Mission-Minded Worship Spaces

Monday, October 30, 2017

Good buildings come from good people, and all problems are solved by good design.

Stephen Gardiner

A church can be many things, depending on a person’s location, season of life, and spiritual needs. But one thing that many people count on their churches for is a sense of stability. In a changing world, the church experience embodies the comfort and trustworthiness of the eternal.

It’s no surprise, then, that people tend to be very protective of their worship facilities. They love their church because it’s a special, spiritual place, one that they may have belonged to for decades. But when someone comes in with plans to change something about the church—be it as simple as adding a window or as complex as shifting the tone of the worship service—they often encounter heavy resistance.

As an architect with 20 years of experience in mission-minded architecture projects, Dan Keiser has seen this resistance firsthand. For every pastor or church leader who understands it’s time for an upgrade, there are countless church members who think it would be much better to leave things the way they are.

In many cases, Dan and his team represent the face of change for church architecture. This role makes integrity-based relationships just as important as the architectural expertise that KDG brings to the table in designing a church worship facility.

[Many churches] believe that buildings can express the values of congregations, bringing new meaning to the act of stewardship in architecture.

—Gary Wang, Christanity Today

Transitioning Out of the Traditional

One specific illustration can be seen in a Columbus area church where Dan has been involved for many years. The church was growing rapidly and the building simply couldn’t accommodate all those who wanted to worship there.

As the church grew, the style of music began to change from a traditional choir to praise music with a live band. The problem was that the large, multi-purpose space in which people congregated for services was too sterile and institutional for the new style of worship. KDG was tasked with making a huge space feel more intimate.

The first step of implementing the renovation was to paint the ceiling black. On the first day of church in the newly redesigned space, Dan stood in the lobby and took note of churchgoers’ reactions to the update. It wasn’t pretty. A lot of faces were filled with terror at the new look.

Dan expected as much, for this is typical of all churches who make changes to the holy status quo. He also expected what would happen over the next few weeks. The comments about the changes leveled out and became more measured, until nearly everyone agreed the new look was a major improvement.

Stories like this have given Dan some choice insight for pastors seeking to lead their congregation in new directions:

“If you hear a negative opinion, wait a couple weeks. Change becomes normal very quickly—it becomes normal, and usually, they can’t imagine it any other way. When you’re making good changes for all the right reasons, it ends up being successful.”

We struggled with feeling connected to our previous church architect. They did a good job with what we needed but our team wasn’t able to work alongside like they had hoped. The KDG team answered any questions we had. They were very prompt and detailed, gave great insight and created a space we desired. We now have a tool to make “church” happen on a daily basis, one that allows us for future growth within our offices as well as future buildings. (And our staff loves it!)

Sycamore Church

Building Relationships, Establishing Roots

Every church has its own unique needs, particularly as it grows. Church architecture often must shift and change with each new season in its growth. The life within the building translates directly to the architecture of the building.

In many cases, though, worship facility architecture is the last thing that leaders look to, in the process of accommodating their church’s growth. They think of a building as an element that should constantly catch up with the church’s growing numbers, instead of a crucial part of establishing the church’s spiritual roots.

Not long ago, Dan met with a new pastor from a church that had been in the same building for over 50 years. When new church leadership came in, the congregation started seeing younger and younger attendees. But the aging building wasn’t going to last.

True to form, Dan reached out to the pastor to introduce himself and ask if the pastor would like to meet up for coffee and conversation.

“His first comment was ‘I’m not going to need an architect for years.’ I told him that wasn’t the purpose—I just wanted to get together and share our values and build a relationship.”

Dan remarks, laughing, that it’s sometimes difficult for people to understand his desire to build relationships. Most people see architects as sitting alone in front of desks with pencils and T-squares. Dan, however, sees a network of strong relationships as being the core of every successful partnership. For that reason, he is eager to form those relationships wherever he senses the presence of shared values.

A year and several coffee meet-ups later, the pastor told Dan that the day had come—they needed a new worship facility, and they were ready to turn the relationship into a professional partnership. KDG ended up taking an office/warehouse building and turning it into a very impressive worship venue that is still used today.

While a warehouse might never be considered the next Notre Dame Cathedral, in certain ways it has the most potential of any worship facility space. Essentially, it was like a big black-box theatre, one that could be turned into anything the leaders wanted from one week to the next.

Dan jokes, “It can be red, it can be stained glass, we could be on a beach if you want! It’s all about what you project on the walls.”

Using digital technology to their advantage, KDG turned the space into a church that could focus the congregation’s attention wherever it chose. By dimming the lights down, a big sterile space can become just the pastor and the stage. The seating was designed to be dynamic, allowing for any number of arrangements.

Architects of the Worship Experience

Ultimately, Dan says, the architecture of a church all comes down to one thing: the experience of each individual congregant.

“Being able to think like someone in the seat is critical,” he says.

His team of architects must go through every project putting themselves in the shoes of church members. Each architectural rendering is subject to questions like Are there bad seats? and Are some seats better than others?

The gold standard is to create a space where all seats are equal—both in terms of proximity to the stage and the ability for a person to have a great experience. “If it’s a 1000-person venue, how do you have 1000 front-row seats inside of it? The aesthetics can be different, depending on the environment you want to create. But the one thing they all have in common is that you’ve gotta have a great seat.”

Clarity of Vision = Building By Design

Going into a design project, Dan wants church leaders to convey to him what they want the people in the seats to experience. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.

“We come alongside and listen and experience with that leader, so we can fully understand and execute a good solution that not only meets their needs, but meets code, and impacts the communicator as well as the congregation. Not every church is the same, so not every church needs the same solution.”

In a culture where “regular church attendance” means attending only a few services per year (http://churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.html), there can be a tendency for church leaders to adopt any technique, style or trend that comes along. In building relationships around a mission-minded architectural project, Dan tries to help church leaders break out of the mindset.

“We live in a copycat world—everybody sees what’s trendy and wants to recreate it. You have to understand that you’re unique, and then understand why, and then design to that end. Not design and then react.” It’s not always easy, but it’s the approach that needs to be used.

In Dan’s experience, the relationships that are formed throughout the architectural design process result in church architecture that facilitates equally strong relationships among the church community. That’s what it truly means to be built by design.