As I heard a pastor friend asking another pastor who had just completed a building program, it was with regret that the first pastor asked the “how big is…” question. He immediately followed up with the comment, “Boy, I wish we had that kind of space. People seem to want to stop and talk more than ever before.”

Community, Authenticity, Transparency are huge words in today’s church.  These concepts are not restricted to post modern churches either.  Churches of all backgrounds, generations, styles and traditions are becoming more tuned in to developing community  – the idea where lives genuinely intersect and share honestly about their faith journey as Christ followers.  The idea of community being more than just a ‘fellowship’ of 5 minutes in the worship service or a time via a meal after a Sunday service, Community is now deemed something more than a pot-luck dinner!

This idea has profound implications to church design – whether it’s first time build, remodeling existing space or constructing an addition.  A common request that WL Perry receives in our pre-design Ministry Driven Design process is: “We’d like a narthex almost as large as our worship space.”  We receive tons of requests for specific “coffee” space akin to a Starbucks, as well.  What’s behind this thinking?  After all, this was virtually unheard of 10-15 years ago.  The usual design was a smaller narthex/lobby area that was more of a funnel to other spaces in the church or to/from exterior entry points.  Of course, in the old design folks might stop and talk, which would cause an immediate bottle-neck.  Or, the usual, they wouldn’t stop to talk because it might cause a bottle-neck!  As a result, people would come and go out of service and quickly pick up their kids without a lot of conversation – or save the conversation for the pot-luck!  “Call you later, it’s too crowded in here right now…”

Now, the whole concept of Community is so much bigger than just physical church space.  We could talk all day about small groups, spiritual formation, accountability, interactivity etc.  However, for this post I want to focus on how church design impacts and can facilitate community.  Let’s look at design concepts for the facilities churches invest and build.

Key Design Concepts for :

  • Allowing now for 7-10 SF (square feet) @ person in design rather than traditional 3-5 SF@ person.
  • Creating wider corridors for better circulation between ministry spaces.  Well lit and fully integrated with information technologies.
  • Building Multiple entry points to specific ministry spaces.  ie. Children’s Ministry, Recreation, Administrative, Youth, Recovery and other kinds of support ministries.
  • Crafting Dedicated Conversation spaces for groupings.
  • Creating pleasing aesthetic Interior Design for an open and naturally lit spaciousness.
  • Using Acoustical Design to allow for intimate conversations.
  • Designing narthexes for multiple uses such as a small group meeting space or limited luncheons/banquets.

Each of these design concepts/criteria have the effect of allowing people to interact in more meaningful ways.  A couple can sit or stand and share what is going on in their life with friends and not feel rushed or that they are standing in someone else’s way.  The ease of movement between ministry “zones” allows for a more relaxed atmosphere rather than the “rush hour on the expressway” feeling!  The ability to use a larger narthex/lobby for a meal and presentation with folks from a specific ministry becomes a real asset.  Now, a nice meal for 25-50 people can be accomodated.  A fellowship hall designed for 500 doesn’t have to be set up or heated and cooled.

We worked with a church that asked for a large narthex for these kinds of purposes.  Part way through design development they began to wonder if this new space was too big – that they might save some money by reducing its size.  Once they were in the new space, though, they found so many uses for this space.  The church says, “Now people stay long after services conversing, making plans… it’s just amazing. We never had that before.”  This church is now in the process of designing an addition that will include another large narthex to a specific education space.  The pastor has remarked over and over how glad he is that they opted for and invested in that extra square footage.

One of the great challenges is to design this kind of space when adding on to an existing building.  It is one thing to design a large narthex in a brand new building.  It is quite another thing to design something that will work with an existing structure that my have some engineering limitations.  That is where an experienced church architect can help.  Understanding ministry and churches is critical to helping a church get the best possible facility that is aligned with their vision and mission.  That’s what Ministry Driven Design is all about!

So, how big is your narthex?!