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Want to Invite People In? Start with Your Outdoor Space

How three churches invited the community by investing in something special on the outside.

YOU'VE LIKELY SPENT a lot of time and energy planning your service. The message is well-crafted. The worship team's set is inspiring.

You have all that you need within the walls of your space. But have you thought about what could happen outside the space?

After all, it takes a lot for someone to decide to walk through the doors if they've never been to your church before.

What if you designed something to make it easier for people to come close? This article shares the stories of three churches with radically different approaches to making their outside space as intentional as the inside for inviting people in.

Prior to the renovation of their main worship center and educational facilities, the campus was closed off to the public. "Initially, the property had a mini-plaza that was gated you could never cut through," shares Michael Kaiser, principal of the Beck Group in Dallas. "Because we planned to locate the new worship facility on the second floor, there was an opportunity to create something beautiful underneath and open the campus up with public space from the heart of downtown to the arts district to welcome pedestrians." "When the church first began to reimagine their campus, the term Dr. Robert Jeffress used over and over was, create a spiritual oasis.' The fountain became the practical expression of the oasis at the center of the plaza," reveals John Paul DeFrank, principal of the Beck Group.

Fluidity Design Consultants were engaged to create the fountain whose design was based on a quick sketch by building committee member, Michael Jenkins.

The white cross tops out at 67 feet in the air back dropped by the prismatic tile which surrounds the crown of the sanctuary, and the spray from the granite structure produces rainbows in the sunlight.

"It is a truly unique element for downtown, but there is a spiritual component," highlights DeFrank. "We often see people stopping to read the scripture that is engraved around the base." The scripture referenced is John 4:14 "Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life." The fountain at First Baptist Church Dallas is now one of the most photographed elements of Downtown Dallas where people stop daily to take pictures in front of outdoor oasis.
Urban Greenspace, Playground and Pavilion

Grace Bible Church in Houston, Texas began in a 300-seat neighborhood cinema. As the church grew, people used the outside space by necessity including the porch and a covered walkway to the house next door because there was so little indoor space. "When the church began to design their new campus in a warehouse district ten blocks from their old campus, they didn't want to lose that neighborhood feeling,
"explains Bob Galloway, principal of Jackson Galloway Architecture in Austin, Texas. "The new site was square and flat with a lot of warehouses. It became clear that we had to internally focus the campus in order to create a sense of place there." The design is a horseshoe shape with a courtyard that creates green space and houses a children's playground. At the end of one leg of the horseshoe is a large covered patio called, "The Pavilion.

"The Pavilion connects to the multipurpose room by big glass doors that are opened so that people can flow freely outside. After most every service, about 100- 150 families linger for an hour or more in the Pavilion and visit while the kids enjoy the outdoor playground. Other regular uses include small group potlucks, annual church-wide "grill-offs"  and student ministry activities, but one of the best features is how many people from the nearby neighborhoods use the space during the week. One portion of the horseshoe building footprint was deliberately left open to visually invite and draw in neighbors passing by onto the courtyard area.

Tiny Property, Big Community Impact
At St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Rockport, Massachusetts, an indoor renovation project sparked an idea. They envisioned their small parcel of land, barely 12-feet-wide at the back of the church, becoming a quiet space for reflection and prayer. Soon The Meditation Garden at St. Mary's took shape, remembers Gregg Fox, gardener and project leader. "There were three of us who laid out the garden and presented the plan to the Vestry. We wanted it to be something the whole parish community would be involved in. We took gifts of perennials from many church members' gardens. The local hardware store provided heavy equipment to move a garden shed into position. My wife and I installed a small koi pond, and our late Bishop Tom Shaw donated a garden bench for under one of two white-wisteria arbors.

That's how it started." That was back in 1997. Today, almost 20 years later, The Meditation Garden at St. Mary's has become a part of the local community a place that parishioners and non-parishioners alike can enjoy. Town employees sometimes bring their bag lunches there during the work week; teenagers take prom pictures under the arbors, grandparents bring grandchildren to watch the feeding of the fish; and still others regularly include a visit on their daily walks. The public is invited to visit by directional Signs that are placed on the street and the garden are maintained by just a few volunteers.

"The layout of the small garden creates a meandering feeling. As visitors go around corners, plantings and sculptures reveal themselves," adds Fox. One focal point is a bronze of Christ the Good Shepherd" donated by renowned American sculptor and parishioner Walter Hancock. There is a bronze relief titled "Galahad" by the late Rockport artist Richard Recchia. And there is also a piece of "found art" called "After the Fire" which is a rust-encrusted radiator panel from St. Mary's original furnace, repurposed as sculpture.

"I'm frequently approached by townspeople who tell me how much a visit to The Meditation Garden has become a part of their daily lives." says Fox. "We love comments like that, because that's just the way we planned it."

Placing a Focus on the Outdoors While a downtown project in a major city will require significant budget, for most churches, a focus on the outdoors can begin with some simple design and planning. Walking the perimeter of your building or campus with the perspective of someone who has never been there before can reveal opportunity, and engaging an architect or talented parishioner may uncover possibilities you hadn't thought of.

Covered walkways, landscaped paths, community gardens and any type of outdoor seating area can be welcoming and be intentional with directional signs to assure people that they are welcome, and invited.


TAGS: Grounds Design
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