“Church is not something you do or a place you go to, but what you are.”
In designing mission-minded spaces, Columbus architect Dan Keiser relies heavily on personal research. This is especially true when it comes to church lobby design. While other spaces can be researched through virtual online tours, for lobby design projects, Dan says, “this is where actual travel comes in handy.”
This is because the lobby is the center of church culture. For regular members, the lobby sets the tone for their interactions with each other, not just at church but during the week. For newcomers, the lobby sends a message about how this body of believers regards God and each other.
“As soon as people come through that front door, you’re communicating a lot about who you are as a church.”
Creating Space for Culture
As in all KDG design projects, Dan and his team put aside the questions about cost versus square footage until they’ve examined the big-picture questions about the space’s ultimate purpose. In Dan’s experience, the objective for a church lobby usually comes down to one of three things:
“Is it supposed to move people, to gather people for a function, or to get people to hang out together?”
The next step is understanding what culture looks like for that church.
“Is it coffee? Is it sitting down for conversations? Just thinking in terms of ‘How many people do you need to seat?’ would be the easy question, but not very effective and shallow.”
For some churches, the lobby offers a space to immediately begin putting the day’s teaching into action. Dan recounts seeing one church in the Carolinas that actually did baptismal services in the lobby. Another church he visited organized weekly service projects in the lobby, immediately following the worship service. The week that Dan visited, they were doing a shoe drive for distribution in their community. “It was really cool—even if you didn’t prepare or didn’t bring shoes, there was a way to serve during that hour. Load the truck, sort the sizes, whatever.”
Regardless of the lobby’s functional purpose, it always serves as a natural focal point for churchgoers. Whatever the lobby’s size or style might be, it’s important that the space offer people visual cues that reaffirm their experience of church—what they bring into it, and what they take out of it.
For this reason, Dan advises leaders not to rush their decisions around lobby design, nor to blindly follow trends set by bigger and fast-growing churches.
“It takes some time to figure out what your way is,” he says. “But you want to make the building work to your ministry, versus you adapting your ministry to a building.”
Design for Every Season of Ministry
Once the questions of identity and culture have been answered, material questions such as textures, lighting, seating and structures come into play.
“The small details make a huge difference, not just in terms of budget and design, but in terms of your whole church identity and strategy.”
Dan recalls a past KDG project with a longstanding congregation that was looking at a lobby refresh. The most obvious place to start was right under their noses. Dan laughs, remembering his initial impression:
“The carpet was twenty years old. It was in great shape, but way outdated—the bad banquet facility type of look.”
Where other design firms might have simply presented a list of new carpet options at different price points, Dan and his team showed the church leaders a whole new way to think about their lobby redesign strategy.
“We encourage our church clients to think like retail. If you go through a mall and look at a given store, every few years they’re changing the entire look of that store to stay cutting-edge.”
That cyclical shift applies equally to the ever-changing landscape of church ministry. While the message stays the same, its presentation is subject to cultural trends and technological shifts. With that in mind, he counseled Jersey Baptist to think like retail, and not invest in design elements that would look outdated in another twenty years.
“We did a seven-year life cycle budgeting strategy that allowed them to get something very trendy, but not very expensive. It’s not as durable as a higher-priced product, but it doesn’t need to last that long.”
Much of KDG’s preliminary design work involves educating mission-minded project clients about their choices, to ensure that they are investing in ways that contribute to their mission. Dan encourages church leaders to do their own research, especially by visiting other congregations.
“We don’t usually know what we like until we see or experience it. We do a lot of visualization exercises and have them bring in images that appeal to them. There’s a lot of information and dialogue that occurs on each image to understand their intent. It might be aesthetic, or it might be budget. We try to help them understand why they’re selecting things that they are.”
“The safe assumption today is that no two churches are alike; each congregation has its own unique culture.”
—Lyle Schaller, church consultant
Bringing the Family Together
Right now, KDG is designing a new lobby for Five14, a Columbus-area church with a unique approach toward helping visitors learn about their mission.
“It’s not a new members’ class; it’s an unintimidating way for the lead pastor to connect with new people who want to know more.”
The leaders wanted a devoted space where these informal meetings could take place, in a way that would be both intimate and yet comfortable for nonmembers.
“The term the pastor kept using was ‘family room.’ But how do you do that with 30 people? We went through a lot of iterations to arrive there.”
Those iterations resulted in The Bungalow, a mixed-use area equipped with a fireplace, cafe tables and audio-visual equipment, partitioned off from the main lobby with a storefront glass wall. The result is an open, welcoming space that still allows for conversational privacy.
Dan’s voice warms when describing the collaboration that led to this solution. “It’s very satisfying when a client goes, ‘That’s it. Your visualization met my vision.’”
It’s that resounding satisfaction that Dan desires for all mission-minded clients looking at designing the future of their ministry. “I want them to know that they don’t have to compromise, or pick from a few pre-packaged designs. You need to make your facility do what your ministry is, not the other way around. I want them to leave thinking, ‘We can do it our way?’ Yes, you can.”