Building for Worship

It is natural to imagine that the social patterns that prevailed when we or our parents were young must have been in place for centuries. But the mode of congregational life that feels “traditional” to most of us today is rather new, and so is the layout of the religious buildings that we take for granted. Churches and synagogue buildings change to meet changing needs and circumstances. Today we face not only rapid change but also rapid differentiation of one congregation from another. It follows that that we can expect to see rapid change and diversification in building plans as well.

Most American congregations own—or wish they owned—five major types of space: a sanctuary, a social hall, small group meeting rooms, offices, and a parking lot. Of these, only the sanctuary was a significant part of the typical church building prior to about 1890. The minister or rabbi wrote sermons and made parish calls from a home study. Congregations in those days made do with what, to us, looks like a minimum of real estate per worshiper.

Between 1890 and 1950, space allocation shifted radically. The old, sanctuary-heavy buildings could not support the complex programs of emerging congregations. “Institutional” congregations—whose development accelerated after World War II—boasted a standard package of services including religious education classes, especially for children; social groups for youth, young couples, men, and women; a range of social services for members and nonmembers; and continual fundraising for operations, missions, social ministries, and other causes. The space needs of these activities—plus the need, in the new suburbs, for extensive parking—reduced the sanctuary’s share of the total footprint from 90 to as little as 20 percent.

Many congregations still live in buildings built for simpler times. The “front” door of many older buildings is designed for people who arrive on foot—while the real entrance, near the parking lot, is small and uninviting to a visitor. A building with a large, formal, single-purpose sanctuary may have few comfortable spaces for small groups to meet. If a Sunday-school wing was added after the war, its classrooms are designed to meet the needs of postwar families, where siblings shared small rooms, played outdoors, and behaved well in the “adult” parts of the house.

Many congregations founded nursery schools between 1965 and 1980, when nursery schools were instruments of soft-core feminism. Today the school may be a jewel in the congregation’s outreach crown—or a pebble in its fiscal shoe. Some schools serve low-income families using federal funds; others have become too expensive for most of the host congregation’s families. Either way, the school may or may not be much relation to the congregation.

How will future congregations allocate their space? This question stands high on many congregations’ planning agenda. An old building may cry out for renovation, or the opportunity to build anew may offer a blank slate. A key to planning is a clear vision of the congregation’s future ministry. Will the focus be on the weekly worship gatherings, or on small groups? Is our clientele adults—or families with children? Is the primary measure of success the congregation’s impact on the community—or on the lives and faith journeys of the members? It is tempting to answer all such questions, “Both!” But the realities of building budgets require choices, and general formulas are less help than they once were.

In the 1950s, uniformity was a strong theme in American culture. Our time is different. Several successful templates for religious institutions replicate themselves: There is the aging congregation, whose people grow old together in familiar surroundings. There is the family-oriented suburban congregation that looks like the 1950s, except that the classrooms sparkle even if the sanctuary looks like a musty basement. There is the ultra-institutional church that tries, with coffee shops, gymnasiums, and yoga, to become a total life environment. There is the social-service congregation that needs lots of space for canned goods, summer camp equipment, signup lists, and bulletin boards. All these styles call for different ways of allocating space.

Probably the most common error congregations make is to take their cue not from the 1950s but from the 1880s. The sanctuary still holds a powerful place in the imagination of religious leaders, and especially clergy. The first phase of a three-phase building program often emphasizes sanctuary space first, on the assumption that once adults are gathered, they will pay for the second phase—typically classrooms—and the third, which may include a mix of offices and parking.

The difficulty is that, as Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” A congregation that operates for long with no space for small-group meetings runs the risk of becoming more an audience than a congregation. A congregation that carves tiny classrooms out of a dank basement is unlikely to attract leaders who can give it a great children’s ministry. The priorities of the first phase influence program development; program development influences constituency; and the constituents must vote on and pay for Phase Two—and sometimes that doesn’t happen, because the constituents are, almost by definition, people who like the building as it is.

Sanctuary space—at least the grand, high-ceilinged sort of space most people imagine—is far more expensive per square foot than space for meetings or offices. Large-group worship by itself tends to create a passive congregation—in effect, an audience. Unless it is balanced by a rich program of small- and mid-sized groups, worship does not build a congregation with the power to change lives, or the resilience to survive a mediocre preacher.

For most congregations, the most sensible building sequence is not the most exciting one. It begins with Phase One, a modest sanctuary, more-than-ample parking, and generous social and small-meeting space. Because the cost per square foot is much lower, it becomes possible to staff for a rich small-group life sooner, and to begin in the new facility with a full schedule of services—carefully planned so that each one fills the sanctuary, with no tiny service taking disproportionate resources for a few people.

Then when the congregation bursts its seams at four or five weekly worship services, it can better afford its Chartres, either in the space reserved on the original site, or next door on the lot that came onto the market just at the right time. By then, the original dream of an impressive sanctuary is both possible and justified by the good work the congregation has done as it grew.