Designing Churches to Shape Culture and Solve Problems
The built environment is complex, changing, and needs fresh thinking to solve today’s challenges. The pandemic has created new problems to solve and accelerated the problems already occurring. Recent data from Barna highlights shifts in our culture and how they are—or soon will be—affecting the church.
Three key themes have emerged in Barna’s research this year:
Learn how physical AND digital space can work together to support the discipleship journey.
1. Emotional Health
Almost daily, we hear that mental health is worsening across demographics. People are sad, lonely, and 3 in 10 say they are depressed. People are starving for an emotionally-connected church.
2. Integrating Physical and Digital
Leaders are wrestling with church engagement, having been forced to adapt quickly to a digital world. Millennials want to participate and contribute, not just consume. The challenge is that streaming often happens in isolation. How do we foster connections in the digital world?
3. Gen Z
Gen Z, born after 1996, is forming in a crisis. Gen Z is a post-truth generation—only one in three believes that lying is wrong. Flooded with information but lacking context, they wonder how to process their doubts and curiosities safely. The church has barely begun addressing how to disciple this generation as they survive the pandemic.
Aspen’s design team has been considering these three themes and how design can help address them. Church design has the power to help shape behaviors, habits, and experiences that contribute to creating a rich discipleship culture. But it requires a different way of thinking that I like to call interplay.
Creating Interplay in Design Solutions
Local churches can expand horizons in big and small ways by using design to create a new interplay between worlds that have often been separated. These worlds have been thought of and designed as separate entities: art and architecture, the digital and physical realms, the indoors and outdoors, even children and adults. Here are four examples of how design interplay can impact ministry:
1. Bridging Art, Architecture, and Mental Health
If we know anxiety is pervasive, the church must create spaces for true respite and emotional connectedness. Combating the modular, individualistic, and isolated lives we live requires a better interplay of art and architecture to show off the full emotional depth of how God created us as humans. This would allow us to create space that has a sense of permanence but is also changing like the seasons, a space that reflects the season your community is in – seasons of joy. Or seasons of grief.
For example, our churches have lost people during a season where we have been unable to participate in the traditions of mourning. What if we could use our spaces to display art that helped us mourn the loss of those who passed? Imagine the church serving as a healing center that created space to mark the community's losses and give the church family a place to come, socially distanced, to move through lament into hope?
2. Physically Connected with Digital
The pandemic has also revealed the digital vs. physical manifestations of our faith as a false dichotomy. The church needs to stop thinking about being either/or when it comes to digital and physical ministry. We can think of these worlds as one place where people engage all at once, still discipling, still mission forward. The two realms of physical and digital work together to show the grace of God to people as we walk along a discipleship journey.
What if the church designed a better interplay between those two worlds? This could be a prayer walk with hotspots to access a curated liturgy on their device. Or a virtual model of your building so people can experience it in advance—reducing anxiety and opening them up to connection.
3. Indoor and Outdoor
The interplay of indoor and outdoor spaces can create joy, healing, and rest. In a time when people long for emotional connection, we need to invent creative, physical interactions at our local churches that give us permission to feel the presence of our creator. The church should design spaces that contrast light and shadow and play with sheltered and open-air spaces. This displays the mystery of our world and piques our curiosity about it. It helps us to be captured by something outside of ourselves – the very thing the church teaches.
4. All Generations
Gen Z, currently ages 8–21, is more unchurched than the 4 generations before, heavily shaped by tech and social media, and very pragmatic in contrast to Millennials. Our typical response might be to create unique programs and spaces oriented to this generation—but I believe the future of church ministry is another facet of this interplay: bringing young and old together in discipleship, creating spaces where that can happen naturally.
Barna reports that two-thirds of youth pastors say their most significant barrier is parents who don’t support their teen’s spiritual growth. Yet half of Gen Z says their parents are their biggest role models. Studies show college-age students are more likely to return to their home church when they have inter-generational connections. Yet, we still create spaces that separate these generations. Intentionally designed family interplay across generations is what is needed. It’s evident when we consider where our families spend time: their homes, outdoor spaces, sports facilities, and restaurants. None of these places silo youth off from adults; instead, each of them specializes in intergenerational interplay.
Spaces for interplay between generations create more joy, more connection, and deeper discipleship—all keys to better emotional health and spiritual maturity.
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.