Mission-shaped buildings: reimagining church architecture for maximum community impact

We spoke with Kelvin Sampson, Architect and Co-Founder of Leap Architects, about how churches can be designing buildings that serve their communities well.

When Jesus commissioned his church to go and make disciples of all people groups, baptising them and teaching them all he taught, he didn’t say: ‘And also build church buildings’. And when the first megachurch was birthed on the day of Pentecost, Peter didn’t quickly commission a team of builders to create a 5000-seater amphitheatre.

Yet we seem to be heavily dependent on church buildings today. In the UK, our Christian heritage means that every three or four miles (walking distance) there is usually a landmark church building. There are also thousands of chapels, preaching boxes, warehouses, schools, theatres and cinemas that provide church accommodation across the country.

In recent years, a profound shift has been taking place in the UK as churches engage with their communities in new ways. With a fresh vision to be light to their neighbourhoods, Christians are moving beyond the church walls, responding to real practical needs and helping to fill desperate gaps in social provision.

Will our church buildings become redundant as we shift our focus towards our community neighbours? Or can we reimagine these spaces for mission?

Should we invest in church architecture in the 21st century?

A thriving church doesn’t have to own the space it meets in, as the early church made clear. The explosion of church growth we see in Acts was distributed to homes and existing public places for teaching, discipleship and fellowship.

This raises interesting theological questions for a church architect! While I don’t have all the theological answers to justify investment in bricks and mortar, I do know that God has called my team to use our skills and talents to work with churches in this way.

Where a church does own or have use of buildings (in whatever form they take), these can be used as Kingdom assets in 3 key ways:

1. They can be a practical resource for people’s wellbeing; instrumental in transforming individual lives for the better.

2. They are catalysts for community cohesion; influencing culture and facilitating all kinds of activities to meet people’s social and spiritual needs.

3. They demonstrate the long-term commitment of the local church to its community. A building says that the church is invested, available, and here to stay.

Where we inherit buildings which are not designed or equipped for this kind of community vision, they can be a burden and a hindrance to the work of the church and the groups using the space. Managing architectural assets wisely is an ongoing challenge for churches, but when we can look outside the walls and get to know the neighbours, we can then start to reimagine church buildings together.

What should a modern church building include?

Church congregations need spaces to gather for worship, fellowship and teaching, and this has been the focus of church building design for decades – even centuries. Over time, church architecture has evolved to suit emerging trends in churchmanship. The medieval church would have been the community centre, market, place of worship and focus of community life; latterly, buildings require offices, toilets, foyers, meeting rooms, and storage (lots of storage!) to provide for the needs of a healthy church.

The space usage for what we might call ‘modern traditional’ church buildings often looks something like the bubble diagram below. This model typically caters for the busiest usage on Sundays, but also facilitates outreach and ministry activities throughout the week.

It’s exciting to see how church building typology is changing in the 21st century. More and more, we see churches asking their neighbours ‘What can we do for you? What do you need?’ at the beginning of an architectural project, and allowing the answers to significantly influence the finished design. These mission-shaped buildings are game-changers for our understanding of church and our appreciation of good church architecture.

What could a mission-shaped building look like?

Moving away from the ‘modern traditional’ template, a new kind of design is emerging: an architectural response to real needs expressed by the church’s local community. There is no limit to the combination of spaces that could represent this ‘modern contemporary’ building, but it could look something like this bubble diagram:

Here the church-centric model – with optimum capacity for Sunday meetings and peripheral community resource – has been turned upside down. But instead of replacing one template with another, a mission-shaped approach can lead to all sorts of different expressions of church building. Not every church is going to include a pharmacy, a dentist surgery or a furniture warehouse! But in an area where these are desperately lacking, a church can reinvest in its building for maximum impact in their local community.

Mission-shaped buildings can radically transform communities

The story of the Good Samaritan reminds us that our response to our neighbours must be practical as well as spiritual. We are called to meet the needs of the poor, marginalised and vulnerable. Although it’s not necessary to own a building to do this, wherever a church building exists it can become an invaluable resource for the outworking of the gospel.

Mission-shaped buildings can:

• Respond uniquely to the communities they are part of, allowing the church to meet specific local needs;

• Release potential and inspire church congregations to come together around a shared vision for their area;

• Provide for the needs of the church, creating space to gather for worship and fellowship for years to come.

The rootedness of the mission-shaped church building goes way beyond its physical presence or the depth of its foundations, to its capacity to resource the church in making disciples, caring for the poor and leading to radical community transformation.

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