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Church Design.... Ready-Aim-Fire-Bullseye!

Jan 22, 2008
If you pick up a bible, leaf to the first page and read the first three words, what do you learn about God's approach to creation? He started, "In the beginning..." Pastors often find themselves in a bind because they didn't follow this approach with a construction project.

Churches feel pressure to build for a variety of reasons. A fortunate few have jammed parking lots and services with people standing for lack of a seat. These churches need more space, while others need more spaces (separate rooms for new ministries, classes or simultaneous committee meetings). If pressed, some pastors might even confess to starting a building project just to stir up a little excitement in their congregations. Whatever the motivation, at any given time there are hundreds of churches across America leaping into building programs.

At the same time, there are a proportionate number of churches being sorely tested by building campaigns gone wrong, often because they "started in the middle." Some run out of money because they overestimated their members' willingness to give, while others crash because of internal conflict over vision. Some churches complete their project only to find they over-built or underestimated the monthly cost of those little luxuries like electricity, heat or running water.

Of all the examples one might see of churches "starting in the middle," we encounter one scenario more than any other when counseling churches at an impasse. Having for whatever reason decided to build, countless churches rush out and hire the architect that designed that huge church across town or that cathedral you always see on the TV. They then bare their hearts to the designer, sharing their hopes and dreams for their new facilities, and engage in flights of fancy as they visualize a ministry without boundaries. Some might envision a workmanlike multipurpose facility with industrial grade carpeting and a basketball hoop suspended behind the altar. Others may rhapsodize about a glass-walled facility perched on the nearest mountain, filled with hard-mounted, overstuffed chairs (with cup-holders) and a heated baptismal font that is raised by hydraulics from underneath the altar floor.

Architects by nature are creative visionaries, imbued with the amazing talent of transforming dreams into dark blue lines on a light blue page. Presented with a church vision, many architects will enthusiastically attack a challenge and draw precisely what their client described. In a recent conversation, an associate at a West Coast bank mentioned that nearly 40 percent of the churches that approach them for financing carry with them architectural drawings that, although beautiful, will never get funding. Why? Because no one at the church has taken the time to research the full cost of the project or assessed the ability of their current and future membership to pay for it.

Avoid the "new house bug"

Despite the overwhelming pressure to build, it is important for churches of every size to take a very measured approach to any sort of expansion. Just as a home is the largest investment a typical family will ever make, a new facility is likely the largest investment a church family will ever make. And, like a family, once the spouse and kids catch the "new house bug," it's tough to pace yourself on a purchase.

The key to any big decision, whether it be a vehicle purchase, a new job or a 3,000-seat worship facility with giant video screens, stained glass windows and loudspeakers the size of a HumVee, is research, research, research. (And, of course, prayer and the enlistment of wise counsel.)

Before building (or renting) a new facility, moving to a different location, or even renovating existing space, it is important to assess carefully the church as it stands. To do that, you need to ask several questions of certain key groups and gather vital background information from your surroundings.

First, you need to quiz your own staff, elders and leaders on the following:

* What is the core purpose of our church? (i.e. who exactly are we trying to reach and what are we trying to do for them?)

* What specific ministries tie directly into our core purpose?

* What ministries are gaining participants? Which are losing people?

* Why do we want to build? Crowded services or classes? Traffic jams in the parking lot or kids packed like sardines in the daycare? Or is our current facility hindering our outreach? (Too far from target audience, dangerous neighborhood or the building is just plain ugly?)

In addition to assessing your current position, it is critical to assess where the church is headed. Given your situation today, what will your congregation look like in five or 10 years? And what will your space needs be then? Will an active singles ministry today give rise to a booming young married group? Will today's large population of young couples need expanded child-care facilities in three years? Is your church equipped to provide the support that aging Baby Boomers will need as they enter the "golden years?"

Secondly, whether you quiz your congregation as a whole or just through honest conversations with respected, knowledgeable members, find out:

* Just how interested are you in expanding?
* What level of financial commitment would you be willing to make and keep?
* Is it space we need or are there other areas that need improving first?

While you're asking questions, you need to do a little statistical research as well. What is the capacity of your facility, and what percentage of your seats is full in each service over several weeks? By having someone simply count the number of empty seats in each service or the number of people who arrive after the service begins, you can learn a lot. You might even find that adding a service or simply rescheduling service times could solve some crowding problems. You might also discover your capacity has been reduced by Sunday school classes borrowing chairs from the sanctuary. You may be surprised with what you find. Which classes are filled to overflowing and which are taught simply because they've always been taught? (This ties back to defining your core mission. The question could also lead to some tough decisions.)

Next, continue your research on your external environment. If you know the target of your outreach, are there enough of those targets living within a reasonable distance from your church? Is the population around your church rising or falling? Are families moving in or leaving in droves? Is the economy around your campus improving or on the verge of a downturn (rumors of office closures, layoffs or buyouts)? Does the average person sitting in your service match up with the demo- graphics of your surrounding area? In the course of that research, you might even discover that you've misidentified your target audience. This might be unsettling, but is extremely valuable information.

Solutions may emerge

Compiling and sifting through the information you've gathered can be a demanding process, one for which you may want to retain experienced outside help. However, it is the critical element of truly starting "in the beginning." As the responses to your questions begin to coalesce, you'll begin to recognize some key trends. Despite your expectations, you may find your challenges met by simply renovating your existing facility, building an addition, or even rearranging the chairs in your sanctuary.

After doing your homework, you may come to the conclusion that it is, in fact, time to build. You might be located in a significant population and economic growth area. You may be pursuing a focused vision of ministry, changing the lives of people throughout your area. Your attendance and giving patterns might be strong and trending upward. You may even learn of people that are hungry for God's word but are drifting away because they can never find a parking space or their legs get sore from standing in the back of the sanctuary throughout the service.

So what's next? Hire an architect, right? Not so fast. You may have done some homework already, but now it's time to really dig into the details. How big is your congregation and how many members give regularly? Just how fast is the local population growing and how many new members might you anticipate if you increased your seating capacity by a certain percentage? Where should you build your church and how much land do you need for the building, parking, easements, drainage, wetlands, wildlife areas, access roads, support facilities, and that lighted baseball field with the scoreboard that shoots fireworks?

As you can see, there are a lot of questions that must be answered before you build. Unfortunately, if they are not asked, a church may start down that road of daring to dream, buying into a spectacular vision, then falling grievously short. When that happens, no matter what the church ends up with, it will never match what people envisioned and will always fall short in their eyes.

However, by beginning your building "in the beginning," you can save money, manage expectations and equip your ministry to reach the greatest number of people and change the maximum number of lives. It's a big goal, and it takes harder work than you may have ever imagined. However, changing lives through ministry is what we've been called to do, so you might as well do it right.
About the Author
Bruce Anderson is a nationally recognized church design and construction consultant and President of Build-Masters Group LLC, www.build-masters.com. Mr. Anderson also publishes of "Straight Talk" About Church Design,Building & Construction at www.brucecanderson.com. Email: bca@brucecanderson.com
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