Church Sanctuary Design
Today’s sanctuary space is very different from those 30 years ago. Sacred space today is more flexible, expandable and technically complicated due to changes in media, culture, and worship styles. A church architect should be able to quickly ascertain the DNA that defines a church and incorporate an appropriate sacred space into a phased master plan during the planning process.
Before we go on further, as a church designer we use the terms worship space, sacred space, and auditorium interchangeably internally. We carefully select the correct term for the church we are working with at the time, based on their denomination, worship style, and culture.
The sacred space has, in most evangelistic churches, transformed into an auditorium. There are numerous reasons for this. Classic church architecture tended to be based on the liturgy which is processional and presentational. As the evangelical and charismatic churches grew out of the protestant tradition, modern churches of the mid to late 1900’s tended to morph into a presentational style. The contemporary church, due to culture shift and technology, tend to be more interactive and media centered.
Sanctuary design hinges on the worship style. As a church designer, Rhodes Architecture breaks down contemporary church design into the following:
Where the sanctuary design is optimized for a music and lecture style sermon. Visual design is optimized to enhance a single presenter. Archetype model is an auditorium, neighborhood playhouse, or movie theater.
Where the interaction between the worship team and the congregation is optimized. Design is usually semi circular to enhance the visual and emotional connection between people. Archetype model is a stadia, forum or agora (greek/roman court or senate), the basis for a theater in the round.
Where the congregation experiences a presentation of worship and the word, heavily enhance by technology such as lighting and video. Normally a large stage with stepped seating, there is a heavy use of modern auditorium space acoustics and lighting. Archetype model is a music hall.
Where there is more than one congregation simultaneously participating in the same sermon in different physical locations. The music service is normally performed live. Archetype varies but normally coffee house, café or secondary auditorium.
Where the liturgy is the defining style of the sacred space. Often laid out to be processional with one flat congregational space and a raised alter as the visual center of the sacred space. Archetype is the cathedral.
Trends in West Coast Church Architecture
In the last decade Rhodes Architecture has seen a trend toward contemporary churches overcoming the radical shift of a church centered culture to a consumer centered culture. The modern church must compete with very sophisticated marketing and presentational media we are constantly bombarded with on a daily basis. The well used, familiar church of the 80’s won’t do any more. Moreover, the influence of the internet and the massive influx of technology and information overload have brought the church to a place that needs to provide a foundation of belief and self worth.(1) As the church has combated and adapted to the changes, construction and land costs have sky rocketed.
How then have the successful, growing modern churches provided quality ministry and the highest value for their churches sanctuary?
Embrace multi-media and current marketing.
There has been a preponderance of market research done in the last fifteen years. Starbucks, a retailer that jumped on the Third Place concept early, has become a national icon. Paired with high end graphic design, third place and multi-media is a powerful ministry tool. The issue is that culture driven media is mostly untouched in ministerial studies. The church leadership needs to use outside sources or talent inside the church to reach a marketing mature audience. The sanctuary space should reflect this push with printed and visual material that incorporates the message and the church branding. Dare to be great a few things. Differentiate yourself from the church down the street. Review ministry using objective metrics more than once a year to ascertain if they are effective.
Move toward more interactive sacred space.
Sacred space should be flexible and interactive. Integrate tables and video for the younger crowd. Use chairs instead of pews. Utilize fixed seating only to increase the density of a current space that cannot be replaced or enlarge. Leave room for a more fluid set up near the front or back of the auditorium. Create ambiance with lighting and graphics which can easily be changed. Create spaces where people feel welcome to share about their worship experience, talk, and discuss. There is nothing more fulfilling than seeing a space filled with the congregation 30 minutes after the service.
Make phased expandability an integral part of church design.
An integral part of church planning is more phases, more often. The church architect cannot be stuck in the past or present. Every part of the church has to have a design in mind for expansion. The sanctuary is especially important due to construction and related costs of large structural spans. Don’t settle for dashed in “future additions”. If necessary, design the entire sanctuary, including all future phases to at least 40% complete. This will minimize future impact and maximize construction and church design value. Very large churches with phases over $7 million, like Slavic Gospel Church in Federal Way, should be engineered to 80% complete.
(1) The Millennium Matrix, M. Rex Miller
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