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The Downtown Church: How Demographic Changes Impact Growth Plan Decision-Making

Survival Strategy for Improving Urban Church Spaces

For the first time in a century, America’s biggest cities are growing more rapidly than their surrounding suburbs creating unique challenges for older city churches.  Drawing on lesson learned at First Baptist  Tulsa,  this article highlights how city churches are making changes to adjust to the opportunities and challenges of redeveloping and redesigning existing spaces.  Special focus is given to critical aspects such as growth planning, logistics, parking space, and front door entrance and over all accessibility on the campus.

Current Problems Faced By Downtown Churches
The biggest problem with downtown churches is their old structure as they date back almost 100 years and above. There are a number of problems which they encounter such as:

  • Front door entrances are confusing. Visitors often find it difficult to locate the entrance.
  • People have difficulty finding the parking and accessing the churches, as the parking spots are a couple of blocks away
  • Many of the churches are lacking on keeping their design up to date with current technology
  • Proper wind circulation isn't there
  • There are a number of maintenance issues
  • They are located in narrow streets or the sidewalks are too narrow
  • People find it difficult to navigate through out the church
  • Most churches had brought building that weren't supposed to be part of their design
  • The worship rooms aren't  amenable  without serious alteration

What To Do?
When considering remodeling and redesigning, a church should try and maintain balance between the following three things:

  1. Places of worship
  2. Parking
  3. Class room

Churches should realize what that one limiting factor which hinders their growth is and it not typically parking which hinders growth for downtown churches as they have a number of vacant lots available during service times.  Education or worship space more often the most critical factor that constrains growth for these churches.

What To Consider When Going For Redesigning?
While defining and accepting critical limiting factors, pastors can find it overwhelming to initiate a redesign or restructuring renovation. Before initiating the next phases consider:

  • People (the current and changing demographics who would be visiting the church)
  • Space (potential uses, size needs with realistic growth, flexibility)
  • Time (how quickly is the space needed, how long will the project take)
  • Money (total project costs, funding model)

Working on these four aspects will clarify the next steps.

  • The demographics are changing rapidly, as more young couples are visiting downtown churches; they fail to accommodate them perfectly. There isn't enough or dedicated space to accommodate children.
  • Churches should consider aspects like is there enough space for a larger, better looking worship room. Can a dedicated children children's classroom be made or can the current one be renovated?
  • Most of the downtown churches were affected due to the economic recession. They don't have the economic ability to cope up with the new changes. They should consider a practically affordable approach towards renovations, like painting, carpets, or windows and other restructuring designs.

Costs For Renovation
Each project is unique and regional costs vary, but as a general rule of thumb,  renovation costs can range fall into these broad cost ranges:

  • Maintenance budget $25 to $30 per square feet (moving a wall or two, adding or moving a door, new carpet and paint)
  • Structure changes can range between $50 to $150 per square feet

Churches should also consider contracting with expert and professional personnel so that they perform a detailed cost analysis and determination as to whether it is more advantageous to retain the current structure or build something new.

First Baptist Church
One remarkable renovation example is the First Baptist Church which faced many problems due to the old structure and because many areas of the church weren't up to the ADA standards. They took up the challenge to renovate and were able to:

  • Renovate worship centers which is large enough for 1500 people
  • Renovated interior
  • Created a dedicated children's space
  • Redesigned the floors and created accessibility
  • Creation of  a cafĂ© and dining area

It is certainly important to follow these steps when looking forward to remodeling churches and preferably take examples from other churches and consult the pastor how they came up with the ideas. Sometimes tearing down and starting over might seem like a hard pill to swallow but it is necessary to keep the structure and interior of the church up to date.

Presented at WFX 2013, Dallas, Texas. 

Bobby Hart,  Operations Manager/Executive Pastor:  bhart@tulsafbc.org

Scott Nelson, Principal, HH Architects:  snelson@hharchitects.com


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