Creating Space for Connection in the COVID-19 Era
Churches are working hard to determine when and how to reopen their facilities in the midst of ever-changing COVID-19 parameters. As you relaunch your church for this next season of ministry, I want to offer some basic principles about design and space.
There are two basic roles of your ministry space:
- Your church building serves as a tool to connect people to God and to each other.
- Your church building reflects the unique DNA of who you are as a church—your code, context, and calling.
Understanding these two roles of church space may help guide you as you make decisions about how to adapt your church facilities in the short- and long-term in response to COVID-19.
Spaces Shape Culture
Design shapes culture. We behave and even make decisions based on the spaces we inhabit regardless of whether or not we’re aware of a space’s impact on us. For example, we conducted focus groups as part of our Barna study on church architecture and Millennials.
When unchurched Millennials walked into a large, cathedral-type church, they instinctively got quiet, sat down and looked up at the ceiling. There were no instructions to do this; the space instructed them. This is the power of design influencing behaviors that shape culture.
In our COVID-19 reality, the way we connect with people has vastly changed, largely because of social distancing. Our church facilities need to adapt to help intuitively instruct people on how to connect in safe, socially distanced ways.
In the 1960s, sociologist Edward T. Hall studied how we interact with others based on our perceptions of the space around us. He coined the term “proxemics” to describe his study of how people relate in physical space.
Hall perceived four zones of connection, each with a certain distance surrounding a person.
Intimate space is a distance of less than two feet apart from one another. Intimate distances are those reserved for close, trusting relationships. People standing side-by-side, or engaging in close conversation are examples of intimate space.
Personal space is a distance of two-to-four feet apart from one another. We experience this in small groups or with teams at work. Our family and close friends usually engage us within our personal space. There is a slight degree of intimacy, but usually this is casual, close conversation that gives us slightly more space than the intimate space.
Social space is a distance of four-to-twelve feet apart from one another. This is the typical spacing in larger classrooms or gathering spaces for up to 50 people. Social space is perfect for casual conversations among acquaintances and colleagues.
Public space is a distance greater than twelve feet apart from one another. Large lobbies or gathering spaces for 50 or more people are perfect for creating increased distance between people. Public space allows people the freedom to move around and interact freely. The most important aspect of public space is that it gives us a way to share experiences with others, which satisfies a basic need for belonging and community.
Does Your Ministry Space Intuitively Instruct People on How to Connect Safely?
Leading with Design
As you move into a new season of ministry, ask, “What are we trying to accomplish in meeting together?” Not just for a day or this week, but what is your strategy for helping connect people to each other and to God when they come to your physical church building?
As you answer that question, you can then evaluate your key spaces where people interact in your church building to determine if the type of space you have is fostering the kinds of connections you want people to experience.
For example, social space relates to medium-sized spaces that can hold groups of 10 to 50. Not only do we need medium-sized spaces for our own congregations, but developing medium-sized social spaces also paves the way to creating new discipleship opportunities.
The relational dynamic in groups of 20 to 50 is different from groups of 100-plus. It allows people to connect more broadly than in personal space, but also more deeply than in public space. It can be the perfect opportunity for inviting newcomers as well as shaping a space where effective discipleship can take place.
Creating medium-sized space may be a good temporary solution for reopening your facility as COVID-19 restrictions ease, and it also may prove to be an important part of your long-term facility strategy. Here are some potentials ways you may be able to gain medium-sized gathering space for your ministries to meet in:
Sharing Space: Some churches might consider teaming up to co-lease spaces, like at a retail strip center, and meet at different times in the week. A larger church may even purchase a space like this and lease it out to smaller congregations. Some churches may choose to continue livestreaming Sunday morning, but offer medium-sized gatherings for ministry use for their congregation throughout the week. Collaborative churches can share spaces in new ways and refresh their spaces with innovative ideas that match the creative potential of their new ministry approach.
Shape the Community: Consider leasing and outfitting medium-sized retail spaces to expand the footprint of the church and help communities. Even as the church thinks creatively about medium-sized spaces, we may simultaneously have the opportunity to help the community renew the thousands of retail spaces that will become available in the economic aftermath of this year.
Outdoor and Temporary Spaces: Churches often overlook the property available to them outside their church building. Outdoor spaces, such as parking lots or green space that surrounds the church building, may provide a high-impact, low-cost opportunity to expand available space and spread people out. Thinking in terms of different seasons also means we can create better temporary spaces instead of just being confined to permanent options.
It’s important to understand that people will be uncomfortable reentering our spaces. There is no “normal” established right now. Anxiety—and excitement—about returning to church may be heightened. Everyone will be a first-timer, looking and experiencing church with a fresh perspective.
Take advantage of this opportunity to audit your space with fresh eyes. Start small—seating, layouts, floor signage, outdoor gathering areas, clean spaces, and great communication. These are ways we can lower anxiety and help people feel comfortable in our spaces.
What are some small changes and adjustments you can make to create a sense of comfort, clarity, and connection with your ministry space?
Changing What You Measure
COVID-19 has also created an opportunity to change how we measure and keep score. The modern scorecard to measure church success has been “butts, building and budgets.” Large auditoriums force us to count attendance. I wonder if we can change our mindset and begin measuring behaviors and outcomes, celebrating how people interact or how well our people are flourishing.
What if we measure outcomes related to discipleship, like courageous next steps or connections with others? If we are more intentional with designing our spaces for connection, we can use it as a tool to drive these behaviors, not simply as a tool that forces our programs and our strategy upon us.
There's an opportunity because of the pandemic to change how we view the spaces we use, and leverage them as an asset for connection and ministry impact.
About Derek DeGroot
Derek DeGroot is Vice President of Design and Integrated Services for Aspen Group. After graduating from University of Illinois-Chicago’s architecture program, Derek began his career in residential design. At the same time, his church was embarking on a building project. Derek quickly realized that churches needed to find a better way to build. Soon after, he discovered and joined Aspen Group in 2007.