The Architecture of Hospitality

If you've ever taken a careful look at the churches in your area, you've probably noticed that some of the newer buildings don't conform to our old stereotypes of what a church should look like. And if you've recently participated in a church building or remodeling project, you probably have a good grasp of the reasons behind these new trends in church architecture. Church building isn't as predictable as it used to be. As congregations become more aware of the relationship between their goals and their building, they've been looking for new and more meaningful ways to use building space. On these pages Dirk Hart traces some of the history of church architecture. He also analyzes some of the current trends in church planning, emphasizing the importance of church buildings that encourage fellowship and evangelism.

Winston Churchill once said that first we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us. His observation may have been made with a view to the magnificent and ancient British parliamentary buildings, but it also applies to the church and its buildings. Once we build a building, we surrender a certain amount of leadership to it.

For centuries church buildings concentrated on worship space. Many of the buildings we worship in each Sunday reflect this emphasis: a rectangular sanctuary with row upon row of pews facing the front platform, which holds the pulpit. The entire building models the concept of worship as dialogue between God and his people. The pastor and the pulpit represent God; the pews and the worshipers represent the people. But often even the notion of dialogue is muted, and the sole emphasis is on monologic teaching. The sanctuary looks like an old-fashioned classroom, with the pews arranged in straight rows in front of the teacher's lectern.

For six years I worshiped and preached at First Christian Reformed Church in London, Ontario. The architecture of that building, erected in 1881, concentrates on worship space. Most people enter the church through doors on either side of the front of the church. (First also has a center front entrance, used only during summer months.) Immediately inside these doors are two sets of stairs, one going up, the other down. Visitors who go up will find a narrow narthex and another set of stairs that lead to the large balcony which curves around three sides of the sanctuary. The narthex, large enough for only a few people to gather at once, is not a place to linger.

Presently I worship at Plymouth Heights Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The building is seventy years younger than the London church, but its design is basically the same. For many years the model of dialogue between God and his people or of the teaching monologue was the primary influence on the architecture of churches in our tradition.

The first change in building design came with the baby boom and a growing awareness of the importance of education. Churches began to see the need for classroom space. Newer churches included numerous classrooms, and older churches added them. During the sixties I served two summers in a California church. The first—and for a long time the only—phase of this congregation's building program was the classroom building.Not until that building was complete did they add a sanctuary.

In the seventies and eighties yet a new emphasis has emerged in our congregations: fellowship. Hard upon this emphasis has come the realization that the church building is not only for worship, education, and fellowship, but also for evangelism. Somehow the worship service and the building must say, "Welcome! We love you."

When my current church, Plymouth Heights, decided to add an elevator to accommodate its aging and physically disabled members, it also added considerable narthex space. Other churches have done the same. The medium is the message—or at least a large part of it.

In the towns and cities of Ontario, many older Anglican, Baptist, and United Church of Canada churches have replaced their solid wooden doors with glass ones. Some churches in our tradition are following suit. To the stranger and visitor these glass doors say, "Come in! We have nothing to hide." Visitors who drive into the parking lot of Christ Community Church in Nanaimo, British Columbia, for example, immediately see the large glass entrance. Behind that entrance is an L-shaped narthex with a kitchen service window. Greeters welcome visitors and offer them coffee. The style of this building encourages people to strike up a conversation and to linger for a while after the worship service. The custodian may grumble a bit about the coffee stains on the narthex carpet, but he knows that's a small price to pay for the growth the congregation is experiencing.

Planning for Hospitality

How does a congregation plan a building that offers hospitality and promotes evangelism?

The architecture of hospitality begins in the parking lot. Visitors won't feel welcome at a church that has barely enough parking places for its own members. So a church that wants to grow should offer plenty of parking and reserve five or six of its best spaces for visitors.

At the church entrance prominent signs should direct worshipers to the nursery, rest rooms, pastor's office, and sanctuary. The narthex should be roomy, perhaps featuring an attractive visitors' center where people can find out more about the church and denomination.

The nursery should be planned carefully, reflecting the church's awareness that today's parents are fussy about where they leave their children. The room or rooms should be clean, well lit, and very well staffed. If possible, the nursery should have its own washroom facilities and changing area; it should be compartmentalized into two or three age groups. It's a good idea to have a husband-wife team register the children each Sunday, paying special attention to visitors.

The worship place itself should be bright—pews or chairs arranged so people can see one another. Worship, after all, is a double dialogue: the people not only talk to God but also to each other. The pews or rows of chairs should be relatively short; few people like to sit in the middle of a long row. Well-trained ushers should make sure worshipers are evenly distributed throughout the seating area.

It's also important that the space between the front row and the pulpit doesn't look like the Grand Canyon, and that the platform is roomy enough to permit a variety of activities. Newer churches have begun using plexiglass pulpits in order to avoid making the pulpit a barrier between the minister and the people.

A church will want to ensure that everyone can hear the sung and spoken word and that the leader can be heard from any place on the platform. Where the acoustics are inadequate, a congregation should consider, if possible, investing in a sophisticated sound system. A blank surface or screen is also a good investment—something that will enable the church to show films, display overhead transparencies, and project the words of hymns on transparencies or slides.

Choosing the Right Design

It's obvious from all the discussion and changing trends that church architecture is no longer a matter of drawing a rectangle and deciding whether classrooms should go on the main floor or in the basement. Churches often go through a lengthy process of deciding who they are and what God wants them to do. Building committees travel to various locations to see what other churches are doing.

Any committee that spends time examining newer trends in church architecture will discover some interesting and helpful information. For example, seating arrangements in newer churches are helped by the trend to fan-shaped sanctuaries, such as the Word Church in Golden Valley, Minnesota; the octagon design of the Baptist Church in Lake Havasu, California; and the geodesic dome of the Crenshaw Christian Center in California. Each of these designs is said to promote intimacy, provide expandability, and contain cost.

Another surprising trend a building committee might uncover is the move away from "churchlike" buildings. Many newer churches are designed to resemble commercial buildings. Some congregations who don't own a building now choose to meet in leased warehouse space instead of in the traditional school auditorium or gymnasium. Why? Because the warehouse meeting place is more likely to attract the unchurched.

Anyone who is planning to build or remodel a church building should carefully consider not only these recent trends but also the basic nature of their congregation. A church building should fit a congregation's concept of ministry. With a little imagination and foresight a building can be a powerful tool to inspire communal worship and a welcoming atmosphere.

For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.


Lyle E. Schaller, one of North America's foremost church consultants, writes, "One of the most frequently played indoor sports in the churches is to blame yesterday's building committee for the mistakes, oversights, and omissions in designing the structure that houses today's congregation."

A church that plans to build or remodel should read "Questions for the Building Planning Committee" in Looking in the Mirror by Lyle E. Schaller. Abingdon Press, 1984. He asks nearly one hundred questions that raise concerns frequently overlooked by building committees.

Dirk J. Hart was director of evangelism for CRC Home Missions.


Reformed Worship 6 © December 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.