Building programs have changed dramatically since the days of denominationally-approved, formulaic approaches to meet the needs of predictable growth. Is your church on the right track?
“In the old cookie-cutter days, all churches did ministry and worship the same, but today they are trying to contextualize their ministry,” said Tom Greenwood, director of church services at The Beck Group, a Dallas-based design and construction firm. Beck has become a heavyweight in the market by landing some of the largest church projects in the nation in recent years.
In the past, it would take 10 to 20 years for a church to grow to the 800- to 1,200-member size; but today that can happen in two to three years. This reality requires new approaches to accommodate growth responsibly.
“Churches haven’t always been focused on laying the proper groundwork, but that’s all changing,” said John Paul DeFrank, who also leads Beck’s church work.
Leading the way in this new age of church facility development are “megachurches,” with attendees numbering 2,000 or more. Their fast growth and cutting-edge facility uses are creating new building models other churches emulate.
These churches are paying much more attention to strategic planning; integration with vision and mission; and collaboration with designers, contractors and even community groups and governmental bodies. The types of church buildings desired are increasingly flexible, complex, culturally relevant and future-proof too.
The 22,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church, Plano, Texas, mapped out multidimensional building plans with design assistance from Beck. The campus incorporates nearly three-quarters of a million square feet and is busy seven days a week because of amenities such as private school space, a recreation program rivaling many fitness centers, a full-service dining area, a bookstore and a coffee bar.
Such unique church spaces are increasingly common. Coupled with complex and quality building demands, the work from start to finish can no longer be left to a select group of committed lay leaders, even if they have certain professional credentials.
Successful planning and development takes more objectivity, more qualified and comprehensive attention. The professionals needed for today’s strategic planning should compliment the church’s dreams by introducing superior master plans, backed by analyses and documentation capable of a smooth project leading to opening Sunday.
In truth, ongoing and in-depth planning of facility needs is a new reality for growing churches. Many will have multiple projects going at the same time. Such work obviously looks five or 10 years into the future, but strategic planning means much more.
To minimize possible confusion, churches have learned to streamline the building process. Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, a pioneer megachurch, grew from 200 to 18,000 in weekend attendance over the course of 10 years. A traditional building process would have stifled its growth.
Fellowship asked Beck to provide strategic planning by peering another 10 years into the future. Beck analyzed growth trends, considered facility costs and types, and studied growth prospects. Without sound research, attention to good stewardship and insightful planning, the church’s current campus – encompassing 225,000 square feet of building space – would have failed to keep pace with the increasing number of souls walking through the doors.
While older approaches to building are “reactive”, building only when clearly needed, the growth patterns of today’s churches demand “proactive” measures.
The benefits are clear. Greenwood cited one church that contracted with Beck for planning and design of a new sanctuary. Beck led the church through a strategic planning process that helped the “family-oriented” congregation see it would run out of children’s space faster than space for corporate worship. By prioritizing ministry needs, the church moved construction of the new children’s space ahead of the new sanctuary. The sequence proved to be a wise natural progression.
The growing trend of creating satellite campuses rather than building monster church complexes involves long range thinking, too. Churches consider satellite facilities as breathing room for explosive growth and for greater impact in a large city. However, these branch venues often require extensive renovation of previously-used commercial space as well as the installment of sophisticated technical equipment to match the church’s worship style.
“They need a good analysis before they move in,” said Greenwood.
Advantages of strategic, proactive plans, preparedness and cost savings far outweigh the reactive approaches of the past. Today’s progressive churches analyze cash flow and growth-related issues in advance. The cost of a quality strategic plan is fiscally responsible, given the fact that architectural and engineering drawings, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, could go unused due to inadequate or unrealistic planning.
As part of that quest for integrity, churches want to be good stewards of the millions raised in capital funding campaigns. Churches in America generally spend one in five dollars on buildings, due to spiraling land and construction costs. They want value for that proportion of their finances.
Increasingly, too, churches envision greater cultural relevance and impact. Today’s congregations desire to attract people who may be more comfortable stepping inside a building comparable to a local theater or civic center. The new designs provide a convenience and flexibility in tune with future building additions.
Like performing arts centers and corporate campuses, churches desire state-of-the-art multimedia technology, lighting, acoustics and HVAC systems.
A continuing theme in churches embarking on building programs is also their desire to enhance fellowship and the sense of community among people traveling from all over a metropolitan area.
Designs have thus turned to space allocation and ambiance that help people connect to one another. Prestonwood placed high value on community involvement and family togetherness, so their master plan included tagging a plot of land on their site for outdoor recreation and an indoor sports facility.
Other ideas in the Beck’s plans for Prestonwood included a multipurpose commons area. The commons serves as meeting and dining space for a large after-church buffet on Sundays and smaller weekday meetings with friends. The goal continues to be encouraging comfortable interaction and fostering intimacy.
Cutting-edge building programs also involve the participation of a cast of characters whose collective leadership and experience bring about top-notch church facility expansion. That internal group includes the senior pastor, the facility manager, executive pastor, and key lay leadership. Churches are seeing the value of bringing on consultants and choosing design and construction professionals who will be intimately involved with the facilities planning and development.
External assistance can require specialties in many areas: real estate, traffic issues, site development, drainage and utility improvements, zoning requirements, and acoustics.
Equally important is the need for collaboration with entities such as neighborhood associations, city departments and various taxing bodies. Many churches hire a consultant to build and foster these necessary relationships.
“Neighborhood homeowners associations can have conflicting views with a church on development,” said DeFrank. “If you start a project and have people against you from day one, it’s a huge uphill battle.”
To support the rapid growth and constantly shifting cultural expectations of their congregations, churches must also anticipate the proper infrastructure to support their continued success. Infrastructure has to support big picture issues such as circulation in buildings and smaller internal ministry support with technology and other building systems.
Rising expectations have propelled church buildings into the 21st century. Churches often feel the pressure of competing for the attention of attendees who are targeted by the secular media and advertising trendsetters.
Nowhere is this more evident that in sanctuary design today. Audiences expect the sound to be impeccable to augment praise music, want ergonomic seating instead of traditional, hard pews, and anticipate high-quality visual broadcasts. Worship is not just about the sermon anymore.
As a church plans a new sanctuary, leaders, architects and engineers should identify these expectations and the church’s worship style to determine acoustics, video and lighting designs.
Emerging technologies is a consideration for facility planners too. In educational space for youth, for instance, even Bible-teaching software mimicking video and gaming software is starting to appear, and sight lines, acoustics and top-notch multimedia should go into the building plan.
At Potter’s House, a 28,000-member church in Dallas, also designed and built by Beck, select seats in the sanctuary have data terminals to allow worshipers to download sermon notes to their handheld computers.
Incorporating infrastructure for the massive amounts of people using a facility is also critical. Design components such as the building circulation spine, a broad central walkway ideal for heavy foot traffic, help make access easy between children’s space, classroom areas and the main sanctuary.
Growing churches today need the flexibility to add changing building components, as ministries fluctuate over time, to the central spine which remains intact. This gives needed flexibility in the master plan while reinforcing the basic traffic patterns.
“In old-style churches, you came in the front door and you had to weave in and around corridors; it wasn’t very intuitive, but careful design of circulation paths is how we help define our master plans,” DeFrank said.