Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Your Space Matters--How To Try Something Other Than The Modernized Cathedral Layout You're Using

The space you meet in matters.

The first major breakthrough on the journey to starting my first member-driven church happened at an all-day pastor's conference. It was a gorgeous--and very large--church with:
3,000 seats, including a balcony
Not pews, but stadium seats--plush cushions, with wood armrests that sprang up when you stood up
Dark hardwood stage with a three level choir section arrayed behind the pulpit
Even what must have been a 20 foot waterfall flowing down glass (etched with the church logo, of course) on the wall above the choir seats and directly behind the pulpit

No, my insight wasn't about the grandeur or the cost. I actually grew up in some of the largest, most opulent churches in America (including a world-ranked pipe organ and stained glass)--nothing new there for me. Here's what happened...

On a break, I was being introduced to another pastor who was sitting nearby--and it was physically uncomfortable to turn to the side to talk to him. The armrests were cutting into my side. My seat was very comfortable--as long as I faced straight at the stage. So I had to stand up, and then felt a little awkward being one of the few people standing...and while we were talking, I realized this impressive church design actually discouraged building relationships with anyone around you.

Maximizing the space for one purpose means giving up some functionality in other areas. What's your space designed to do best?

Catholic and Anglican churches are often designed for the congregation that will sit, kneel, stand, kneel, sit…if you're from these "high liturgy" traditions, you know what I'm talking about.

Protestant churches are often designed to cram as many people as possible in front of a pulpit--no moving around allowed.

Pentecostal/Charismatic churches often have more room between the seats and wide aisles to accommodate dancing, falling down, etc.

But all these spaces are centered around the stage. These differences are simply nuances around this basic layout: people sit in rows facing the raised stage where the "experts" put on inspirational shows (music, talks, public prayer, etc). The space establishes two clear classes of people (on stage and off). It discourages relating to others (some even have stadium seating so the people in front of you "won't get in your way" while you're watching the stage--the important stuff. And the space often is designed to inspire awe and majesty. This isn't a bad thing. In fact, none of these features are bad. But most people aren't thinking about it purposefully. It just remains in the "well, we've always done it that way" category.

In contrast, our member-driven church space is designed to maximize the conversations and interactions between others. We use tables with chairs around them to sit at and do bible studies around. There is no raised stage and no pulpit. I either walk around when teaching or sit in a chair in a teaching circle and talk from a seated position. We make open circles of chairs for open ministry time or multiple circles--or put people around tables. We change up the arrangement from time to time so people don't get stuck in their "usual" spot, interacting only with the people sitting nearby in their "usual" spots.

Businesses spend millions of dollars designing work spaces to encourage collaboration, or creativity, to impress seriousness or playfulness. Whole school systems (e.g. Montessori) put the layout of the room at the core of their approach to child development. Interior Design was an $11 billion industry in 2011. That's a lot of people making a serious investment in the space they use.

When's the last time your church took a serious look at your interior design (and I don't mean last year's fight over the new carpet color)? If you're a typical church, you're probably using a design crafted in the middle ages--with better seats, carpets, and projection screens added to either side of the stage, of course. See the pictures of church sanctuaries throughout the years. We haven't changed the basic layout since they started building cathedrals. (If anything, our space design looks like churches are making a bigger and bigger deal out of the stage.)

What changes do you want to make in your church culture? What changes to the room layout on Sunday could reinforce that change and/or discourage the old way? Oh, and you don't even need to preach a sermon about this. Just make the change and see what moving the furniture around can do all by itself.

Couple of quick thoughts on room layout/space design:

Eye contact has a big impact. What's everyone looking at?  That's been elevated to the most important element of the room. Is it each other? The stage? The screens? Move the seats so people's natural gaze falls on what you want to emphasize.

Get comfortable seats. The mind can only handle as much as your bottom can endure. Get flexible seats. Don't underestimate the impact of bolted down pews for reinforcing an inflexible culture.

Break the barrier between the stage and audience. Maybe you've got a built in stage. You're not stuck with it's two-class implications. Put seating on the stage and move the pulpit to the floor. Have people cross onto and off the stage during the service (add stairs if you need to). 

Check out my previous post from my visit to SCAD for a great example of how even the most traditional of spaces (including pews) can be rearranged for an amazing effect.

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