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?

Function

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.

Form

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.

5 Elements of An Engaging Church Facility

One of the activities that a church facility needs to facilitate is creating an active sense of community.

It is true that buildings are basically what we call brick and mortar, however we must also recognize that they have character and thus communicate a message about the inhabitants and often facilitate very specific activities.

Church attendance is often driven by our desire as humans to connect.

We primarily go to church to connect with God, but there is also a huge element of human/social connection that brings people thru the doors.

For a church one of the activities that a building should facilitate is creating a sense of community.

So how can brick and mortar help create a sense of community?

Church Seating Areas

When you show up early or stay later after a service you may want to have an extended conversation with someone you haven’t seen lately, or perhaps with someone who is personally struggling with a loss or tough situation in their life.

To connect on such a deep and personal level can be difficult if you are standing in a crowded lobby.  In that lobby setting there are fears of being overheard and also the constant distraction and interruptions as people walk by and wave or stop and say hi.

There is something about a seating area that is off to the side that communicates, do not interrupt.

It’s almost like you put up a do not disturb sign. In reality these areas often are where deep ministry takes place.  People are more open if they feel safe from being overheard or interrupted.

Community is about Gathering Space

There is something exciting about a crowd.

The noise, the closeness and sometimes what feels like chaos gives off a strong energy of “something is happening here”.  A lobby is great place to be seen and to see people and make a quick connection.

Church attendance is often driven by our desire as humans to connect.

We primarily go to church to connect with God, but there is also a huge element of human/social connection that brings people thru the doors.

For a church one of the activities that a building should facilitate is creating a sense of community.

So how can brick and mortar help create a sense of community?

Church Seating Areas

When you show up early or stay later after a service you may want to have an extended conversation with someone you haven’t seen lately, or perhaps with someone who is personally struggling with a loss or tough situation in their life.

To connect on such a deep and personal level can be difficult if you are standing in a crowded lobby.  In that lobby setting there are fears of being overheard and also the constant distraction and interruptions as people walk by and wave or stop and say hi.

There is something about a seating area that is off to the side that communicates, do not interrupt.

It’s almost like you put up a do not disturb sign. In reality these areas often are where deep ministry takes place.  People are more open if they feel safe from being overheard or interrupted.

Community is about Gathering Space

There is something exciting about a crowd.

The noise, the closeness and sometimes what feels like chaos gives off a strong energy of “something is happening here”.  A lobby is great place to be seen and to see people and make a quick connection.

This might be as simple as doing some of the above. Moving or creating new coffee stations, creating seating areas, adding tabletops can all give clues to where people should go and connect with each other.

Another way to help in traffic flow is to have key people that set an example or politely encourage people to move to s specific location.

If someone is lingering in front of the coffee station having an extend conversation blocking the area often someone simply coming up and saying excuse me as they walk towards the coffee station with give a social cue that the people in conversation need to move.

Your facility can most definitely facilitate community. 

Your challenge is to do the work and figure out what you can do to help make this happen.

Wayfinding, Which Way is Which?

One of the most difficult tasks for a church is making visitors feel comfortable. Here’s what you can do to help visitors – before and after – they enter your doors.

I believe one of the most difficult tasks for a church is making visitors feel comfortable.

The difficulty lies in the fact that every person is unique in their needs and desires.  Some want to be warmly welcomed and shown around.

Others just want to slip in an out unnoticed until they are ready to reveal themselves.

However there is one commonality that can make every visitor very uncomfortable. That is the feeling of being lost.

For most people anyplace that is new and different can be, and often is intimidating.  If the experience is visiting a large unfamiliar church – that visit can be overwhelming. And even being a guest at a small local church can be scary.

So what can you do to make that visitor feel more comfortable – before and after –  they enter your doors?

Give them an experience before the visit.

People feel more comfortable if they know what to expect.

A number of churches do a good job on their website, explaining what attire is expected and giving a little narrative about what to do or where to go.  But why not give people more of an experience on your website?

A church that I am working with is putting together a visitor experience for their website that includes a fly thru with a drone. The drone video will take the visitor from the parking lot thru the entrance, show the visitor center, coffee area, restroom locations and children’s area.

The idea is to stage it so it looks like a Sunday morning. So there would be people in the building, making it look as life like as possible.

I love this idea!

Now if drone footage is not possible for you to get on your website, add a floor plan and pictures.

The more comfortable you can make someone feel the more likely they are to walk thru your doors on a Sunday morning.

Guide their Sunday church experience

For me one of the frustrating things in life is not knowing where to go when I walk thru the door of a building.

The problem for the person designing the wayfinding is that they do know where I want to go or what my level of “knowing” about that building or similar buildings are.

So to make signage work well, the designer of the wayfinding system must take a lot of different variables into account.

Even though there are a lot of variables some very simple truths hold true.

The first is to keep signs clear and concise.  Don’t make people have to think or interpret what the message is.  One of the many great laughs I had at the last WFX in Louisville, KY a few months ago was over this conference center sign.

One of my friends saw the sign and called me over and said, I guess no miracles allowed here because they won’t let Jesus walk on water.  Thus we created the meme

Really wayfinding is a pretty straight forward proposition and with some thought and planning it doesn’t have to be subpar.

What is good wayfinding at your church facility?

Wayfinding is really a simple problem solving exercise:

1) The person needs to know where they are at (i.e. main entrance)
2) They need to know where they want to go (i.e. childrens ministries)
3) They need to find out the route that will get them there
4) They have to be able to correctly follow the route
5) The have to know when they get to the destination

To solve these simple problems with the use of signs:

1) Keep it simple
2) Show only what is needed, don’t overly complicate directions or maps
3) Give clues along the way to keep people on the route.

In addition to having good signage there should also be a person at the welcome area that is very good at giving directions.

The person giving directions should have some simple nice looking floor plans printed on paper.  The direction giver can then draw on the map and point out landmarks along the way.

Another great way to solve the problem of giving directions is to have someone available that will lead the person to where they want to go.

In numerous churches I have been at the children’s check in area is usually the most difficult to find and the most difficult to figure out what to do when you get there.

So having an advocate (guide) that can take a family to the children’s area and then walk them thru the check in process would help make a lot of first time visitors feel much more relaxed and comfortable.

Wayfinding really doesn’t have to be a frustrating, difficult thing.

With some good signage and some people available to assist newcomers. You can easily make all of your guests feel comfortable.

A Word To The Wise When Thinking DIY

I’ve seen and heard some really scary things done with a “do it yourself” AV systems approach

Often when I’m working with churches (particularly smaller congregations), the issue of installing things themselves comes up. It usually revolves around the church purchasing the equipment (hopefully from me – on occasions churches have taken a design I’ve done and then gone online and purchased all of the equipment to install, and then to top it off they call me and ask for advice when it doesn’t work) and then pulling the cables, hanging the loudspeakers and hooking it all up themselves.

I’m all for having volunteers working alongside a qualified contractor. By doing a project in this fashion, the volunteers not only learn a lot about the system, they also get some real “skin in the game” and thus some ownership.

However, based on a lot of years of experience, I’m not a fan of a church doing an installation without the assistance of a professional. Under this scenario I’ve seen and heard some really scary things.

Recently I was at a venue where the ownership had obviously decided to try and save some money on the design and installation of a sound system. It has two loudspeakers that must have been purchased from the local music store – they were a portable design with handles for lugging them around.

To install these loudspeakers, someone came up with the great (not!) idea of throwing a tow strap over a beam and tying each end of the strap to the handles (see the photo above).

In a way, it’s somewhat amusing, but it’s also disturbing and more than a little frightening, because these speakers are hanging 20 feet above an area that people travel heavily, thus creating a huge safety issue. A qualified contractor would never install anything in a fashion that would resemble these hanging weights ready to fall.

Further, the coverage is awful. The loudspeakers are almost 80 feet apart, and as I walked through the coverage, I also determined that they must have a 40-degree horizontal coverage pattern (as I traveled into coverage, then out of coverage, then back into coverage…).

And the sound coming out of these loudspeakers resembles a total “frown face” EQ setting – harsh midrange and not much else.

So, how can you make a DIY successful rather than something resembling this example?

1) Don’t do any part of an installation that you’re not 100 percent confident that you can do correctly. This seems rather obvious, but a lot of folks do not seem to be able to correctly determine if they are competent enough or not.

2) Pay for and use the advice and instruction from a professional. Don’t just try to pilfer information – be up front with them and ask them to provide you with a price to consult you on the project. Note not all contractors will be willing to help with advice only because they’re not used to doing business this way.

And perhaps more importantly, they may be (rightfully) concerned about the liability issues involved by dispensing advice on how to hand loudspeakers. My suggestion is that any part of an installation that could potentially lead to a safety issue should be left for a professional to do.

3) Select a qualified professional that will act as a partner. Choose a contractor that will work with you in dividing the tasks and responsibilities for the project. For example, the volunteers at a church could pull in all of the cable, with the contractor doing testing and termination.

Saving money and having some ownership in the installation of the system is a good thing, just make sure that you can competently (and safely) perform all of the tasks that you set out to do.

 

What Does Your Church Facility Have To Do With Attendance?

The simple answer is nothing and everything.

I am sure you have seen massive churches that have very low attendance, relative to their size.  I am also sure you have seen a small church bursting at the seams with people.  As with most things in life, shall we say, the answer is also complicated.

Holy Spirit-filled ministry in any building brings growth, but I also believe that great Spirit-filled ministry results in great things that permeate throughout the entire ministry, including the facility.

So what can you do with your facility to help encourage attendance?

1.)  People come to church for an experience.

This experience is both spiritual and social.

I worked with a church who had an amazing piece of local artwork that you encountered as you walked in the front door.  It was a beautiful representation of Christ made with tiny pieces of colored glass.

It was such a thing of beauty that it caused you to pause and take it in.  It also became a great discussion starter for anyone new to the church. As they would see the art piece and stop to gaze at, a well-positioned greeter would chime in at the right time say how beautiful it was and how it was done by a local artist.

For those that attend or visit this church they have an experience that immediately points them to Christ and at the same time offers an opportunity for social engagement.  What in your facility brings a social or spiritual experience?

2.) People come to connect and fellowship.

One of my favorite things to do before a worship service starts is to hang out in the lobby and just observe what happens out there.  It’s great to watch old friends connect, to see people hug those who are hurting and to watch the joy the expressed and people connect.  ‘

Do you have a place that allows this connection to happen?  Do you encourage it by placing appropriate furniture and fixtures around to serve as anchors for people to connect?

3.) People come to find meaning.

One of the reason people come to church is to make sense out of this crazy life.  As mentioned above artwork can be a great way to for people to see things in a different way.  Sometimes art can be that catalyst that helps one find meaning.

Something as simple as having a place for people to bring goods and items to drop off to go help the needy is another way for people to connect and find meaning.

4.) People come to seek respite from a noisy world.

Today we are all bombarded with so many messages, many of them conflict with our Christian walk.  People who come on Sunday are wanting to take a deep breath, refocus and if only for a brief period of time get some separation from the noise.

In your facility are there areas where one can “escape” and get alone with God?  Do you have separate prayer areas? Seating areas that are in some out of the way places? Ultimately it is the individual’s responsibility to detach from the noise.  However, some simple things in your facility can help facilitate in that endeavor.

I really like it when there is a separate “quiet room” This could be a classroom that is converted into a prayer room.  Use soft lighting and comfortable furniture and a door that closes to create a living room type of atmosphere and separation.

5.) People come to seek comfort

One of the great comforts we have as Christians is having others pray for us. The prayer room that is mentioned above is perfect for this.  Make sure your congregation is aware of this room and encourage them to use it.
By providing appropriate space, atmosphere and experience your facility can help provide ways for people to connect and be ministered to and thus encourage people to keep coming back on a regular basis and to invite others.

 

The Church As A Stage For Worship

When preparing for a worship service and setting yourself up for success, the little things can make a big difference.

 

When talking about what our worship services are going to look like on a Sunday, our worship planning team will often use the phrase “setting the table”.

What we mean by this, is setting the look of the stage for a worship service.

Our worship services in general do not involve many lighting cues, we generally set a look for the morning and leave it relatively static. As a team we have chosen to create an atmosphere and then – if fitting – we will make subtle changes to it.

What I have heard about our services is that people enjoy our style because it’s comfortable, done with excellence, but does not feel overly produced.  What I take away from comments like that is that people appreciate the atmosphere we create and they like the fact that worship does not feel like a concert with moving lights and tons of video elements.

Just because we don’t have tons of moving lights and video content doesn’t mean we haven’t given thought and planning to our services.

We have!  In fact, we have chosen not to use click track for the band, loops or even in-ear monitors. The drum set does not even have a cage around it!  Lest you think we don’t care about audio quality we do have a Digico board at front of house and a great sounding L’Acoustics PA.  To top that off on the video side we have a 9’x16’ led wall that hangs just above the band.  All of the decisions like no click or loops just fit who we are and for us it works well.

This past week I found myself pondering the question why do we limit the “setting the table” philosophy to just our worship services?  Isn’t the atmosphere as someone enters the parking lot just as important as the atmosphere in the worship space?  What about the bathroom, lobby, classrooms?  How are we setting the table there to reflect who we are?

I am beginning the quest to take the philosophy of “setting the table” throughout our ministry on Sunday morning.  Following are three quick things that come to mind.

1) Purpose
In order to set the right atmosphere or feeling involves identifying who we are and then running everything thru that filter.

I have a tech partner on my team that would love to add a bunch of moving lights, haze and video elements.  I am not opposed to that at all!  In fact, I love the tech side of it.

It would be fun and challenging and I sure rewarding as we would have a blast setting up and executing a service like that.  BUT as much as we might love it (and have done services like that) we have to ask the question, what purpose does it fulfill?  If the purpose doesn’t exist to do it, why am I using all the energy to make something like that happen?

Think about the exterior of your building, your sign, the overall look of the building what does it communicate?  I suggest that it needs to communicate excellence.  It is difficult to change the look of a building, however no matter the size, shape or color the building can look well maintained!  That right there is “setting the table” Well-manicured landscaping and a well maintained building helps prepare one for a positive Sunday morning experience.

2) Plan
In my opinion “setting the table” requires more planning than scripting out a service.  You would think with less moving parts, fewer cues and “simpler production” that worship planning would take less time.  Wrong.  Yes, a lot less time is spent on scripting out every minute and cue for a service.  However, a lot more time is spent in talking about the purpose of service elements and the order and sequence of the elements.

For example, a very long discussion might take place on the purpose of communion in that particular service.  Are we doing it just because it’s on the calendar?  That might be the reason and that might be just fine, but then we need to determine where it fits in the service and how it has meaning and purpose for being there.

On a ministry side I see more time being spent on why are we doing this vs we have always done it this way.  I believe only the federal government is worse at cancelling ineffective programs than the church is, and the church is not far behind. Routine and the “we have always done it that way” mentality often takes place of true planning.

3) Perspective
I learned this long ago, just because you think it is cool doesn’t mean that it really is.  I have had many great (in my opinion) ideas that I was sure was going to be loved and accepted by all fall flat on their face.  Why?  I did not get perspective from anyone but myself or anyone outside of my immediate circle.

In politics they refer to it as the Washington bubble.  This is where a politician gets caught up in the DC culture and totally forgets about the heartland or even the rest of the country.  The politician has created a circle that all revolves and DC and thus places them in a bubble where they do not even hear or get any outside the “bubble” input.

In church we are good at doing the same thing.  We create this echo chamber of likeminded staff and parishioners that keeps us insulated from really hearing or connecting with the congregation. On the opposite side of that often we only hear from the vocal critics.  We all know the ones who have a complaint about everything.

The key is to engage and seek input for the congregation.

This takes time and work, but if we don’t do it we can begin to make decisions on only small groups.  Those in our circle and those who complain.

Setting up a worship service for success does involve lots of work.  As they say “the table is not going to set itself”.  Even if the service is simple in its production elements.  To set the table for success you must find the purpose, plan it into the service all well listening to the true pulse of your congregation.

Evaluating Your Sunday Church Experience

Do you really know what the experience is of those who attend your services? Avoid overlooking some very important factors.

 

I think that often, as the church in general, we tend to overlook some really important things that impact the experience one has on a Sunday morning.  Yes, the preaching needs to be engaging, the worship spirit-filled and the people pleasant, but there are also other factors that impact the overall experience.

Let’s take a look at evaluating your church’s experience!

1. Facilities

  • How far away did I have to park?
  • Did I have to walk thru unplowed areas to get to the entrance.
  • If I am a visitor can I easily find the entrance?
  • Is there good signage to help me find my way around?
  • Does the building look well maintained?
  • Has the building been updated or does the décor still give homage to decades gone by?

Your facilities say a lot about who you are a church.

Your building – new or old – radiates a feeling whether it be mediocracy, excellence or failing.

What people see as they look at and navigate your facility gives them a very strong perception. It’s from that perception that opinions are formed about your ministry.

I don’t care if your building is 150-years-old or 1-year-old. An unkempt lawn, stains on the carpet and items in disrepair all say the same thing: you really do not care that much about the building.

On the other hand, clean restrooms, windows without finger prints and a wonderful aroma of coffee brewing communicate that as a church you care about the building and The Experience on Sunday morning.

2. Production

  • Was the production distraction free?
  • Did the service flow smoothly?
  • Was there some continuity throughout the service?
  • Did you walk away from the service with a reaction?  Encouragement, A challenge, conviction?

I often refer to the service itself as a production, not in a bad way or a way that implies manipulation, but rather in a way the conveys planning and purpose.

I often will also refer to the service as the product.  Again not in a negative way, but in a way that highlights what the church delivers on a Sunday morning.

I remember as a teenager walking into church 5 minutes before a Sunday night service and seeing the minister of music (that’s what we used to call worship leaders) sitting in the back row, thumbing thru a hymnal writing down the numbers of the songs we would sing during the service.

Even as a teenager it struck me that the music must not be that important.  I probably even wondered if the pastor just got up and opened the bible and just started talking.

A service doesn’t have to be “glitzy” and look like a Broadway production or concert, but it needs to be planned out and prepared ahead of time.

3. People

  • Were you greeted properly?
  • Did you feel welcome?
  • Did you feel comfortable?
  • Did you feel cared for?

We all know that it is the people that make a difference.  So why does church leadership, in general neither empower and commission people to be friendly, or model it for the constituents?

In a number of churches, I have visited I often see two extremes.

The first is where the Pastor that’s “larger than life” is pretty much the center of attention.  After the service he’s the loudest and the person that has to shake everybody’s hand.  He’s the one who wants to greet guests and visitors and nobody better get in his way.

The second is the recluse Pastor that magically disappears after the service.  He is nowhere to be found.  I guess he figured he did his part, the sermon and now is done for the day.

Obviously both of these responses are on the extreme end of the scale between being engaged and not available.  What really is needed is an entire congregation that is empowered to welcome people and make them feel comfortable. Many visitors will return just because somebody made them feel welcome.

So do an evaluation.

What is The Experience at your church?  If you visited your church would you want to return? Or, would you find some work that needs to be done.