Making Space to Form the Next Generation in Higher Education Blog Feature
Derek DeGroot

By: Derek DeGroot on February 16, 2021

Print/Save as PDF

Making Space to Form the Next Generation in Higher Education

facilities | Community Impact | Educational Environments

Creating space for ministry impact extends beyond church buildings, especially as we consider what it means to disciple the next generation. Shaping the future leaders of the church means that we need to create space for forming people in the midst of rapidly changing culture. 

Millennials are now parents, and the older members of the next generation, Gen Z, are college students. The four major trends we observed in our study with Barna—Making Space for Millennials—are still relevant for today's generation of students in Christian colleges and universities.


View the Benet Academy Transformation



Modularity: Assembling a Customized Life

The first of the trends that surfaced in Making Space for Millennials was modularity—how we take apart the components of former monoliths of community life (family, church, education, work) and piece them back together in an arrangement that suits individuals. Emerging generations preferred options—many different service times to choose from, digital or in-person sermon delivery—rather than submit to an authority who would tell them what to do.

For Millennials, as well as for Gen Z, however, modularity has also had the negative effect of increasing anxiety and making church into an option that 59% of Gen Z decline to participate in because they say “it is not relevant to me personally.” Many Christians have decided they can have faith without a local church community.

But Christian higher education can challenge this attitude—especially as young adults are coming into their independence and deciding what they want to include in their adult lives—by creating space for relationships, including relationships with local churches. Shaping a counter-culture of Christians means we use space to demonstrate that the best decisions about our lives often happen in submission to a Christian community.

Question: How do your college or university facilities “disciple” students on how to make decisions as they assemble the most important components of their lives?

The Power of Nature and Respite

Making Space for Millennials also revealed that Millennials prefer nature, and they have a deep need for respite. When Barna surveyed Millennials to find out which image out of four feels most like home, 64% selected nature over vacation, cities, or transportation. Gen Z also shows a strong preference—even a need—for the outdoors and the peace that nature imparts. They instinctively long for church to be both a sanctuary and a place where people may “come as you are”; to have places in their lives where they can be instead of just do.

For Gen Z, the ability to rest and enjoy nature is critical to their mental health and well-being—a topic that is forefront among their concerns. But as “digital natives” who spend extensive time with technology, and as pragmatists who express a strong desire to achieve, they are less likely to seek nature and respite as a destination where they would unplug and shoot the breeze. They are very anxious, but they lack the rhythms and routines of rest and disconnection from technology.

In fact, campuses are a perfect opportunity to create spaces of respite and engagement with nature for Gen Z. At Aspen, we incorporate nature and respite into church spaces through biophilic design, windows in sanctuaries instead of black box theaters, and indoor/outdoor spaces that can maximize the use of outdoor space year-round. With so much foot traffic, sidewalks, and green space between buildings, campuses are ideal for designing spots “along the way”—a grotto, a labyrinth, or a small garden—where a person can drop in briefly for prayer or a moment of quiet in the middle of a busy day.

Question: Are your outdoor spaces intentionally discipling your students? Or are they simply a passing space to get from building to building? What respite does your campus and facilities offer from a chaotic and anxious world?


Finally, another trend that surfaced in our Making Space for Millennials research was the need for clarity. Millennials want to know, What’s expected of me here? What can I expect? What is the story of the people here? Related to modularity and an increase in anxiety, younger generations want to understand their options and how to engage.

On the most practical level, we help churches create clear signage in their buildings. Where are the restrooms? Where do I take my kids? Where do I go to worship? In a time when people are highly skeptical of institutions, these simple design details help people make the first steps to build a relationship with a church or school, giving them the ability to operate and engage comfortably by knowing what to do.

On a more abstract level, we guide churches to consider their building as an opportunity to tell their story—to reflect the priorities, practices, and people who are integral to their culture. The financial priorities of a building project should line up with the overarching mission and vision. The focal points and details should all reinforce, this is who we are and what we care about.

Gen Z has the same distrust of authority. They have never known a world without highly publicized scandals in the church, government, and even higher education. The opportunity with this generation, however, is not only to create clarity, but to help them learn to deal with ambiguity.

When crossing a threshold feels like picking sides, there is a great benefit to blurred lines! Creating space for intergenerational relationships, connection between the campus and surrounding neighborhoods, even between digital and physical connections, is a great opportunity to invite someone who may be skeptical to take a first step into something unfamiliar.

Question: When you think about your campus “building language” – what sticks out? What does a first-time visitor learn about what you value? What does it reflect about your process of discipleship?


Space is never neutral. Whether you’re building classrooms, dorm rooms, or sanctuaries, your facilities are either helping or hindering your mission. Architecture can help shape habits, routines, and rhythms in people’s lives—a goal that is as critical for Christian higher education as for churches.


About Derek DeGroot

Derek DeGroot is President of 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.