There’s no one characteristic that defines good church youth facilities, but they all have one thing in common: they create a space and a base to transform lives—sometimes quite subtly—and harness youthful energy, pointing it in a positive, even transcendent, direction. It’s easy to take a negative view of youth and youth culture, but it’s equally misguided.
Sure, teenager’s can be a tough group to deal with, raging orbs of hormones and angst trying to figure out their place in the world. There are times when you’d just like to fast forward 10 years. That said, harness that energy in a positive direction, and there’s little they can’t accomplish. That’s why it’s important to create and maximize a space for youth and students. After all, they are your church’s future. Ignore them, and they’ll go away, quite possibly never to return.
“Churches are finally coming around to paying attention to youth,” says Jerry Fountain, a partner at Atlanta-based Foreman Seeley Fountain Architecture, a company that provides architecture, design, interiors and master planning services. “For years, they were treated as an afterthought. That subliminally made them feel like they didn’t matter, and they left in droves.”
Keeping youth engaged can be tricky, but, sometimes, it’s surprisingly simple and enlightening, too.
At Trinity Church in Lansing, Mich., Steve Fridsma led a focus group of parents and youth discussing what the church’s new youth center should, and shouldn’t, be. Near the end of the session, he asked the group what would make them gag. A parent responded that stained glass would just be too passé for the youth, but one of the students suggested that stained glass wouldn’t be the end of the world and that the youth space had a holy purpose, as well as a social function.
“What we worked into the design was a prayer chapel around the corner from the gym, and it was all driven by the kids,” says Fridsma, worship and learning environments leader for Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Progressive AE, an architecture firm that designs youth and church facilities across the United States. “We’re seeing a call for something transcendental that’s coming from youth. They don’t just want to be entertained.”
Simple as That
Youth facilities require a tricky balance and a full understanding of the church’s DNA and doctrine, youth culture and what youth at your church are into, whether it’s sports; music, drama and media; gaming or paintball—or all of the above. Ultimately, though, youth facilities can create a safe place to congregate, and, therefore, a great place to capture the attention of young people and impact their lives.
“Students are now more focused on a venue where they can hang out with their friends and see what God can do,” says Maina Mwaura, missionary for student evangelism for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware in Columbia, Md., an organization that assists in church planting and strengthening. “If you can make it look culturally relevant but, at the same time, make it about relationships where they can relate and talk to each other and facilitate their relationships with God, you’ve got it.”
Often, youth facilities aren’t just for youth, nor should they be. Flexibility is of utmost importance, as is durability. The same space the youth use for worship or small-group meetings or just to hang out also may serve similar purposes for senior citizens or other demographics at other times.
Sharon Exley, president of ArchitectureIsFun Inc. in Chicago, an architecture firm that collaborates with youth to design meaningful spaces, describes how a flexible space works double duty. “Flexibility is an essential. At Granger Community Church [in Granger, Ind.], the ‘Heir Force’ room is a very open space—it grants permission to youth to explore themselves through basketball, performance, game-playing, socializing and prayer—personal and public. The design is sophisticated and although themed, it functions more like a runway of spirituality,” she describes. “As such, adults love this space; its relaxed attitude allows them to open up, be less reserved, and to relax in a way that is less permissible in more formal, adult spaces.”
“There’s definitely a trend to target the entire family through different means,” concurs James Swintek, product manager for Huntersville, N.C.-based Soft Play LLC, a manufacturer of contained playground equipment.
Depending on the audience, the surroundings can be altered via lighting and technology. Mwaura, who has worked in student ministries throughout the Southeast and Mid Atlantic, suggests implementing a full-suite of audio-visual equipment and technology applications at the outset or as much as your budget allows. Otherwise, you’ll end up spending more as you patch pieces together in the future. Those who design church facilities agree. Bill Chegwidden, president of Atlanta-based master planner, architectural design and construction administor CDH Partners, points to Peachtree City Baptist Church in Atlanta’s suburbs as an example of a multifunctional facility that meets a community need beyond serving just youth.
“More and more, they’re fairly simple buildings with a lot of technology that you can use more than a few times a week,” says Chegwidden. “A lot of youth facilities have to serve more than one group.”
David Hatton, founder and CEO of ChurchWorx Inc., a professional consulting and leadership provider based in Dallas, agrees that simplicity and flexibility are key. “Design the space so it can be set in multiple ways based on the event needs,” he says. “… one week with chairs, next week sit on the floor, one week there may be a band on a stage, the next week it’s gone … youth space today must embrace a ‘Whatever it Takes’ mentality.”
Adaptability has to be part of that flexibility and, with that adaptability, comes opportunity.
Though it wasn’t part of the original plan, Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall, Texas, built ramps and other accoutrements outside its youth facilities to create a skateboarding ministry.
At Jubilee Christian Center in San Jose, Calif., the church wanted to create youth facilities that spoke to hip hop culture and helped alleviate—and minister to—the city’s gang problems. In the wake of the burst dot-com bubble earlier this decade, the church acquired an 80,000-square-foot office building, the headquarters of a failed dot-com. In the flush late 1990s, San Jose could charge just about whatever it wanted in impact and redevelopment fees, and the city requested that Jubilee pay $100,000 just for approval of the redevelopment site plan. Then, after city leaders delved into gang problems and looked at Jubilee’s plan to create a positive place for youth to congregate, San Jose waived the fees.
Jubilee split the building—half for children’s ministry, half for youth—and created spaces for sports and activities like break dancing and skateboarding, as well as mixing and spinning music and records and just hanging out. Between the youth worship and hip-hop spaces rests a technology core that can be used for events, worship and concerts on either side.
Given its Northern California locale, technology plays a big role in Jubilee’s youth facilities, which are replete with a Mac lab and iPod station. Technology, in fact, creates a number of discipleship opportunities with youth. After all, youth are generally early embracers of technology and can serve as digital-literacy missionaries to older members of the church.
“There’s a huge opportunity to teach digital literacy to the masses through youth programs,” Fridsma confirms. “Tech hubs are going to be pretty central. Everyone is online these days, and there are more and more churches that want to help people understand it.”
Above everything else, the purpose of youth facilities is to, of course, serve God and foment discipleship, but it requires a non-traditional mindset to capture students’ imagination. It can’t look institutional and remind them of the schools they sit in all day. Again, lighting can make a dynamic difference, especially in worship areas, and can be quickly altered and rearranged so that other groups can easily use the space. Other areas may remind students of coffee bars or “hang outs” that they frequently encounter in their daily lives and in TV and movies, only serving a non-secular purpose.
While it shouldn’t be too entertainment driven, ideally you use the facility to spread the message, improve community standing and bonds and draw people in. An older demographic in your church may see things like fire pits and coffee bars as immaterial fluff, but if they provide a safe alternative for students to congregate and have fun and a place where adults can monitor them without kids feeling like Big Brother is watching them, you create immeasurable opportunities to reach young people.
“We’re starting to make it a place, aesthetically, where kids like it and think it’s cool,” says Jonathan Martin, founder of Jonathan Martin Creative in Tulsa, Okla., a company that designs and builds sets, stages and themed environments for church interiors. “If we can do that, we position them to hear the Word. The more the saved kids are enjoying it, the more word of mouth spreads.”
Also, you have to consider what kind of volunteer efforts you’ll need to keep the youth program going. If you do it right, parents will want to be there just as much as the kids do. That was certainly the case at Mount Paran Church of God in Atlanta, where new youth facilities, which were part of a new church campus, increased the volunteer base 100%, Chegwidden says.
“All these programs and spaces have to have a strong base behind them,” Chegwidden adds. “A lot of churches get caught off guard with all that’s required behind the scenes. If they don’t have that base of support behind it, it may not work.”
And, ultimately, it’s not so much about the building as the message and the people. Though they need their own space, youth also need to be integrated into the overall church body, leadership and direction of the church, says Bob Foreman, a partner at Foreman Seeley Fountain.
“Buildings are just the tool,” Foreman says. “They’re not going to accomplish anything without the leadership of the church.”
And Fountain adds, “What makes the difference? It’s not just the building but the programming and what the church is doing to attract (youth).”