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Teaching Old Church Buildings New Tricks

Teaching Old Church Buildings New Tricks

From the book, The More with Less Church. Excerpt three: If you don't want your single-use building to become a barrier to reaching new people, you can teach your old church building new tricks.

Most older church buildings were designed to function as single-use architecture. Each room was designed for one purpose. It was used for that purpose an hour or two, or maybe three, each week, and sat empty the rest of the time. When any one part of the building is being used, most of the rest of the building is sitting empty. A church that clings to single-use architecture will only be able to sustain growth when it can afford to build bigger buildings. Since new buildings are expensive, many churches will just stop growing, and those that can build will grow for a season then run into a wall and stop again.

If you don't want your single-use building to become a barrier to reaching new people, you can teach your old church building new tricks. Most new church buildings don't use single-use but rather multiple-use architecture.

They are designed for multiple worship services and multiple sessions of Sunday school. Almost every space in the building is designed as multiple-use space. A single room may be set up in a half-dozen different ways for a half-dozen different kinds of ministry throughout the week. Older church buildings were not designed to be used this way. When a church whose building was designed for single services decides to add a second service, it poses challenges.

Passageways may be too narrow. The building may not have a fellowship foyer located in the right place where people leaving the first service can mingle with those arriving for the second service. The new schedule may create parking challenges. Many older church buildings have rows of small classrooms. While this can work fairly well in small churches, medium and large churches need more flexible space. While most churches of over 150 now have multiple staff, most older church buildings were not designed for multiple staff. Even if there are multiple offices, rarely is the office area designed to maximize collaboration within the staff team.

Of course, older campuses also weren't designed to accommodate multivenue or multisite worship.

A building was originally designed to accommodate a congregation of 150. By adding an education wing and youth building and filling up every space, they have grown to two hundred. But they will not grow beyond two hundred until they increase their seating capacity, and the idea of a new sanctuary is intimidating.

What else can they do to increase the capacity of their building?

  1. They can add a second service.
  2. This is not as simple as scheduling a new service and launching it. Many second services fail, and for predictable reasons. Also, since older church buildings are not designed for multiple services, they often need at least modest remodeling.
  3. They can redesign classrooms and change how they use them. Larger, multiple-use classrooms; multiple sessions of classes; transitioning from solo teaching to team-teaching; streamlining children's programming to increase excellence; rethinking discipleship strategies for adults and students.
  4. These changes can multiply growth capacity with little or no additional square footage while increasing ministry effectiveness.
  5. They can create a new office suite.
  6. Most churches underestimate the strategic importance of great offices. Scattered, cramped, inefficient offices waste staff members' time (and so waste staff dollars) and sabotage collaboration. For a building designed for 150 to be repurposed to serve a congregation of four hundred requires creating new offices. In fact, in teaching old church buildings new tricks, offices are often the first priority for new construction. You can triple the size of your congregation without tripling the size of your worship center, classrooms, fellowship hall, or parking, but you cannot do it without tripling your staff and giving them offices.
  7. They can add another worship venue and perhaps eventually another campus.
  8. This church of two hundred can create the space to grow to four hundred by implementing the three strategies above.

At that point, depending on the limitations of their facility and site, they may be able to continue to grow in the same facility by adding a second worship venue. If this is feasible, it could enable them to grow to as many as six hundred in a building originally designed for 150. At that point, with the financial resources of a larger congregation, the church might be ready to build a new building. Or they might find that it is more strategic and cost-effective to open a second campus in rented or repurposed space.

A church that thought it was "using every available square inch" actually had so much underutilized capacity that by changing programming and scheduling, remodeling, and making a modest addition
or two, it had room to double, perhaps even triple, its weekend attendance.

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