CHANCES ARE THE CULTURAL climate has changed a lot since your church undertook its last building project. Americans are more overcommitted than ever, and multinational corporations have done an excellent job at co-opting what little time, money and attention we have to spare. And so, when developing the plan for a new building, a ministry would do well to consider just what type of building would best serve to engage and inspire its local community.

Call it Facilities 2.0, Third Place, The Emergent Church or Postmodern Church. Whatever label you choose, the philosophy is the same: working to re-engage an increasingly over-stimulated and misdirected population.

“Shoppers now through and through, we think about religion like we think about a new sweater,” author David W. Henderson hypothesizes in his book “Culture Shift.” “The people with whom we desire to share the gospel have become reluctant buyers of the faith, guarded shoppers casually browsing through the religious options in search of something that fits.”

This analogy applies not only to seekers, but to believers without a church home and even to your current congregation. Ministries must actively and tirelessly work to remain relevant to the lives of those around them if they wish to survive. The single most effective technique for doing this is to apply some forward-thinking in the design of a new facility. It is important to remember, however, that it is more about having a clear and focused vision, and less about spending lots of money on all the latest-and-greatest bells and whistles.

“When you look at the statistics for the American church, massive amounts of money have been spent on church buildings (more than $8 billion last year alone), and yet less people overall are attending church,” states James R. Couchenour of design-build firm Cogun, based in North Lima, Ohio. “It seems that the same methods that may have worked in the ’80s and ’90s are no longer connecting with post-Christian/postmodern people.”

The new method should be interactive and focus on the needs of the community, argues Kester Brewin, author of “Signs of Emergence.” “Malcolm McLaren recently encouraged people to seek refuge in churches because they were the only places left in our cities where there were no advertisements and where demands were not made of us to buy stuff. Churches must aspire to become centers of gift exchange in the broadest sense.” What this means is creating a very open, adaptable space that encourages congregants to share their talents and forge personal connections. This represents a major change in church-design philosophy, and takes some careful and creative thought.

“Shaping an environment where people naturally connect is more like creating art than manufacturing a product,” advises Joseph R. Myers, author of “Organic Community.” “It marks a major shift: from programming community to using principles of organic order to develop an environment where community can emerge.”

Sound a little vague? That’s because the recipe for success for this type of project depends solely on the personality of the congregation and surrounding community. “In most cases, churches will design based on history, or another church facility they liked,” Couchenour affirms. “We’re suggesting leaders begin with who God has called them to reach since this is unique to every ministry. We feel it’s essential to discover their particular DNA to see how God has uniquely blessed their body of believers. A church has to really know itself and its community before it can begin designing facilities for the future.”

Greg Lefler of Camarillo, Calif.- based Lefler and Associates reports that although each church’s incarnation of the postmodern church will look different, there are some guidelines that can help mark the path.

“The Changing Face of Churches” advises:

  • Maximize what you already have 
  • Plan for growth 
  • Make it multifunctional 
  • Get your money’s worth 
  • Turn up the technology 

Lefler points out that this type of project can be a difficult one for traditional building firms. “As churches demand spaces that are cost-efficient, technologically advanced and multifunctional, builders may have to stretch beyond their usual areas of expertise.”

With a little bit of collaboration and imagination, however, most projects succeed brilliantly. “An example of this is a church in Austin that grew rapidly with the tagline ‘No perfect people allowed.’ They were a home for artists, de-churched and others who didn’t seem to fit into the traditional church crowd. This was reflected in their original building that had been retrofitted and pieced together for their ministry style,” Couchenour recalls. “After they built their new building, they found exciting new ways of communicating the same ‘come as you are’ ideal in a new, clean, state-of-the-art facility.”

Brewin suggests providing a diverse array of spaces that could fit a variety of needs in order to fish out a particular congregation’s talents. “They should provide hanging spaces for artists, venues for music of all types, forums for discussion and debates, classes for expectant mothers … whatever gifts there are in the local community.”

Couchenhour warns that although this type of planning leaves a lot to the imagination, it is important to remain thoughtful and deliberate when making the nuts-and-bolts decisions. “Churches need to be very intentional about this kind of space. It has to be more than an area for their own people to gather if the idea is to connect with the unchurched. It takes a commitment to provide connection space if you want to open it up to the community in which God has placed you. It may require paid staff, longer hours, and could even have tax implications.”

West Ridge Community Church, Elgin, Ill.

West Ridge Community Church executed the Facilities 2.0 concept flawlessly. The nine-year-old ministry moved from its digs at the local community college into its state-of-the-art custom facility earlier this year, and the result has been overwhelming. In the first week alone, the Sunday service attendance doubled and has been steadily growing ever since.

Church leaders attribute the success to the forward-thinking design brought to life by Professional Building Services, based in Crete, Ill.

“We decided to start a church for people who don’t like church, a church where people can feel free to be authentic, to be real, and that’s an overriding theme of what we do,” Pastor Darren Sloniger shares.

The worship space itself was crafted to evoke a nightclub feel, with a dimly lit sanctuary constructed in the shape of a piano flanked by cafe tables, couches and comfy chairs. Congregants also enjoy the church’s full-fledged coffeehouse with uniformed baristas, muffins and even fresh paninis.

“The goal was really to build a community of people, an extraordinary community of people that could experience the love of God through Christ in a way that very few other places could offer. So my prayer for you today … is continue to make this place a place where other people can come and see the mercy of Jesus. That’s becoming more and more rare today,” said guest speaker Gordon Venturella at the facility’s grand opening.

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