“Many of our clients have a thriving recreation ministry, but most would say it primarily serves them internally. Either the facilities are used exclusively by members or—if they have an outreach-oriented program like Upward—they have told us that there has been very little in the way of gaining new members. When you look at the number of users of church recreation facilities and compare it to the number of new members that directly result, it is not a very high return on investment. It is a valuable outreach, but not one that necessarily results in membership growth.” – Jim VanderMolen, Principal, Elevate Studio, Grand Rapids, Mich.
If that idea surprises you, you are not alone. After all, many churches build sports facilities with an outreach goal in mind. When the Cornerstone Knowledge Network teamed with Rainer Research in 2007 to identify key issues about how the unchurched view church buildings, they found the following: “Many pastors hear from their members that building a gym will help attract the unchurched in their community. Our research, however, found the exact opposite to be true. In fact, one of the areas of the church that was least important to the unchurched was the gym.”
“Many churches use gyms for worship,” explains Jeffrey Harris, project architect with Mann-Hughes Architecture in Doylestown, Pa. “When churches first want to build, they want something that is as flexible as possible. What they are finding more and more is that the rooms are kind of like the all-purpose stadiums of the 1970s. They were supposed to be great baseball and football stadiums, but they wound up being lousy for each. They didn’t quite fit the purpose and are now being replaced. We are seeing a trend away from multipurpose. Churches want the rooms to work well—especially when it comes to worship.”
VanderMolen, too, says his church clients are turning away from multipurpose. “Our clients are recognizing that a space can be multipurpose to a fault,” he says. “It isn’t only that the gym experience isn’t ideal for worship; set up and tear down can burn out volunteers in an organization that depends on volunteers.”
Principal Steve Fridsma with Elevate Studio concurs. “We are working with a church in Lansing, Mich., that did a ‘Younger, Later, Louder’ service in [its] double gym. The service has become so popular that we’ve removed the sports component and renovated the room to better support the service.”
Part of the challenge is in how churches think about recreational facilities, according to Harris. “A basketball court without the support spaces isn’t effective. If you are going to take the step of doing that, go all the way. You need locker rooms. Think about doing a nice purpose-built facility—not just attaching a gym to a church.”
“My take is that the myth of sports facilities are no different than that of most evangelical church facilities: build it and they (the unchurched) will come,” says Mel McGowan, principal of Visioneering Studios in Irvine, Calif. “The reality is that not only what we build matters, but the way that it is positioned, branded, and run makes a bigger difference than our heart for evangelism.”
McGowan continues, “Our approach is to be more soil-specific, to integrate into existing community identity and fabric, and to create mixed-use community destinations rather than single-use/one-day-a-week suburban campuses. We find that this makes it much more permeable for the unchurched person to already be in proximity and in conversations [with] believers who hold ‘words of eternal life.’”
A different approach
Back in 2001, the First Baptist Church (FBC) of Carrollton, Texas, purchased 107 acres for a planned relocation, but when the doors closed on two attempts to build on the property, the leadership began asking if God might have something different in mind.
“We started the conversation talking about how we might serve our community and reach out to families,” says Dr. Brent Taylor, lead pastor. Carrollton is a suburban community in Dallas and is home to many young families with children. “As we looked at the needs in our community, building a place for families to be together made sense. We didn’t build it for the church and invite the community in. We built it for the community.”
The Fields at Carrollton Parkway is a purpose-built recreational complex with two baseball fields, two soccer fields, two outdoor basketball courts, two sand volleyball courts, two shaded playgrounds and a “sprayground.” The structure on the facility contains a coffee area, hang out space and meeting rooms.
The church hired Fields Inc. of Canton, Ga., to design the project. “We were a small project for them since they primarily design at the national and collegiate level,” says Taylor, “but they really liked our project because they could see what we were doing. We wanted to build something that would be an asset in the community. “
Taylor continues, “We were conscious of the Texas heat so all of the seating areas and playgrounds are shaded. The main building has a big wrap-around porch with rocking chairs so that moms can watch their children play in the shade. We also created big windows in the café with views to the playground.”
The church has two full-time ministers and four part-time staff members to run the facility, along with a host of volunteers. David Maki, the associate pastor of sports and recreation at the FBC Carrollton, spends his days developing programming for the recreation ministry, maintaining the complex and interacting with the people who use it.
“I became a Christian through a recreation ministry, so I know it can be an effective tool,” Maki says. “It gives you the opportunity to get to know people without any pressure.”
The staff—both paid and volunteer—are in uniform, creating an added sense of security. “Many times churches build sports facilities, but they aren’t staffed in a way that keeps them open and usable. During daylight savings time, we are open from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 p.m.-9 p.m. We organize leagues and dedicate our time getting to know people and create community,” Maki adds.
“I think a lot depends on the demographics of the community,” says Mark Freeman, director of church design at Croft and Associates in Kennesaw, Ga. “There is no need for a church to duplicate a community center down the street that is already meeting needs.”
Grace Church in Kennesaw, Ga., wanted to create recreational and community space for the new student housing that was going in all around them. “The key to create community is to design the facility so it’s visible and accessible—no longer tucked away in the rear and hidden from view as was the case in the past,” Freeman continues. “At Grace Church the recreation space is upfront and adjacent to public lobby, café, coffee shop, and meeting rooms. Churches are thinking more and more about their campus being utilized seven days a week, and not just by their own congregation.”