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Is the Church You’re in Today Built to Reach People in the Future? Blog Feature
Derek DeGroot

By: Derek DeGroot on September 21, 2015

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Is the Church You’re in Today Built to Reach People in the Future?

Events | Millennials | Church Construction | Managing Facilities

Church buildings are always a reflection of and a response to the culture in which they exist. For instance, when I design a church, I want it to reflect the DNA of that particular congregation. The building itself tells a story about who the church is. By its design, you can tell what the church values and what its mission is.

At the same time, churches are also designed to respond to the changing needs of the times. In recent years, many churches have built gyms in their facilities both as a response to the increased interest in personal fitness and in hopes of creating space to attract the unchurched.

Today, many churches are adding Third Place space to their buildings. Third Place spaces are neutral gathering places outside of home and work. Panera or Starbucks, for instance, led the way in creating space that encouraged people to meet with friends and linger as long as they’d like. They tapped into our culture’s growing desire to connect with people outside of home and work. Churches with Third Place space, such as a café or lobby seating, also help meet this need for connection, and these dedicated spaces for fellowship convey a value that relationships are important.

At Aspen, we spend a lot of time monitoring the culture for trends. We strive to design space that is both culturally relevant and ministry-focused for today’s church, and space that anticipates the needs of the future.

Recently, architects and designers at Aspen Group gathered with other church industry professionals and church leaders to explore cultural trends with Roxanne Stone of Barna Group and Rex Miller of mindSHIFT. Over the course of our two-day Aspen Learning Summit, we wrestled with this question: What will the church need to look like to reach people in the future?

Based on what we learned from Aspen’s co-sponsored Barna/CKN research on Millennials and church architecture, and Rex’s expertise in how built space affects people’s engagement levels, here are some of the concepts we explored:

The Future of Outreach

For years, the church has responded to the needs of its community by adding programming or resources inside its walls. As I mentioned earlier, many churches have built gyms, play lands, food pantries, and other spaces that serve the needs of the community and attract people who might not otherwise choose to go to church. With today’s explosion of online content, however, people no longer need to go to church for a sermon, and we can find fellowship in many other places.

Also, after years of living on overdrive, many Americans are expressing a growing need for respite. We simply want space where we can just be. Where the church has been a place of action in recent years, we may see a swing toward church as a quiet, contemplative place. Here are some of the ways we can design churches to serve as a tool for respite:

Finding God Naturally

One of the ways churches can help provide respite to a weary world is by emphasizing nature at church. According to our Barna/CKN study, nature is an element that Millennials especially say helps them connect with God. More and more churches are adding jogging paths, nature playgrounds, outdoor chapels and amphitheaters to their campuses.

The future church will completely blur the lines between outdoor and indoor spaces. Hospitals are already doing it with the addition of healing gardens. Schools are doing the same with the creation of educational rooftop gardens. In the future, more churches will capitalize on the missional power of nature to help people find and know God.

Pathways and Rest Stops

Creating spaces that help people find rest doesn’t always require a major construction project. Sometimes, small design gestures can transform destination spaces into respite spaces. For example, you could add a new walking or bike path that connects local housing to a playground already on your site. Or, you could create new steps to an urban grotto a few steps off a commuter path. Or maybe an outdoor chapel on your property would make respite more accessible for a local subdivision. Just make sure that anything you offer is an obvious invitation to the public. Rooftop gardens and meditative paths in the heart of a city are great, but only if it’s clear that they are open to the public.

Pop-Up Sacred Space

Suburbs and cities are master planning great mobile experiences to make their urban centers destinations once again—things like pop-up art galleries, pop-up parks, and pop-up cafes. What if the church did the same?

What if churches could design and deliver a pop-up chapel for people to conveniently visit? A mobile “taste-and-see” sacred space could provide people a way to experience church without all of the common barriers to entry. For people who might not necessarily be ready to visit your church, pop-up church may offer a way to help people recharge, engage with God, and find respite right where they are.

The Future of Community

We already know some of the critical connecting components to making your church space a Third Place Space. But what’s the next evolution of connecting people with each other?

Makers Studios

The next generation of Third Place Space will include studios for people to collaboratively create. Churches that invest in music, film, or centralized digital work space can offer the community vocational connection and become new hubs for creativity. Makers studios also can offer new platforms for multigenerational discipleship and mentoring.

Church as Curator

We live in a modular world, meaning we all have the ability to build our own life journeys. However, the world gives us access to more information than we can consume in our lifetimes. We’re in need of curators—trustworthy people who can assemble stories, art, and information for us.

Enter the church.

Here’s an open door for the church to be a curator for its people, helping to re-contextualize meaning through media and art. Furthermore, by adding input from the community, churches can turn their broadcast into a conversation. Churches can use new technologies to ask questions and listen for answers from the town center, providing new opportunities to take action together.


For many years, churches and denominations have supported missionaries or mission partners by pooling resources for a team they couldn’t support themselves. But, when it comes to building projects, churches tend to pursue these on their own.

Why go it alone? Instead, what if churches identified building projects that other area churches are trying to fund and then pool resources in the name of outreach and building the Kingdom? If one church’s focus is on creating space in its facility so that the church serves as a community hub, while another church longs to create an after-school computer lab for local grade schoolers, why not partner support each other’s endeavors?

Likewise, if churches in a similar geographic area pooled resources, they could reclaim dilapidated churches or other abandoned buildings, such as the one in Gary, Indiana I wrote about in “Reclaiming Sacred Space.” By banding together with other churches to invest in and improve the local area, churches would bear witness to the unity we share as followers of Christ.

What trends do you think will affect the way we design churches in the future?


About Derek DeGroot

Derek DeGroot is Vice President of Design and Integrated Services for Aspen Group.