Designing for the Modern Church
The earliest archeologically identified church was built in roughly 250 AD. The church was a house church, a straightforward design with only one door and an area for the congregation to meet. With time, the house church evolved into intricately designed cathedrals, monasteries, and synagogues. Each structure developed specific layouts and architectural elements that served as the standard for building churches. Design typically only swayed based on the size of the church, availability of materials, and the style of the current period.
Since these times, church design has become focused on what church congregations need and want, rather than designing based on traditional standards. Churches have experienced many changes that have made traditional church design less functional, therefore less desirable. Worship gatherings have gotten smaller, churches are largely unused facilities aside from service days, church choirs are not as common, and church services are even held online. Many of these changes have led to architectural changes in modern churches.
Our team of architects identified 3 factors that they believe have had a significant impact on church design.
The sense of community within churches has grown increasingly stronger within recent years, particularly in more traditional churches. People want to be near one another, see each other’s faces, and connect with their church staff. This focus on community has led to an impact on the architecture of the sanctuary. In place of two rows of pews and a center aisle, most churches are opting for a space with at least four sections of chairs or pews. Four or more sections allow the seating to move closer to the altar, and for people to see one another’s faces, rather than the back of each other’s heads. A rule of thumb we try to follow is to get all seating within 60 feet of the altar or chancel area of the church to maximize visual contact between presenter and attendee.
People that attend church want a space where they can greet one another and stay after the service to chat. The gathering area of the church is referred to as the narthex. The narthex is a common architectural element in Christian and Byzantine basilicas and churches. In older churches, this may have been less than 10% of the sanctuary space. With the growing demand for a place for people to gather, the narthex has been significantly enlarged in modern designs. We now use about 50% of the sanctuary floor to establish the area for this space.
A large gathering area helps support the growing sense of community in churches by providing the proper amount of space for people to talk. The space is also large enough to serve refreshments and snacks to the congregation, so as people are talking, they can enjoy their morning coffee and get to know one another.
Technology has paved its way into every aspect of life, including church services. With advancements in audiovisual technology, churches can play music, show videos, display hymns, or even capture the service for virtual attendees. Most churches are spending a considerable amount of money on enhancing their audio and video quality, as it benefits the congregation. A/V technology makes it easier for the congregation to hear whether it is the sermon or hymns, while also giving the church leaders the flexibility to display videos, photos, or even make their service available online. Advanced audiovisual capabilities allowed many churches to bridge the pandemic and bring the worship service into people’s homes.
As we have continued to design more churches, a larger narthex, improved seating proximity to the chancel area, and advanced audiovisual systems are welcomed and wanted by many of our clients. We believe that the church design process should be about creating a layout that serves the needs and wants of the modern congregation and community, rather than trying to replicate traditional church design standards.
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