3 Important Things To Consider Before You Build

The excitement of embarking on a building project can lead to rushing the process, thus not taking the time to ensure these three important things are covered.

Embarking on a building project should be an exciting time in the life of a church.  Generally, a building project is birthed out of growth that is happening in the ministry.

That excitement can lead to a desire to rush the process.

Make sure that you take the time to cover three important things.

Understand the Why

Growth may seem like it is the why to a building project, however it might just be the why for something else.  For example, a crowded worship space could be the why for adding an additional service, a bursting youth ministry could be the why for repurposing and renovating some existing space. A full parking lot could be the why for adjusting service times and programs so that the crunch does not come at one time.

When consulting with a church that is looking at a building project one of the first questions I always ask is what is the unique thing that God has put this church at this time in this location to accomplish.

You would be surprised at how many times I get a blank stare or awkward silence from the group I am meeting with.  Sometimes I will get a quick reply that is something like.

To reach the lost, of course!

I follow up by asking them to define “the lost” in more concrete terms to try to get them to state who they are trying to reach. Again, often I get vague answers like, Everyone! My goal in asking the question is to try to understand the DNA of the church.  What is their unique calling that God has placed on their fellowship.

To me that is the real why.

From that conversation and answer we can then start to put a frame work around what type of building would support their calling.

For example, for a church who is called to feed and care for the homeless, hungry and hurting in their neighborhood a commercial kitchen might be one of the most important things that they need.  Whereas a workout area and gym probably would not make it to the top of the list.

Another question I like to ask is, are these needs being met elsewhere by someone in the community.  Again, if your calling is to help the homeless and there is a soup kitchen a few blocks away does it make sense to build so that you can start another one?  Find a unique need that you can specifically meet and partner with the other ministries that are serving the same population.

I am familiar with a church who embarked on a building project to put in a commercial kitchen.  Why? so that members could hold wedding and other receptions at the church.  I do not think there is anything wrong with that.

However, this church had recently funded and launched a ministry just down the road that housed a hospital grade kitchen that could be used for events.

My question to them is why not get a “shuttle vehicle” with racks for the food to be brought from the ministry center one block away to cater events that are taking place in the churches existing conference space?

The shuttle vehicle, well a bit of an inconvenience would cost $20,000 -$30,000 vs the $2,000,000 to build the kitchen facility.

Again, I am not saying that what the church was doing was wrong.  I just want them to fully understand the purpose for taking on a building project.

An additional question that I will usually ask is, will the building you are proposing meet the needs of the community?

I know a church that put in a beautiful park with ball fields and a playground because the nearest park was miles away and their calling was to reach those within walking distance of their facility.  They used prime (read expensive) real estate to better their community rather than building something for direct use by their church members.

The bottom line for me is always fully understand the why of a building project and how it fits into the unique DNA and purpose of a church.

Who are the players

Often in the rush to get a building project going key players are left out.

This might be staff or ministry leaders who are kept out of the project.  It could be local city officials and authorities who could be of valuable help as the church tries to get the proper zoning and permits to take on a project.

The members of the church themselves sometimes are left out.  The senior pastor has a vision, so he just plows forward figuring people will get on board.  Members that have specific knowledge and could be very helpful in the building process are overlooked.

Many times, the bank or another financing agency is not consulted until the process is so far down the road.  The church leadership can then be put in the embarrassing situation of not counting the costs before getting started, bring the process to a halt.

Too often, key contractors are not brought on board early enough in the process.  Things like budgets for acoustics and audio visual and lighting are either left out or are woefully inadequate to meet the needs.

It seems like the neighbors, those who live around the church building are always forgotten.

Rather than consult with them and get valuable input and buy-in from those around the building, many churches plow ahead not even giving consideration to what impact an addition or new building will on those who live right there.

Getting the right people onboard right away and building consensus is one of the most important aspects of a building project.

How do we start

I always recommend that the church partner with an architect or design/build firm to do what I call a phase 1 project overview.  The phase one process should involve:

  1. A needs assessment
  2. A programming/discovery meeting with ministry teams.
  3. A feasibility study and code review (a quick look at the site and local zoning and construction laws) Can we build at this location?
  4. Floor plan layout and site plan showing where the building fits into the site and a general layout of the building.
  5. Rendering, 3D sketches or model that show the exterior elevation of the building.
  6. Budget estimate for the entire project.
  7. Proposed building schedule

With this information, a church has an idea of cost, timeframe and scope of the project along with some rendering perspectives of the proposed building for people to see what is being proposed.

A phase 1 is an investment (usually $10,000 to $30,000) but well worth it.  Additionally, this work will need to be done if the project moves forward.

So, by doing the phase 1 upfront you are not spending additional dollars.  You are however potentially saving yourself from getting pretty far down the road and finding out about something that could stop or delay your project.  It is painful to find out after you have construction documents underway that the site is not buildable, or that the project is going to cost way more than you anticipated.  Invest up front and save yourself the grief.

To recap, understand why you want to build what you have in mind.  Get the right people involved in the process and take time, resources and money to do the upfront work of making sure you can build what you believe God has called you to build.

Defining Good Church Design: Measuring Your Facilities’ Form & Function

Both form and function need to be equal partners – often at great tension with each other- that need to be brought together harmoniously to create great design.


The American architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase; Form follows function.

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human, and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”
Louis Sullivan 1896

Sullivan is the creator of the modern skyscraper that started popping up in the growing large industrial cities in America in the late 19th century.  The great improvements in steel and also skeletal design at that time fueled the growth in popularity of the skyscraper.

A skyscraper is a good example where function (driven by the need to go vertical as cities grew) was a strong driving factor in the design of buildings in that era.

As we look at our church buildings, what is driving the design form or function?

A modern-day example of form winning out is the Crystal Cathedral (now owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in Garden Grove, Orange County, California.

Completed in 1981 it was touted as the largest glass building in the world.  The Cathedral was known for its terrible acoustics.  The initial $1.2 million sound system installed at the construction of the building was completely unintelligible. The system was 2,800 pew back speakers each row on a digital delay.  Three crystal clusters (custom built speaker clusters) also provided coverage.  Altec horns were added in the ceiling grid to get better frequency response.

However time and phase was not addressed, thus the sound was unintelligible.  The nearly 3,000 speakers were eventually replaced by 11 speakers that created a system intelligible enough to last the next 18 years.  But, it was still not a great place to hear a sermon because of the acoustics of the building.

A modern day example of function leading the way is the trend over the last decade to build black box theater type of worship centers.

In general, they are designed to be acoustically very dead, the ceilings are painted black and as the antitheses of the Crystal Cathedral there are no windows. These spaces were designed specifically to do production style of worship.  The dead acoustics allows for a studio like sound from the worship band.  The controlled lighting and video presentation provides the feeling of a concert.

As inspiring as the Crystal Cathedral was to look at, the black box theater style of worship space screams forget about the building watch only what is happening on the stage.

The two extreme examples above show that when the scale is tipped to heavily to either form or function there are great tradeoffs that end up happening.

My goal is not to say that the Crystal Cathedral or the Black box style of worship center is bad.  Rather my goal is say that both form and function need to be equal partners, often at great tension with each other that need to be brought together harmoniously to create great design.

How can form and function translate to good design at your church?


1. Traffic flow inside and outside

I have a friend who writes a blog and basically makes a living online.  He talks all the time about making interactions with his customers as frictionless as possible.  He posts multiple places, uses multiple social media channels and does direct email.

His reason is to make it as easy as possible for each person to receive and engage with his content.  Traffic flow should be looked at in the same way.

How are you providing the easiest way for your attendees to get in and around your building?  Have you ever just studied your traffic flow on a Sunday?  Often some minor changes to a building or some signage updates can greatly improve the traffic flow.

2. Climate, heating and air conditioning
If your attendees are not comfortable it is difficult for them to fully engage.

Do you have someone who is monitoring the climate control system?  They should be looking at objective data, temperature and humidity.  Everybody has their own comfort zone regarding temperature so the best thing to do is pick a standard and then stick to it.

If you determine temperature off how someone feels on a given service that person may have a cold and thus turn up the heat to try to create comfort for themselves. At the same time this puts many other into discomfort.  The key is consistency. With consistency people can choose what they wear knowing that they will be comfortable at a service.

A person that I know brings a sweater every Sunday (even in the summer) they know sometimes it’s a little too cold for them so they come prepared.

One other note you should check your system every 4-6 months.  I suggest doing it at the change of the seasons.  Check to make sure the system if performing optimally also check the temperature in multiple different spots in the room to make sure the temperature is uniform throughout the space.

3. Sound (lobby noise and sanctuary sound)
I argue that one of the most important parts (if not the most important) is sound.

This includes background noise in the sanctuary and lobby. If people cannot hold a conversation in the lobby because of all the noise created by other people having conversations, consider getting some acoustical treatment to help deaden the sound.

One of the main social functions of church is that people get the opportunity to talk to friends and meet new ones, so create a space that helps make those conversations comfortable.

I also argue that the spoken word is the most important element of a worship service. A poor performing sound system where people need to strain to hear, or like the original system at the crystal cathedral where you could not understand what was being said makes people uncomfortable and frustrated.


1. Beauty
What are you doing to bring elements of beauty into your space, indoors and outdoors?  Take a fresh look and walk around in and around your building.  Would painting an accent wall or adding a piece of art bring beauty?  How about planting some flowers around the entrance and trimming the bushes well you are at it?

A question I ask myself as I visit and consult with churches is; does this space feel institutional or warm and inviting?

Then the important follow up question, Why?  Color, furniture placement, plants and many other things factor into the feeling a space gives.  What are the things of beauty in your space?  What could you change to make the space inviting?

2. Engaging
Along the same lines as making the space feel inviting, what causes engagement in your space?  I have seen artwork bring engagement as well as beauty.  People stopping to view a piece of art and reflecting on its meaning.

Architecture can also do this.  Is there anything on the exterior of your building that engages people?  A recent church I worked with was looking for a new home, the building that they chose to purchase was purchased impart because the industrial look of the building fit well with their brand.

3. Uplifting
We attend church to have an extraordinary experience.  I am not talking about the cool light show and production. The point is the overall experience should not be like our ordinary daily experience.

A building has a personality, it invokes emotion from those who come into contact with it.  Is the personality of your building uplifting?  Do people sense and see something out of everyday ordinary life that lifts their spirit?

Yes, Sullivan is correct when he says the form follows function.  The building needs to work well and suit the needs of the congregation.  It also should point us to our creator with beauty and form.

I contend that good design involves form and function working together to create an extraordinary experience.

Understanding the “Why” in Church Planning

The recognition and praise of numerical size can drive some to emulate what Large/Successful churches are doing.

American culture leads us to the false assumption that bigger is always better.  This also spills into churches as we recognize and praise the numerical size of a church rather the spiritual depth that exists at a church.

Greatness is not found in numerical numbers or percentage of growth.  Although, I will argue that growth is a strong byproduct of greatness.

The recognition and praise of numerical size can drive some to emulate what Large/Successful churches are doing.  There is nothing wrong with looking at the successful churches to see what they are doing right. However, when you copy them, trying to emulate what they are doing is when you lose sight of your unique calling and purpose.

I recently was speaking with some church leaders and the discussion began to revolve around the church in the area that averages 15,000 attendees per weekend.

All of us talked highly of the church, its reputation and how it serves so many people. In fact, one of the leaders said I love the look of their stage especially their new set.  In fact, I like it so much I am trying to get our volunteers to build one just like it.

I have seen the set on the stage at the large church and it is gorgeous! It also really fits the DNA of the large church.

I also know that it costs thousands of dollars to build.  Feeling bold and also having a strong relationship with this group, I began systematically questioning first why that church wanted to copy the set and then how they planned to do it.

We didn’t get very far past the “it looks so cool” comment in regards to the why of building it.  Then the how and how much it would cost question pretty much shut down the discussion.  I was not trying to be the dream killer or wet blanket, but I thought it was prudent to first fully understand the why.

I then asked the following question, “if you had one more $, one more staff member or one more square foot of building, would you automatically grow spiritually or numerically?”

The first shot back at me was “It would sure help!” Following the laughter after that comment. I retorted “yes, but would it automatically cause you to grow?”  The discussion that followed was about how all of those things, $, staff and building follow growth, but doesn’t really cause it.

Our discussion also led us to ask the question Why?

Why did the large church have this cool set?  Our speculation was that the large church knew why they designed and built the set, it fit the sermon series and the overall impression that they wanted to make.  The church who wanted to copy it was doing it just because it was cool.  There was no real why.
I have found some successful questions to ask to help get to the Why?

1. Does it enhance your mission and your message?

If your mission revolves around bringing in the poor a $100,000 led wall and huge production is sending the wrong message and most likely alienating and confusing who you are trying to reach.

2. Does it bring engagement.  Does it draw people into worship?

Does it cause people to engage on a deeper level?  A friend of mine uses this litmus test after each service.  He asks the simple question “Did people worship”?

3. Does it show creativity, is it an artistic expression?

Creativity is a gift that God has given us.  I really enjoy when someone uses the creativity entrusted to them in a way that draws me into worship.

4. Does is evoke an emotion or deep feeling.

The most powerful times that I have in worship is when my intellect, my heart and my spirit are in unison praising God.  The environment is helpful in drawing me into that deep, powerful worship.

Answering these questions can help you determine if the next set, moving light, production element….  Has purpose and meaning.  In other words, you’re not just doing it because you think it is cool.