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How Mission Church Moved from Superficial Growth to True, Healthy Community

For one church, opting against sanctuary expansion and instead deciding to create a new multi-purpose lobby has fostered real growth --- with authentic personal connections and flourishing relationships.

Is there such a thing as superficial church growth? Lead Pastor Gregg Johnson thinks so. In fact, he believes that his church was exemplifying it, and he was determined to do something about it.

So what is superficial church growth? Johnson says that it is when a church may be growing in numbers, but church attendees are not connected and not experiencing real relationship as a body of believers. Johnson says that his church, Mission Church in Holmes, New York, had no problem attracting new people to the churchpeople that enjoyed the Sunday morning experience and regularly attended. The problem is that this was primarily all that they did.

"We were growing but the growth was superficial because people did not develop meaningful relationships or connectivity to one another," Johnson said. "We found that a lot of people were coming to church, but they were still starving for true relationships"

Johnson says that the way the culture is today, it can take real effort to get people to truly connect with each other rather than just with an electronic device. Many people today think that they have many friends or many relationships, but they aren't really relationships at all. Johnson says that this byproduct of today's culture has even permeated the Church.

"In studying our congregation we discovered that with people today and the culture today, social networks and Facebook and Twitter really give people a false sense of connectivity," he said. "People have this pseudo-kind of feeling of having a bunch of friends, when in reality they are just sharing superficial information. They are just involved in intangible relationships."

Recognizing this gaping hole in the life of their church, Mission church leaders decided to make a drastic choice to focus the building plan that they already had on the table on a fellowship area rather than a sanctuary. This was after years of planning and designing a new sanctuary for the Mission Church facility, but Johnson and his team were confident that they were making the right decision.

Back in 2004 Mission Church contacted LAN Associates, to help design a new sanctuary addition to help accommodate the church's growing numbers. After conducting a feasibility study on the existing facility, a master plan was formulated to reallocate administrative and educational spaces within the existing building to a phased addition. The master plan was submitted to the church's planning board for review and then to the zoning board for a variance.

Unfortunately, the great recession" of 2008 influenced construction plans for The Mission Church and caused the phasing to be spread out further than originally planned. At this Mission Church decided to make the shift to focus on a lobby for the initial phase rather than a new sanctuary.

LAN assisted The Mission Church with reprioritizing the sequence of construction.  In the fall of 2012, the revised site plan application was approved and RL Baxter Building Corporation was hired to construct a 2,700+ square foot lobby addition with a 6,000 square foot classroom addition. The additions and interior renovations were completed in the spring of 2014.

The project was broken up into two phases to minimize the disruption and maintain operations. By scaling back their original vision, they were able to make the master plan achievable in a series of phases beginning with the lobby.

Prioritizing the lobby first was not only more cost effective than the sanctuary, but Johnson says that church leadership decided that this course of action was the best way to move the church from superficial relationships to real relationships.

"We wanted to create a space where people could connect informally outside of the traditional worship experience," Johnson said. "When all was said and done, we ended up making that our main focus with the design architect. In our planning we envisioned a large open space with a significant seating area."

The construction included a gathering space that allows the church to comfortably transition between services. A café serving area, seating area and retail kiosk were installed to meet Mission's needs and their desire for a space to bring people together.

Also included in the project were a porte cochere, which was constructed at the main entrance to the lobby so visitors can be dropped off under shelter and a classroom addition that was created for use by the church's school. This new wing includes three classrooms, a multi-purpose room, conference room and several administrative offices.  A pergola was also installed on the front of the classroom addition to reduce solar heat gain. On top of that, many site improvements were made to provide adequate parking for both the school and Sunday morning church services.

The lobby doubles as a café and overflow seating area on Sunday mornings with the help of two large LED monitors, a sound system and both an audio and video feed. Also included in the new lobby is a welcome center with information for visitors as well as a bookstore that sells books and CDs. During the week the area is used for Bible studies, fellowship events, meetings, and pretty much any type of event where people congregate.

"The fellowship café serves multiple purposes for us," Johnson said. "Primarily between services the café provides refreshments and people simply get food, sit, talk and interact with each other, developing real relationships."

"Beyond Sunday morning we use the space as a gathering area. It is a nice, well-lit space with a beautiful waterfall. It is great for breakfasts, dinners, and all sorts of various fellowship events."
Johnson says that Mission Church has a heart for millennials, and they have plans for a millennial service moving forward. He says that the new fellowship café is a perfect setting for this service.

"The café will be ideal for [the millennial service]," Johnson said. "It is less formal than the sanctuary and more designed for fellowship. It has a kind of home atmosphere, but can accommodate a speaker and musicians so it can function fully as a ministry space."

In terms of lobby design, church leaders were primarily looking for a functional space, but LAN Associates was able to take their ideas and create a beautiful space.

"When designing the space, we just tried to use some of the shapes of the building and we looked at traditional New England churches for influence," Milnamow said. "We used a hodgepodge of localism and regionalism and put a contemporary spin on it while meeting all of the requirements of [Mission Church]."

Mission Church ended up using a contractor to construct the facility while LAN served as a construction administrator, visiting the construction site between one and two times per month and having daily conversations with the owner and contractor. Milnamow says overall the contractor did a good job of converting LAN's design from paper to reality.

"The end project matched our vision within 95 to 98 percent accuracy," he said. In the end the owner was happy and for us that is of paramount importance."

Johnson says that the church is pleased with how the project turned out. He points to LAN's professionalism, willingness to work with the church and design expertise as major keys to the project's success as well as having both a civil engineer and a contractor in the congregation that were able to take the design plans and bring life to them. Johnson says that the new lobby has connected Mission Church in a way that he has not seen before. It has fostered real community and true, healthy growth.

"For any church looking at a building program of course the traditional approach has been to enlarge the sanctuary," he said. "The way the culture is, however, we have found that people respond to a sitting area where they can connect as this type of space resonates with the present culture which is desperately seeking real connection." I would encourage people to think of enlarging facilities with this type of space and see where it takes their congregations."

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