Church building design trends in the 21st century
By Robert C. Foreman

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Church architecture has undergone major changes in recent years. Church buildings in the 20th century looked and functioned a lot like church buildings of the 19th century. But among the rapidly growing evangelical churches, the look and style of the typical 21st century church building is trending toward something very different. These changes began during the last half of the 20th century and will continue because of a rapidly changing culture.


What best describes the style of your church?
  • 1. Traditional
  • 2. Big box/warehouse
  • 3. Repurposed
  • 4. Megachurch

Cost is a big influence on church design. Traditional architecture and ornate design can be very expensive. Church architecture is becoming simpler and plainer because of tight budgets and the need to build more building for less cost. Even churches that can afford traditional design often choose to put their resources into space and technology rather than tradition.

For many years, church design has trended toward use of multipurpose space because tight budgets have created the need to find more ways to use the same space for many different functions. The trend has continued with the use of large multipurpose rooms that serve both for worship and fellowship, and sometimes for educational and recreational activities as well. The most rapidly growing congregations are less inclined to have spaces that are used for only one purpose. This multipurpose nature of many recent church buildings has impacted the architectural look of these buildings. The "big box" or "warehouse look" that some churches have adopted is partly a result of the multipurpose trend.

Example of a "warehouse church" — a repurposed former cellphone factory, 40 miles northeast of Atlanta.

There is also clearly a trend toward the repurposing of existing commercial and institutional buildings to serve as church facilities. Warehouses, business park buildings and abandoned retail buildings are being converted into churches. Often the plain exterior appearance is retained, with only the addition of a cross or the name of the church. In other cases, the exterior is "dressed up" to be more church-like.

For some congregations, the trend toward simpler design is being reinforced by the desire to be more "seeker sensitive." Their leaders feel that departing from traditional "churchy" buildings allows their facility to be more appealing to the unchurched or the unbeliever. The theory being that stained glass, ornate steeples, pews and the traditional church symbols may discourage some unbelievers from being attracted to Christianity.

However, this theory has its critics, including a survey conducted by Rainer Research which seems to indicate many unchurched prefer more traditional church architecture. Some pastors feel that unbelievers are more likely to be influenced by the behavior of Christians than by the appearance of their buildings.

Even so, some of the most rapidly growing churches have given up traditional architecture, so as not to turn off prospective new members. Casual dress and contemporary worship music are part of this trend. In the last half century, the influences of cost, multipurpose space and seeker-sensitive design, have resulted in many church facilities that are almost indistinguishable from community centers, schools, theaters or even warehouses.

Worship style is influencing the look and feel of new worship spaces. In many of these churches, the multipurpose stage is preferred over the traditional chancel or choir loft. The old light-filled sanctuary with large windows is giving way to windowless auditoriums with theater seating or movable chairs, high-tech lighting and multiscreen video projection systems.

Modern audio systems perform better with the dead acoustics of a recording studio rather than the more live acoustics of the traditional worship space. The pipe organ (or the electronic organ) is no longer the musical instrument of choice. An organ can be very expensive, and skilled church organists are becoming a scarce commodity, as fewer people are learning to play the organ.

The contemporary 21st century church congregation enjoys worshipping with more contemporary music styles, often provided by orchestras or bands that include guitars, drums, keyboards and other electronic instruments. Many churches no longer use a choir, but ensemble vocal groups help lead congregational singing. Congregations follow the words to contemporary and traditional hymns on video screens, rather than follow the music in hymn books. Contemporary worship can take place in traditional spaces, but the trend is toward buildings designed to accommodate the technology and flexibility that go with the contemporary worship style.

The Locust Grove Baptist Church is a new facility near the town of Locust Grove, Ga., between Atlanta and Macon. It's an example of nontraditional church building.

Technology, including elaborate production lighting and audio and video systems, is allowing the church to use its buildings in ways we could not imagine a few years ago. As buildings become more high tech, the fabric of the building may be subject to constant change and reinvention to fit the need and function of the moment.

It is not all technology. Growing churches are making concerted efforts to make their facilities more people friendly. The design trend today is away from the limited-purpose foyer and toward large multipurpose gathering spaces that encourage members and guests to meet and greet and have fellowship with one another between events. These gathering spaces serve as a family room where the church family interacts together and friendships are made and renewed.

These spaces are much more than foyers and often include coffee shops, library/media centers and bookstores. They have become the "third place" for members of the church family, both on Sunday and during the week. The third place concept is being incorporated into church life, and growing churches see their third place as just as important in the life of the church as worship, fellowship and educational spaces. Some third place spaces are connected to family life or wellness centers, recreational facilities that often include gyms, weight rooms, fitness rooms, rock climbing walls, skateboard parks, and many of the features of a well-equipped municipal recreation facility.

Other trends influencing the architecture of church buildings include more energy-efficient and environmentally sensitive design, the trend toward use of "themed" environments for children and youth, and a trend toward multisite churches. Another trend is toward the church campus where several different worship services may be held simultaneously.

While the megachurch was a definite trend toward the end of the 20th century, a more recent trend is toward small home-based churches. Churches are people, not buildings. First century believers gathered for worship in the homes of members. Home churches today may be a reaction to the contemporary megachurch.

A new simplified church architecture has emerged from the trend to multipurpose buildings, lower-cost buildings and contemporary-style worship. Around the world, churches will continue to meet in a variety of nontraditional venues. The 21st century church will utilize every possible variety and style of facility imaginable, and the newer expressions of church architecture will likely continue to coexist with traditional design.

Bob Foreman is senior principal at Foreman Seeley Fountain Architecture, an Atlanta firm specializing in the design of church and school facilities. Bob is a member of the American Institute of Architects and is a LEED Accredited Professional.