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What Will Your Next Church Building Look Like?

August 18, 2016 | Posted by Art Scherer

What will your next church building look like? That’s one of the questions that come to mind as the turn of the year gives cause to reflect on the past and the future of the church.

Of course, the answer to that question begins not with architecture, but with the church’s self-understanding of who it is and why it is here. That self-understanding is shaped by both a fresh look at Scripture and by the changing context of the culture in which we live as we seek to bring that “changeless Christ to a changing world.”

What we see happening is the church changing from an influential institution in a Christendom society to a missionary movement in a pluralistic, multicultural and largely unaffiliated society. In short, we are moving from a time when congregations supported mission congregations to a time when every congregation IS a mission congregation.

Now, if every congregation is a mission congregation, think of the characteristics associated with the buildings used by “mission congregations” in the past and how that may apply to the future. Buildings of mission congregations are usually …

  • Temporary – Mission stations of the past often advertised themselves as temporarily meeting in a certain place. They did that because their real goal was to build something “permanent” (and get off “mission status”). The mission congregations of the future (i.e., all of us) want to remain on mission status, and that may mean moving on from time to time to a different neighborhood or a different type of facility. As a result, congregations in the future may want to design a multi-use building; namely, one that could easily be sold for some other business or commercial purpose other than simply a church or worship facility.
  • Flexible – Mission stations of the past usually had multi-purpose facilities, sometimes setting up tables for luncheon in the same area used for worship. The church of the future will not only be unlikely to afford a large plant of specialized facilities, but will seek to remain as flexible as possible in its efforts to reach to the community and serve the community needs.
  • May not “Look like a Church” – The facilities of “mission congregations” in the past often did not “look like a church”, and the goal of the congregation was often to build a dedicated sanctuary that looked to them “like a church”. Church buildings of the future may not “look like a church”, and there may be no desire to build a typical “church”, partly because of the congregation’s desire to be flexible in the use of its space, and partly because in many cases it would be economically unfeasible to build the kind of “mini-cathedrals” we sometimes built in the past. That does not mean that a building cannot have an area with a worshipful atmosphere and design that enhances a Word and Sacraments ministry, but it may not fit everyone’s idea of what a “church” ought to look like.

In addition to the similarities with a mission congregation of the past, we might add a couple of other observations that flow from a different sense of mission. The “mission congregations” of the past tended to see their situation as temporary until they could become a more permanent, independent congregation with their own full-time pastor and their own church building designed primarily to serve the needs of their members. The “congregations in mission” of today see themselves as permanent mission stations designed to serve the needs of the community and to equip their members for witness and ministry in the community. A couple of ways the buildings of the future may help with that:

  • Designed to Serve the Community – Perhaps this fits with “flexibility” above, but it is flexibility not just for our own needs but for the needs of the community as well. An example: A congregation in a beach resort where I led a CFS Capital Funding Campaign constructed a new fellowship hall to meet congregational needs, but included expanded bathrooms and showers and other features to make it available as an emergency hurricane shelter during storms and as a homeless shelter in rotation with other area churches.
  • “Third Place” Elements – “Third Places” are places other than home or church where ministry might take place. Some congregations have incorporated laundromats, study halls, computer labs, coffee shops into their designs as an effort to meet the community at places where there is a community need.

It needs to be acknowledged that we have “done church” for centuries in a “building oriented” church. It is extremely hard to let go of that building or the concept, even when we know we cannot maintain a building that is draining our ability to be in ministry. But perhaps that is the subject of another blog, and both the mission, the culture and the economy are pushing us in the direction of change.

Art Scherer
Art Scherer is President Emeritus of the Southeastern District, LCMS, and a consultant in stewardship and capital funding for LCEF. Dr. Scherer is developer of LCEF’s popular Consecrated Stewards series and author of the Living as Children of a Generous God Bible studies.