Does Design Matter?

tile mosaic and copper screen at bell tower

What does the design of a church “say” about the congregation?

Traditional- Historic, older churches well established, denominational, represents continuity, established customs.  The architecture follows rules of a particular style so it can be assumed the rules of the church will be taught and followed within.  Many communities appreciate the design, detail and appointments of a traditional church as this reminds them of the churches of their youth and speaks to them of the continuity of their belief over the centuries.  This connection to the past and the feelings and emotion that can be encountered in a traditional space can be a primary element of a worship experience.  The exposed structure, height, stained glass, stone, brick and wood materials of a traditional building can be an indispensable part of the teaching and worship experience for many people. This type of design is typically more expensive than other styles due to the use of traditional materials and methods of construction. This applies to maintenance of existing churches and construction of new traditional churches.  Often you will see a traditional church with a contemporary or modern addition that may be an issue of cost or a statement of transformation of belief, or a nod to the new mode of worship that is more attractive in a contemporary space.

Before exterior from west First United Methodist Church Kearney MO
Before exterior prior to worship center addition

Contemporary-tends to be a watered down version of a traditional church with some modern touches, this is a very neutral approach to design trying to be all things to all people.  By following some of the established rules of style and design but watering down or breaking others can communicate a sentiment that this church is moving away from the traditions and breaking new ground, but still a traditional church to those who are looking for that type of worship.  Contemporary design is can also be the outcome of using modern construction methods and attempting to use them to create traditional forms.  The construction methods of today tend to utilize larger spans for structure, mass produced finishes that are common in appearance, inexpensive and easy to install.  This can be the hallmark of a rapidly growing church that has many missions to house and is looking for a durable building with a statement of style but does not need to communicate a level of craft or continuity as they are growing fast and the building has become a functional tool versus a symbol.

Crossing light fixture at Prince of Peace

Modern-this is different than contemporary and is a style on its own.  This style is minimal in material and detail.  This style has an appeal as it does not scream traditional church but has a high level of design that appeals to many who enjoy fine materials and workmanship but not necessarily iconography.  For communities offering more music and word based services or services utilizing rock or jazz music, this style communicates this approach to worship clearly. Many communities start in spaces that are spare and minimal and there can be a desire to continue that feel in the new church or to communicate a forward looking direction versus a backward looking reverence for the past.  In contrast to their style older modern churches can be just as traditional in approach to worship as a traditional looking church, many communities built in a modern style to differentiate their community from the older traditional churches in a time when being modern was a statement of optimism and prosperity in contrast to a traditional church being passé and not of the moment.  While this is still a perception it has not been a majority belief in our society as it was during the middle and late 20th century

New Multipurposer church for FirstLight UMC
Entry and Patio with Shade Structures

Industrial/Pre-engineered churches-this approach to building often attempts to be any of the above approaches but I believe it is a style of its own but tends to be more contemporary or modern in appearance or just plain barn like.  This approach is often used to get a lot of space on a small budget and how many rural and suburban communities get started.  The building is typically a multipurpose space that functions as a gym space and a sanctuary. There is message communicated that the “building does not matter” it is the people and the message that are important not the style or expense of the building materials.   This is all well and good but these buildings tend not to perform well in tangible ways that many do not realize until they are using the building.   A few issues to be aware of include thermal performance, acoustics, and building movement. It takes alot of creativity and manipulation to disquise the pre-engineered aethesitc but it can be done if this is not the message you want to convey.

3D View 1

In every instance there are exceptions to these impressions but overcoming the impressions or recognizing that the image of the church does have an impact on how the church is perceived is the first step in discerning what the church should look like for each community.  During my planning process I ask the participants to bring images of what the ideal church is for them or to write in words a description of the appearance of the their ideal church and then we discuss in detail the possible meanings and try to discern what approach will best suit the community.  Without this time spent on discernment the built outcome tends to not match the image the community wants to project.

John E Freshnock, WSKF Architects Inc.


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