimum as it provides everyone with a good sight line. 

With a flat floor, stages have to be much higher, but with a pie-shaped auditorium, stages can be lower, which makes the pastor feel closer. Most churches use risers in auditoriums for the same reason—to make the congregation feel in closer proximity to the pastor. Risers also help to soften the room when it comes to acoustics because sound comes up around worshipers. 

“People go to church to hear the spoken word, so all attention should be on the speaker when they are talking, and on the performers when they are singing,” says Daniels. 

“When we first started doing risers, we thought young people who would be in the risers and older folks would be on the floor, but that’s not what’s happened,” says Daniels. “More older people sit in the risers, likely because of the enhanced visibility.”

But what if you have an auditorium that’s too big in which worshipers spread out or sit in the back? According to Daniels, the solution is quite simple. As you go farther back into the high balcony seats, paint the ceilings and back wall black and make the seats black. That way when you cut the lights, that section of the auditorium essentially disappears visually. 

“You can have a 5,000-seat auditorium with 2,000 people in attendance and you can’t see past those 2,000 people,” says Daniels. 

Building in the lighting and black-out risers enables churches to make the space whatever size they want. If a pastor is doing a wedding or funeral and a smaller setting is more appropriate, killing the lights up top pushes people to sit down toward the front. If it’s darkened, people know it’s off limits. Of course, that giant auditorium is great if the church is running at full capacity, in which case they should turn on all the lights and let folks sit where they want. 

Creating a Welcoming Environment

According to McGowan, when you are building a worship environment, it’s important to consider acoustics.

“You hear yourself singing and everyone around you singing,” he says. “That’s a very participatory environment.”

Another way to go is to design from the stage out so that it’s like being at a concert. 

“It’s more of a broadcast situation,” says McGowan. “All of these things should be taken into consideration because sound engineering is no small deal.” 

When creating an auditorium space, it’s vital to consider acoustics because that’s one of the prime elements that can make worshipers feel welcome. 

“If the sound is loud and harsh, it feels cold, but a room can also get too soft, and when that happens, people won’t participate because they can’t hear the music correctly,” says Daniels. 

Years ago, churches always built sanctuaries with windows, but according to Daniels, today they are a distraction. Instead, he says, churches can use “lighting, sound and videos to tell worshipers where you want them to look and what you want them to hear.”

One of the benefits of auditorium lighting is that it can be changed weekly and at no cost. The same is true of using environmental projectors. These state-of-the-art projectors, which use specialized software to be fully customizable, can span 300 feet wide and up to 60 feet tall, enabling churches to project anything onto the wall of a sanctuary, including themes for each new sermon series. 

At Asbury Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Daniels and his team installed one of the largest environmental church projectors in the nation. 

“These screens help the church stay relevant because of what we can do with them,” says Daniels. 

Sprucing Up Your Space

Changing the auditorium won’t fix all of a church’s problems, but this isn’t to say that sprucing up or updating a dilapidated building isn’t a smart idea. Daniels designed a new front to Westside Family Worship Center in Jacksonville, Florida, that connected two buildings, giving it a Spanish style that’s visually appealing and attracting new visitors. 

Often the dilemma churches run up against is not so much a lack of charm but rather a lack of space, and church leaders then must grapple with how best to proceed.

“Many churches are faced with, ‘What can I do right now to expand?’” says Jim Avery, vice president of Sprung Structures. 

Sprung Structures manufactures a different type of building system: A tension membrane, fully insulated structure that’s engineered for permanence but designed for multiuse and can expand, if necessary. Not only that, but these buildings can be put up faster than an average church building as the speed of delivery and construction is significantly greater than any other type of building. Avery says that his company can have a structure completed in as little as four to six months.

When planning the interior of the worship auditorium, church leaders should keep in mind that there has been a shift to wider aisles between the rows. People prefer theater-style to stadium-style seats so that they can enter the row without others having to stand up to make room for them to squeeze in.

When choosing flooring for auditoriums, practical is the way to go. Tile, while decorative, cracks easily and is expensive to maintain. Carpeting has lost its appeal for use in auditoriums, mainly due to cleanliness.

“With solid surfaces, forget vacuuming. You can take a blower from the back to the front and debris is up within minutes rather than hours,” says Daniels. “Plus, if someone gets sick or spills something on the floor, it can be wiped up immediately.”

Not Just for Sunday

Daniels recollects a pastor telling him, “If you’re running 100 worshipers on an average Sunday, but you want to run 200, the minister can’t just preach twice as good, or have the choir sing twice as good, or make the building twice as good. The way you grow your church is through outreach.”

Whether a church is building a new facility or remodeling their current one, leadership should always keep in mind how their building could be used for outreach purposes. For example, when deciding between installing pews or chairs, pastors need to remember that chairs create more flexibility for using auditorium space for various outreach opportunities. 

Daniels says a church in Tulsa that hired his company to design all five of their campuses partners with the city to use their auditoriums as shelters for the homeless when temperatures drop below freezing. 

“At all of their campuses, they stack up the chairs and create a haven where homeless people can sleep for the night,” says Daniels. 

Because of the nature of their product, Sprung Structures can have up to 160 feet of clear span, which means an auditorium can lend itself to becoming a large, open multipurpose room. 

McGowan points out that church leaders should always be thinking of ways to cross-utilize the space in their auditoriums to benefit the community at large.

“It’s not OK to have a Christian country club that’s used for a couple of hours on Sunday, then shut down and locked up for the rest of the week,” he says. “That’s such a blatant waste of space when it could be used for afterschool care or tutoring, children’s ministry, summer camps or all sorts of other things.” 

Daniels agrees. “There are a lot of tangible ways to use your facility to make a positive impact on your community.”