Designing A Worship Space: Part 1

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

Intimacy – very close association, contact or familiarity; informal warmth. It is a state that many pastors today are looking to attain within the context of worship and preaching. As we aspire to greater intimacy in our personal relationships with God, how can we increase intimacy and connectedness during the corporate worship service experience? With a great many hours spent every week in planning and preparing for the execution of a worship service, it quickly becomes apparent that most church staffs are faced with impossible challenges in what they can do, simply due to the limitations of the facilities in which they worship.

In today’s society, many people are looking for a deeper connection not only with the Creator, but also with other like-minded believers. For some, the door to this connection often originates within the context of a worship service. If a greater connection is the goal, how can we design our facilities so that they improve our ability to achieve this connectedness or sense of intimacy?

Conversely, what mistakes are we making in the design of facilities that will actually detract from our ability to achieve a feeling of intimacy during preaching and worship?

In designing a room for intimacy, we begin the process by looking at how the room will be used as well as the relationships that will exist within the room. By taking such an approach we are using the philosophy that form follows function. This seemingly simple statement means that we are going to figure out the functional requirements of the room first, look at how it all goes together, and then aesthetically ‘dress’ the resulting form when it appears. This is what we mean by designing a room ‘from the inside out.’

To take it a step further, intimacy for a worship space would include a sense of connectedness where the participant connects with not only the leaders of the function, but other observers/participants in the room as well, as if there is a common focus or purpose that is shared by everyone in the room.

Intimacy can manifest itself in how we perceive our surroundings – our perception of our environment through the senses of sight, hearing and touch. For example, easily seeing the pastor, musicians and other congregation members; hearing and understanding music lyrics and preaching; being physically and emotionally comfortable in the environment; all these seemingly obvious issues are often overlooked in the facility design process. Setting a person at-ease in a room can be a function of the finishes, color temperature of the lights or room acoustical characteristics. The visual perception of closeness to the pastor or to other congregants is also a factor.

When you sit in a seat in the room, do you easily see what is taking place on the platform, or do you need to look around the person in front of you? Can you see other congregation member’s faces, or do you just see the backs and sides of people’s heads?

Our perception of intimacy can also be influenced by how we interact with our environment or how we participate in what takes place around us. For example, the presentation of the musical program and the ability of the room acoustical environment to encourage participation will often contribute or detract from our perception of intimacy. Does the acoustical environment allow people to hear themselves and each other creating a sense of ensemble during congregational singing? When it comes time to move about the room, is there a sense of physical intimacy where there is a connection with others in the congregation as well as the platform?

While looking at the factors that contribute to a sense of intimacy, we should also look at the factors that are a distraction. Are there seats that face toward a wall and not the preaching location? Do you have to look around people in front of you in order to see? Is there a problem with the lighting quality – uncontrolled ambient light or a mismatch in lighting color temperature? Does the lighting washout projected video images?

Is there excessive background noise in the room, either mechanical noise from air conditioning systems or intrusive noise from classrooms or restrooms adjacent to the worship area? Is there intrusive noise from outside sources? Is the room too hot or too cold? Is there air blowing on you from the air conditioning system? Is it difficult to get in and out of the space? And does the room feel empty when it’s not filled to capacity?

In order to prioritize intimacy in the design, the factors that contribute to intimacy should influence the major design criteria for the facility. These factors should be outlined before design begins, and be constantly reevaluated throughout the design process.

Design criteria should be focused on the goals or objectives of the ministry. What functions are important in achieving the goals that the church leadership has outlined whether they are drama, worship, concerts, or preaching?

The room must provide for all the functions that will take place in the facility, both now and in the future. What is the ideological focal point of the church? Who makes up the congregation and how do we communicate to and participate with them? Functionality must drive the design in such a way that the ministry goals can be accomplished – then the aesthetics should be accommodated. Not only should all these functions be accommodated in the facility, the manner in which they are accommodated will determine if they contribute to the feeling of intimacy.

Today, many pastors would like the congregation to feel like you’re in their living room for a bible study. In this setting, effective two-way communication can take place. Likewise, a worship facility should provide for two-way communication which will enhance the worship experience. With every decision in the design process, the question should be asked – will this enhance or detract from the worship experience?

In addition to looking at the functions that will take place in the worship space, we need to look at the various relationships that should be evaluated. First there is the congregation’s relationship with the focal point of the room, which in most churches is the preaching location. Then there is the pastor’s or worship leader’s relationship with the congregation.

We also have the relationship of members of the congregation with each other. And finally, in today’s world where technology plays a significant role in presentation methods, we have the relationship of the congregation to production elements such as control locations, video screens, speakers and cameras. With the congregation’s relationship to the preaching location, there must be visual intimacy through good sightlines. All seats must easily have eye contact – if not directly, then through the use of image magnification (projection of the action on the platform onto video screens).

Through the use of image magnification, the perceived distance to the platform can be reduced. But regardless of whether or not image magnification is used, sightlines from all seats to the preaching location must be unobstructed. Acoustical intimacy through adequate sound reinforcement for both music and speech must be achieved. Also, a sense of physical intimacy, where people have a physical access route to the platform, should be accommodated.

Some worship spaces are placing the preaching location at the lowest point in the room with the congregation arranged in a stadium or amphitheater configuration, rather than the platform being high above (and perceptually superior to) the congregation.

With the pastor or worship team’s relationship to the congregation, there should be good visual connection the other direction. From the platform, good sightlines into the congregation will help connect the leadership to the people. Seeing the congregation is important and cannot be achieved if platform lighting is too bright, if the room is too dark, or if the sightlines don’t work. An environment where the worship team can hear participation from the congregation will help to achieve a sense of acoustical intimacy. Access from the platform into the seating area will provide for a sense of physical intimacy.

The relationship of members of the congregation to one another is interesting and one that is often overlooked.

Seeing other worshipers’ facial expressions can provide a remarkable sense of intimacy during worship. Conversely, seeing only the backs of the heads in the row in front of you can create a sense of isolation for worshipers. An environment where the congregation can hear themselves and each other sing is necessary for acoustical intimacy. Physical access throughout the seating areas will help to connect worshipers to one another.

Finally, the congregational relationship to production elements is critical. Worshipers should easily see screens, but shouldn’t see cameras. The sound control position should be in a location where the mix engineer can adequately hear and make good mix decisions, but should not be a visual distraction. Access and circulation throughout the space should provide for meeting the production requirements without detracting from the intimacy of the congregation’s environment.

Next issue, we’ll discuss specific issues such as sightlines, lighting and video projection that should be taken into account when creating your intimate worship space.