Churches around the country today are finding ways to encourage fellowship outside of the sanctuary among members. Coffee shops are currently a big hit with churches of various sizes, mirroring the highly profitable trend of café franchises on every street corner.
And it works. People are drawn to sit down and forge relationships over a cup of joe. These cafés even allow for churchgoers to invite their unchurched friends for coffeeproviding a “safe” entrée through those potentially intimidating church doors.
But there’s another trend that serves similar purposesstriving to bolster attendance in a stagnant congregation or reach out to the community and bring them in. It appeals to youth, teens, and adults coffee drinkers and non-coffee drinkers alike.
“Sport and fitness facilities,” explains Jerry Halcomb, founder and CEO of Dallas, Texas-based HH Architects, “are a highly effective way to bring the community into the church in a non-threatening way.”
Brad Bloom, publisher of Faith & Fitness Magazine at faithandfitness.net, agrees wholeheartedly. “The continually growing interest in fitness, wellness, and sports throughout our culture offers a dynamic chance to grow the Christian church community and be very relevant.”
Although over the past 30 years churches have offered recreation through an onsite weight room, basketball court, or bowling alley (yes, bowling alley), the approach to incorporating health and fitness into worship facilities is becoming more refined. With superior construction and technological capabilities, the days of folding chairs on the court floor and bouncing acoustics are coming to an end.
So if a church is drawn in by the idea of offering sports and fitness programming to their congregation while also reaching out into the community, what should be considered?
According to architect David Dial, president of Living Stones Architecture based in Charlotte, North Carolina, “When a church tells us they want to offer sport and fitness programming, we ask them to define what it means to their ministry.” He emphasizes that a church must have a clear vision of what they want to accomplish with this ministry before any thought is given to structural design.
“Our area had a real need for youth sports programming,” says Executive Pastor Alan Baumlein of Mt. Pleasant Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, “so our mission focus was to bring people from the community into the church through quality sports leagues.” Mt. Pleasant’s sports and recreation program began with youth teams, but quickly grew to become multi-generational. Today, the programs include basketball, baseball, soccer, flag football, and volleyball leagues, as well as aerobic and wellness classes.
Because a potential facility that can accommodate sports/fitness programming can be as varied as church congregations themselves, it is imperative to focus on the specific mission for which God has called your church and ministry. Is it to embrace the youth and young adults, giving them a safe place to hang out? Maybe, like Mt. Pleasant Christian Church, you desire a facility that provides the community with a recreation space because there is no available alternative in your locality. Or maybe the goal is to have an effective multi-use facilityyou envision conferences, banquets, classes, and basketball.
Regardless, once the vision is solidified, it’s time to get help. There are myriad architectural firms around the country who have been helping churches design and build effective sports and fitness facilities for decades. And there is a definitive method to the potential madness. “In addition to having a clear purpose,” says Halcomb, “there must be strategic planning look at potential facility and programming growth based upon a church’s specific history, crunch the numbers, and plan accordingly for the future.”
So what are churches doing these days and why?
“The latest trend in sports and fitness facilities,” states Halcomb, “is to build them with the youth in mind.” Halcomb asserts that if churches take care of the kids, they’ll bring in the parents. He grins, “Now that’s how you grow a church.” Youth love to play and compete, so why not give them a fun and non-toxic place to do so? While they are playing and competing in your facility, he says, parents will be looking around thinking, “This place isn’t so bad maybe I’ll come back on Sunday.”
Dial concurs and offers an in-vogue approach to capturing the youth. “In lieu of a large sports facility, truly youth-oriented third spaces’ still supply a recreational area, but also incorporate personal spaces for computer gaming, foosball, a café, etc.” Because these third spaces are self-contained and separate from the main church building, they typically feature a dedicated worship space for youth as well.
Multi-use vs. Multi-misuse
With budgets what they are (i.e., generally pretty tight), often churches look to get the most out of every dollar and decide on a true multi-use space. This plan for single-space flexibility, however, must come with the recognition that it requires constant conversion from worship assembly to recreation to flex-use and back to worship each week.
But because of current creative architectural design and new, flexible materials and finishes, churches can successfully avoid the trap of the “Gymnatorium.” “It’s the marriage of two extremes, really,” says Dial. “Sports and worship requires compromise.”
Ultimately, there must be a default to the highest common denominator in the areas of size, HVAC systems, electrical load, and floor and wall finishes. All the experts agree that you have to look at the various purposes and their respective codes, and then go with the strictest, most stringent conditions. Dial contends that one of the greatest hurdles is protecting the specialized worship A/V/L system. “The theatrical lighting and front projecting video equipment are usually hanging over a space where balls are flying around,” he explains. “Either you need to protect the equipment with cages or have rear-projection screens and ceiling soffits to protect lights and projectors.”
Choosing wall and flooring materials in this functional marriage is another challenge. On one hand there is durability for the sport/rec function, and on the other hand, there is the need for satisfactory worship acoustics. Do you go with masonry for durability, or gypsum board for acoustics? Do you install sports flooring (wood or rolled and welded athletic flooring), or Sunday-friendly carpet?
Success is possible, however. Baumlein explains, “Our sports ministry began in 1992 in a small multi-purpose gym space our church had built in the mid-70s.” After just a couple of years of rapidly growing success, they constructed a church addition with a full court gymnasium. And since its completion in 1995, this carpeted gym space is regularly converted for sports competitions and aerobics classes to massive meetings and VBS classroomseven the occasional worship service. “The space is rarely void of activity,” Baumlein says, “and every ministry has to compromise a little to make it work.”
The programming at Mt. Pleasant has grown to be such a success, not only as a community outreach, but in terms of subsequent congregational growth due to the ministry’s effectiveness, that they are in the process of constructing a dedicated 55,000-square-foot sports/fitness/youth facility to be completed summer 2008.
Recreation and Reverence
Whatever the ultimate ministry mission of a church, a sports and fitness facility can effectively engage the congregation in a new way, as well as establish open arms to community members who may not otherwise step foot in a church. So whether the focus is specifically youth oriented or multi-generational, a well designed facility (and programming) can bring a fresh relevance to a church.
Bloom sees these facilities as an open door to the soul. “People practice sports and fitness because they want to improve their life. So you have already cleared the first hurdle when you connect with people on this level,” he says. “Sports and fitness facilities provide a place to fuel that desire and turn people to the One who put it there in the first place.”
Julianne Winkler Smith is a freelance writer and president of Eydo Strategic Communications based in Cary, North Carolina. She can be reached at .
Champion Forest Baptist Church
(281) 586-2012 www.championforest.org
Faith & Fitness Magazine
Publication for building spiritual and physical fitness
Church architects, planners, and designers
(972) 404-1034 www.hharchitects.com
Living Stones Architecture
Facility and ministry tools development
(704) 541-8888 www.livingstonesarchitecture.com
Mt. Pleasant Christian Church
Indianapolis, Indiana (Greenwood suburb)
(317) 881-6727 www.mount.org