March 21, 2013 by: Ben Heimsath

In the early stages of a church design, when we begin working with congregation members, someone inevitably will say “I want this to look like a church.” In most instances, the person has a strong image in mind, often based on the church where they grew up.  The person may also be expressing displeasure with the current building, which, by implication, does not look like a church.

But what should a church look like?  When a congregation builds, there may be hundreds of images and ideas, but ultimately, only one can be built.  What appeals to one person may be wrong for another.  If it were easy to resolve these issues, we’d have church forms as simple and un-subtle as the Big Duck.  This building leaves no question about its purpose.

The-Big-Duck-Design-ProcessThe Big Duck on Long Island is a National Historic Landmark.  Originally built by a duck farmer to sell his products, its purpose is immediately obvious.

The church design process is much more difficult than that of other building types.  Most people have a hard time putting into words the intensity and deep feelings associated with their faith.  These are often connected to places or events that are particularly important.  How to relate to those feelings and connections is an on-going challenge in the process of creating an environment for faith.  

There are no formulas or specifications for making a worshipful environment.  However, there are many traditions associated with different religions or denominations.  These traditions come from many cultures, and a variety of historical periods.   In the United States, builders and architects have freely combined traditions from all sorts of religious, cultural or historic periods.

Church-Design-Woodlawn-BaptistWoodlawn Baptist Church members wanted a strong image for their new sanctuary addition but also wanted to relate to the existing modernist building.

Merely copying or re-creating an old form doesn’t guarantee a successful spiritual experience.  In some cases a poor rendition or reference to a traditional form feels out of place or becomes a distraction.  And new technologies or building practices provide a host of new opportunities and challenges.  For example, the traditional Italian basilica didn’t deal with modern lighting, acoustics, video recording, or projection.

But starting a design from modern structures and technology offers its own challenges.  It can be tempting for an architect to place visually impressive elements in their designs.  But a dramatic design may or may not be appropriate for a community of believers.  Many new buildings are visually impressive, (galleries, offices, or shopping centers) but they have nothing to do with spirituality.    

Careful consideration of each ministry is essential. At a fundamental level, the design needs to accommodate the rituals and rites of a given faith.  There may be certain ways that these rites are accommodated in some traditions, but the designers shouldn’t limit itself to just one form.  See our previous blog post series on the many ways to accommodate the rituals of baptism.  

The design of a church cannot be a “one-size-fits-all” program.  The design team should be closely communicating with the congregation and its leaders.  They should expect inspiration to come from both traditional and modern ideas.  The church design ultimately should be tailor-fit for each community.

Unity-Church-Design-ProcessUnity Church of the Hills developed a strong image for their 14 acre site.  The welcoming entry is surrounded by a canopy of existing trees.

I presented a paper at the ACS (Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality) conference several years ago.  I equated the process of design with the spiritual journey experienced in other ministry endeavors.  The paper included a case study of our work with Unity Church of the Hills in planning for their new site.  The church has been settled in their new location for over a decade, and has just recently worked with us to complete a Phase 2 program.  Recalling the steps we took in the early planning stages, we used a similar process the second time that also evoked a sense of spirituality from all who participated.

So what should a church design look like?  It might look like almost anything.  But above all, it should look like the spiritual home of the group of believers who shaped and formed it.

Need information about designing a church? Learn how a master plan can be an essential first step. 

 Master Planning: 10 Essentials

Worship Space/ Sacred Architecture/ Church Design & Construction/ Design Process