Long before the pandemic, I wrestled with how many churches use their buildings.  Both as an architect and follower of Jesus, I don’t like the fact that many church buildings are fully used only several hours a week. Using church buildings for daycare, art galleries, after-school programs, soup kitchens, emergency shelters, etc. seems like better stewardship. The pandemic has served up stories of churches using classrooms, foyers, kitchens, and gyms in creative ways even as the sanctuary/ auditorium remains closed and dark. As we look forward to the day when we can gather again for worship, let us consider how our buildings can go beyond merely accommodating activities but actually spark curiosity about who God is and what He is doing in His creation.

Buildings designed to be used throughout the week tend to prioritize functionality. Lighting, finishes, furnishings are selected based on what will suit the widest variety of uses, be durable and cost the least. In addition, the elements that signify that the building is the meeting place of a church, tend to be downplayed often so that un-churched will feel welcomed and comfortable.

Notre Dame Catholic Church, Houston Texas

We recently started working for Church of the Incarnation in Harrisonburg, Virginia (https://theincarnation.org). Their calling is to be “For the Glory of God and the Good of the City” and their building program is tailored to meet a wide range of community needs. The Rev. Aubrey Spears, Rector, reminded us, however, that, “We want people to know they are meeting in a church.”  He added, “I want the space to be comprehensible, not comfortable.”

Since the rise of churches like Saddleback and Willow Creek, the goal has been to make the building invitational. Architects and interior designers have taken their cues from hotels, restaurants, and retail spaces as we try to make buildings that are comfortable and accessible to those who otherwise would never enter a traditional church building. When we make our churches into conference centers, we miss an opportunity to inspire and teach.

Notre Dame Catholic Church, Houston, Texas

The trend is moving in the other direction. We find most churches at a minimum, want a cross prominently displayed somewhere on or in the building. Younger generations are so far removed from church attendance that bad associations have given away to no associations. This lack of bad memories coupled with a generic curiosity about spirituality prompts people to seek buildings and spaces that feel sacred – with lofty ceilings, monumental windows with stained glass and beautifully crafted furniture and fixtures.  We want people to ask, “What does that mean?”

I believe that churches can do both. Our buildings can serve a wide variety of uses throughout the week – whether English classes, music recitals or health clinics. But our buildings can also prompt wonder, questions, and inspiration. Our building should help tell the story of the God and Savior in whose Name we serve, teach and worship.

Our next post will explore the specific examples and ways we can craft our buildings, so they serve, teach, and inspire.

Randy Seitz, CEO