by Bob Whitesel. (Download the chapter HERE: BOOK ©Whitesel EXCERPT – GROWTH BY ACCIDENT Missteps with New Facilities 2. If you like the insights please support publisher and author by buying a copy here. Excerpted from Growth by Accident – Death by Planning: How Not to Kill a Growing Church, Abingdon Press, 2004, pp. 76-80.)
1. Don’t build too soon. Oftentimes a rented or paid-for facility will be less expensive to operate than a new facility. Though architects often laud cost savings of new facilities, they may require large unforeseen expenditures. Repairing a boiler in an existing facility might cost $8,000 to $10,000. But in a new facility, the same size of congregation might have to pay twice to three times that amount. And though a builder/architect may suggest that this would not happen for years, it happened with in the first five years at Mt Sinai. Thus, building cautiously and patiently can help generate a fiscal reserve.
2. Don’t build too big. Under advice of their architect/builder, and based upon their own overly optimistic projections, the church leaders built a facility that was oversized for their congregation, and their budget. We saw in Chapter 2 how multiple weekend celebrations can give the church more options for attracting community residents. And the four Sunday services at Mt. Sinai provided this benefit. Yet naively, the leaders decided to hold one large combined church service in the new facility. Thus, robbing the Sunday services of their flexibility and convenience, they undermined their attendance. “We all agreed we wanted everyone together, and only one service was the way to do it,” recollected Tim. “But we didn’t expect such a drop-off in attendance.”
3. Don’t build without flexibility. Renovated and rented facilities had given Mt. Zion Church needed flexibility. If they needed to change their usage or space requirements, a different site could be rented. And due to the cramped facilities, multi-functional areas were mandated. But when the new facility was built, many ministries were segregated into activity-specific spaces. Immovable pews were installed in the auditorium, small classrooms were designed, separated by load-bearing cement walls. Since church members were tired of years of cramped and communal space, they tried to give everyone their own area in the new facility. “Everyone was going to have their own rooms at last,” mused Tim. But creating these private enclaves weakened the flexibility that had contributed to growth.
4. Don’t use a plateaued church for your model. Mt. Zion’s leaders had visited several seemingly successful churches in the region. Unfortunately, they did not ask if these churches were plateaued or declining. Of the five churches they visited, two were declining and two were plateaued. But their impressive facilities kept Mt. Zion’s leaders from looking closer. The architect/builder who had designed the lone growing church was rejected in Tim’s words as “too wild for us, it looks like a mall.”
5. Don’t build in a detached location. The building site was an area where many of the leaders would have liked to live and worship. But unlike their first facility (and the rented spaces downtown) it lacked visibility. “It was on a moderately traveled road,” suggested Tim. “But it was across town from the main highway. I really wish we had built adjacent to Route 20.” Visibility is one of the keys to outreach. But unfortunately, churches often link their destiny to a parcel of land that is convenient for current attendees, but in a detached location that slows or undercuts growth.
6. Don’t forget to get information from the right experts. Church leaders thought they were getting the best advice available when they hired the architect/builder of another large and prestigious church. In fact, he had built dozens of churches. But because most of the churches in America are declining or plateaued, the architect/builder was inadvertently experienced in building facilities that contributed to church plateaus and/or declinations.
7. Don’t expect new facilities to increase the church’s attendance. Related to errors two and six above, this must be mentioned again because it is so prevalent in the sales pitch of many architects/builders. As I noted earlier Christians are an optimistic lot. And in my experience architect/builders succumb to this malady just as easily. Together they can give overly aggressive projections. “The architect advised us on church growth projections. He said a new facility would increase our attendance by 10-15 percent,” recalled Tim. “He said they were based on his company’s history. But now I question his figures.” While architects and builders are experts in legal codes, and civil engineering; few are acquainted with the principles and strategies of church growth.
Seven Do’s When Building a Facility
Each of the above Seven Errors have a positive alternative. I have labeled these corrective steps the “Seven Dos When Building a Facility.”
Corrective Step 1. Do wait longer than you think you should before you build. This may require restraint, but waiting can help you further define your needs and objectives. Patience also allows fiscal swings to moderate and more precise financial projections to be created. More money can be set aside for savings as well. Finally, cautious and unhurried behavior allows you to plan your future more precisely.
Corrective Step 2. Do build a smaller sized auditorium, leaving room for expansion. Creating spaces where everyone can worship simultaneously may not be needed (combined “unity” gatherings can be held in rented facilities[i]), nor wise (we saw in Chapter 2 that multiple celebration options allow us to reach a greater percentage of a community).
Corrective Step 3. Do create flexibility in your facility, to compensate for the smaller size. Though a smaller facility can cause tension and minor friction, it can lead to creativity. And, sharing facilities forces an expanding congregation to interact and work out this conflict, thus creating interaction between potentially divisive groups.[ii] Designing flexible spaces also provides adaptability for future programming.
Corrective Step 4. Do use a larger, but growing church as your model. Don’t let impressive facilities and/or reputations dissuade you from discovering if your model church is growing. Ask yourself, does the architect/builder build growing churches or plateaued/declining ones? In addition, ask the architect/builder for references and interview former clients. Ask the references if they feel the facilities have hindered growth to any degree.
Corrective Step 5. Do build in a visible location. For unchurched and dechurched people accessibility is essential. Robert Schuller tells how fellow clergypersons extended to him their condolences when he could find no other facility to rent other than a drive-in theatre. “Don’t feel sorry for me,” Schuller replied. “The Orange Drive-In Theatre is right on the Santa Ana Freeway, and that’s the heaviest traveled road in the State of California. … Nobody has a better road leading up to their front door than I do! And you have to have a road leading up to your front door before you need a building.”[iii]
Corrective Step 6. Do get advice from the right experts. Seek out architect/builders who build malls, theatres, and colleges rather than churches. Churches are often designed with a formulaic look and inadequate flexibility. Here I cannot fault architect/builders too much. Most of their church building experience revolves around aging congregations, who are building smaller facilities or merging. As such, these architects have little experience with facilities that foster connectedness and growth. Today, the architects of malls and shopping centers are becoming the designers of connectedness in America. Malls have replaced the streets of small town America as the venue for meeting people and relationship building. One young teenager confided, “It’s at the mall where I feel at home with my friends. There’s a coffee bar, comfortable couches, TVs, a fountain, and lots of people hanging out. It sure beats church.” Unfortunately, the church is being beat by the sense of community created by many of these retail environments. Where once it was said, “I met my spouse at church,” too often today it is heard, “I met my spouse at the mall.”
Corrective Step 7. Do plan on the size of your church to plateau or even decline moderately after a building project. Change always brings about tension, and as a result polarization between the status quo and change proponents often erupts. In the second book of this series, Staying Power: Why People Leave the Church Over Change and What You Can Do About It [iv] I explained how you can avoid the polarization that often arises between these groups. But because change is unavoidable, tension will be encountered. Therefore the tension involved in moving into new facilities does not usually grow a church. And because some people find this change especially jarring, they look for a congregation more in keeping with their former church experience. Thus, a decline should be anticipated in budget and usage projections. Hiring an expert in church growth can be expeditious for realistic planning. The American Society for Church Growth (www.ascg.org) lists dozens of church growth consultants trained and skilled in helping churches navigate the precipitous waters of growth, change, and facility expansion.
[i] For ideas on “unity celebrations” that can unify churches with multiple weekend worship options, see “Unity Building Exercises” in A House Divided, p. 187.
[ii] See the second book in this series, Staying Power: Why People Leave the Church Over Change and What You Can Do About It, to discover how to keep your people from coalescing into factions.
[iii] Robert H. Schuller, Your Church Has A Fantastic Future (Ventura, Calif.” Regal Books, 1986), p. 286.