The digital world is influencing what we build in the physical world. As the online church removes the physical limitations of geography, hours and access, it is changing the way that church staff thinks about physical space. And while some of the impact is obvious, such as public Wi-Fi, streaming services, addition of kiosks and social media presence, new ideas are only just now starting to take shape.
“Most of the church buildings in operation today are based on the way we did ministry 50 years ago,” explains Tom Greenwood, principal in the Dallas office of Beck Architecture. “Initially, the very best way to provide Christian content was with classrooms. Now that we don’t necessarily need that setting, what does that mean?”
Greenwood describes how that thinking influenced the campus at Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas. “Instead of adult education space, we focused on common areas that could be used however people wanted to use them, not only on Sunday but also during the week,” he says. “While classroom usage is somewhat fixed, the large lobbies for informal gatherings facilitate groups from 30-1 down to 1-1. With Wi-Fi and iPads, people are accessing resources and sharing them in ways that simply weren’t possible even just a few years ago.”
“People want information and access faster than ever,” says Dennis Choy of North Coast Church in Vista, Calif. “We are still working on offering a full operable mobile device for the things people used to do on paper—like sermon notes. One of the big challenges has been how to handle the offering. People don’t write checks or carry cash anymore [paper], yet traditionalists can be uncomfortable with having an ATM onsite. Churches have to be aware of their congregations to sense the timing of when to make the jump. Not offering it says you aren’t open to it.”
“The print world needed bookstores and closets for resources. Now these are virtual,” Greenwood adds. “Tape distribution is being replaced by sermon downloads. Sign-up areas that used to require large countertops are now facilitated by kiosks. Bulky television broadcast studios are being replaced by leaner online streaming. These shifts won’t allow churches to simply follow old templates. It is redirecting thinking on which spaces are mission critical.”
Michael Trent, lead collaborator of Live Design Group, an architectural design firm in Birmingham, Ala., echoes Greenwood’s sentiments. “Churches are building smaller in traditional areas to create more space in the common areas. We were designed to be with each other. Can intimacy happen through technology … yes ... is that the ultimate design … I don’t think so. Churches are shifting to use physical space to solve a connecting problem.”
Using Technology to Bridge and Break Boundaries
Greenwood reports that he’s part of the student ministry at Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall, Texas, teaching high school seniors. “We want to engage them after they leave the church to help transition them in community,” he says. “We are just beginning to use Skype to connect with students all around the country and continue meeting. We want to go beyond the walls to create these communities.”
“I feel like in the past three years, we’ve had amazing opportunities to treat tech in church like a playground,” explains Tony Biaggne, director of creative communications at The Crossing in Chesterfield, Mo. “Some of the stuff is basic, like using Google maps to bring up the geographic area being taught about from the pulpit, or having people text in questions and answering them live. But we can take it beyond the Sunday AM timeslot with tools like U-Stream to extend the message in weekly daily devotionals.”
The Crossing is also bridging and breaking the physical walls of its building with technology. “We are currently big on building projections—both on the interior of the building and on the exterior,” Biaggne adds. “Another way we are using technology is to create community with the people we don’t sit next to. A goal is to have interactive video walls to give people a sense of the larger congregation in our multi-site campuses—to create a way for people to wave at each other and send messages.”
As the digital world changes the way we view buildings, the dialogue changes.
“Our building was designed to be more of a distribution point than a destination,” explains Nathan Clark, director of digital innovation for Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Fla. “The intent was never to see how many people could fit under one roof; it was to facilitate ministry worldwide with other believers. We can try to do that by being everywhere physically, which is impossible … or, we can do that through technology.”
Northland lives out the “church distributed” part of its name—from its house churches and sister churches in other countries, to its Facebook and Twitter pages. Northland is using technology to connect believers worldwide.
Clark adds, “God is calling all of us to something bigger than ourselves, and that will look different for every church. But it’s not about putting more people in the seats. It’s about taking the resources of the church to people, wherever they are. For us, that takes the form of house churches worshipping via Roku set top boxes [little boxes that allow wireless streaming of Internet content for viewing on TV], bringing worship services to our local jails, connecting with our partners in Egypt, South Africa, China, and Ukraine. This wouldn’t be possible it we were focused only on what’s happening here in our building.”
Amplifying the Physical
As churches ramp up online and digital efforts, how do they also ensure actual human connection? “Human touch will always be a part of our philosophy,” Choy states. “It’s difficult to achieve that sitting by yourself on a computer, although people will be reached digitally that might not ever be comfortable stepping into a physical church.”
Biaggne reports that The Crossing has simply begun to adjust the way it envisions the role of its physical building. “We’ve started thinking of our space as a physical database—a hub for resources. Just like people use Amazon to get physical goods, we can become ‘Amazon’ for those with needs. The question is ‘what does that look like?’ Pastoral help? Home repair? Scripture? Food? It could be all of that,” he shares.
Trent, on the other hand, encourages churches to examine the role of their physical spaces a bit more. “The hunger for third places came about because we got into our own garages and pulled the doors down. Technology can do the same,” he warns. “We are going to have something missing unless we are physically together. The best use of technology is when it can support that.”