Fifty years can make a lot of difference, or none at all. This year The McKnight Group is commemorating our fiftieth anniversary as a church building organization. When we began the company in 1970, church buildings looked very much like churches built fifty years before, or even 150 years before: a long, narrow worship space, filled with pews and stained glass, and topped by a steeple. Yet many church buildings today would be unrecognizable to people living in those earlier eras. What happened? Our fiftieth anniversary podcast episode entitled “Changes” tells the story.

The Foyer: Part of a Church Design Revolution

The past fifty years have seen many significant changes in church design principles, and we at The McKnight Group are proud to have been part of these significant changes. One very pivotal change has been in the size and function of the foyer, or narthex, of a church building. For hundreds of years, these small, dark vestibules were used for little more than entryways, allowing you to get out of the weather and your winter coat (and possibly use the restroom) before heading directly into the sanctuary.

In stark contrast, today’s foyers are large, open spaces (sometimes as large as the worship space itself!) that form a central hub in the church design. Incorporating cafés and cozy seating areas, these foyers are designed for much more. As we say in the podcast, “No matter if you have kids you’re dropping off, no matter if you’re going to a class, no matter if you’re coming to worship—at some point, you’re going to go through that space, and you have a better chance of seeing somebody, being able to talk to them, build that relationship, because that is the most important part of the foyer today: it’s the relationship building space.”

Multi-Ministry Spaces that Work

Another aspect of the church building revolution over the past fifty years has been in the use of space. So many traditional churches had one use for each space: worship, Sunday school, fellowship hall. These days, church leaders recognize the real value in having flexible spaces that can be used for multiple aspects of their church vision. Perhaps it’s a worship space that can be used for conferences and banquets, or a fellowship hall that doubles as a gymnasium during the week.

This flexibility has evolved in tandem with a total transformation in the worship space of a church building. The traditional long, narrow, cruciform shape made it difficult for people in the back to see the preacher and feel connected with worship. As we note in the podcast, “we switched to the wider, shallower spaces and, again, multi-use in many cases. Then we began to change from pews to chairs: usually stackable, padded, much more comfortable, and certainly much more flexible.”

Understanding the Church Building as Tool for Ministry

Some of the most significant changes in church design have happened because of a change in perspective. As The McKnight Group President, David McKnight, states in the podcast, “[Recognizing] the church building as a tool has really changed how people view their new facilities and what they want—so, people who understand that this building can be a tool for the ministries they’re trying to do and use to reach their community. Those church leaders are doing some great and new things in their community.”

With all of these changes (and more we’ll cover in our next post, like with technology and finance), there are some elements of church design that we just don’t see anymore. To find out what those are, listen to the Changes podcast.