Cynthia Cradduck, from the United Methodist Church, is a managing partner at Cecilia Russo Marketing, Savannah, Georgia, United States, and was recognized as a “40 Under 40” leader by Georgia Trend Magazine.

Among the institutions adversely affected by the pandemic, few have felt the sting of lockdown more than churches. To maintain their services, many became instant pioneers of online worship. While such elements as prayer, mission, and community involvement remained paramount for church health, churches identified opportunities for growth and change. Fueled by the process of building strong online audiences, a brand-new opportunity has emerged.

With the pandemic waning, people are returning to in-person worship services. Many, however, prefer to maintain the online pattern they have grown accustomed to over more than two years. Catering to both groups may seem like a conundrum, but people experienced in designing church buildings and interior spaces see a chance to bring the two audiences together to support spiritual growth.

Togetherness

One way to bring the two audiences together is to make more efficient use of the space to maximize engagement. The other is a new hybrid trend, sometimes referred to as “phygital,” that seeks to create a seamless integration between the in-person experience (physical) and the online (digital).1

How the two factors will progress depends on the health of each church before the pandemic. According to Pat Kase, a senior project developer with the ministry-focused design-build-furnish firm Aspen Group, based on information available in the first quarter of 2022, thriving churches are back to 70–80 percent of their prepandemic attendance. Less healthy churches are closer to 30–40 percent.2

The pandemic magnified both the good and bad, as reflected in current attendance. Churches starting pilot programs for online worship, online giving, and other online services immediately before the pandemic were already way behind. Those who already had flourishing online services took full advantage of the knowledge they were building on before 2020 and used what they also learned during the height of the pandemic. Thus, early adopters are ahead of the curve on optimal use of space and a phygital culture and are much healthier for it.

Understanding the basics

Brian Felder, founder and principal architect of the architecture firm Felder & Associates, based in Savannah, Georgia, notes that understanding the basics of approaching the future of ministry spaces is essential to succeeding in meshing the physical and virtual.

“A church’s digital presence is its ‘front porch,’ but ‘the family room’ inside the building is where the more meaningful connections occur,” Felder explains. “As explored in the book Analog Church, the physical design of a church can result in deeper engagement among congregants and newcomers.”3

His insight underscores the profound role architecture plays in the future of worship and how the space that people are welcomed into—real world and virtual—and the experiences offered there are more critical than larger societal happenings, such as a pandemic or a steep economic downturn.

“During the 2008–2009 recession, two-thirds of churches were at the same or increased levels of giving. Then, like now, it was never about the economy; it’s about vision,” Kase reports. “People primarily give to clear, compelling vision. Vision matters to the intentional gathering space.”

Youth spaces

From working with churches and speaking to their leaders, Felder has observed that not as many older attendees are returning as one might think. Picking up the slack are younger people who may have stopped going in their twenties and now, after marriage and having children, are returning in droves. This crucial population highlights the importance of youth spaces.

“Children’s space is really for parents. Parents need to feel comfortable that it’s safe for their babies to be in the room while the parents are elsewhere in the church,” Felder explains.

Making church space for children fit into a phygital culture involves acknowledging and accepting the connection between kids and technology. Greg Snider, a ministry space strategist at Aspen Group, notes that kids are often on their smartphones four or more hours a day but in church for only one or two hours a week.4 To make the space more conducive to spiritual growth, he suggests that churches incorporate technology. For expanded use of the space, Snider suggests using it for family learning to allow parents to engage more in their children’s spiritual growth.

Lobby space

Another area where mixed-use and multigenerational fellowship can occur is the church lobby. Rather than simply an entryway and default gathering place before entering specialized nearby rooms, a lobby can serve multiple purposes.

“During coronavirus, I visited a church where I was so impressed by their lobby space. There was something for everyone in the furniture, colors, textures, and flooring. It included contemporary furniture for adults next to lower furniture for kids. I could picture grandparents, parents, and kids interacting in the space together. These are simple solutions to bring generations together,” Snider said.

Another reason lobbies are essential is that they are public-facing spaces that should be welcoming and bright, traits one associates with inviting people in to explore and feel comfortable. Whenever and wherever a physical space can enhance an atmosphere of engagement and outreach, it should be seen as an opportunity. Like modern offices, churches can transform their lobbies into multiuse spaces for meetings, events, volunteer gatherings, and training. A well-designed, uncrowded area buzzing with activity can do wonders for a church’s reputation.

Worship space

A church’s main worship space, the area most often seen in online services, might be the most important. The phygital elements must not overwhelm the sacred. Churches need to have the equipment and lighting to produce a watchable, high-quality service on a screen, but they should not interfere with the worshipers in the room. Finding the right balance is key, which can be difficult for struggling churches unable to afford or operate the technology to broadcast a worship service. Thus, congregations must approach the idea of multiple purposes of the sanctuary carefully.

Thoughtful use of space and the emergence of a phygital culture lead to rethinking a ministry’s overall outreach. Churches that have worked to create a successful online presence have bridged the gap between their online presence, which can easily defy the reality of the building they are broadcasting from, and the actual physical space. Kase has heard how many pastors lament for relevancy to boost attendance and church health, but he upholds that what is needed is transcendence.

“As examined in the book Analog Church, relevance can be found almost anywhere. Transcendence cannot. I completely agree with this statement,” he explained.

To reflect this, a commitment to improving the space goes hand in hand with efforts to offer something hard to find. A holistic approach to outreach starts with reaffirming the spiritual mission, and transcendence is a significant element. What people see and the space they occupy when they receive the message plays a part in how effective it will be.

Felder identifies three architecture and design trends that support the mission. First, merging the digital presence with the physical space increases a church’s perceived integrity. The appearance of an online worship service will surely be in the best light, but it should, at the same time, faithfully reflect the actual space. Second, in regions where the weather allows for its practical use, the addition or employment of outdoor space is growing in popularity, something more common in cases of new construction. Finally, the art and architecture—again, easier and more common with new buildings—can also support the spiritual mission. With nods to multiuse space and the phygital, they create a feeling of openness to the transcendent.

Exhibit A

Cross Community Church in Port Royal, South Carolina, is a new project involving Aspen Group and Felder & Associates that incorporates multiuse spaces and the phygital concept. The growing congregation, which is diverse and multigenerational, began meeting in a local high school. They then moved to the YMCA, but growth demanded a modern building. The unique design solution includes the elevation of the building on 10-foot-tall pilings, providing covered space underneath for a children’s ministry, small-group meetings, and other social events. Exterior architectural elements include clapboard siding and awnings that fit the coastal environment.

Leading up to the main entrance is a large, wide ramp that can be used for gathering space, worship, or musical performances, all conducive to online services. A total of 13,000 square feet includes modern office space, more gathering areas, a café connected to a large open lobby, and additional children’s facilities. The contemporary design is bright and airy, with an excellent combination of modern and traditional elements that appeal to the wide range of the congregants’ age groups.

“Whether you’re in your twenties or eighties, there will be something you’re drawn to, and the space communicates ‘there is a place for me here,’ ” said lead pastor Taylor Burgess.5

Exhibit B

Another church embracing modern architecture and design concepts is the Bridge Church in Bradenton, Florida. The existing building was not serving the needs of the large, tight-knit community. The original plan was to add gathering space, a defined front entrance, and an area for children’s ministry—then the pandemic hit. While in-person attendance was low due to pandemic restrictions, the church instead chose to modernize the worship space. With an eye to the phygital, they had the auditorium completely renovated. They also constructed a balcony for the growing attendance predicted when the pandemic ended and installed a full audio, visual, lighting, and electrical infrastructure upgrade.

The design and construction of the planned two-story addition added nearly 30,000 square feet of interior space and more than 8,000 square feet of exterior green space as well as a playground. Like Cross Community Church, the design is bright, airy, and welcoming. The entrance offers a gathering space and connection zones, a café, children’s check-in, and ministry rooms. There is also office space with reception and conference areas and a break room. A student wing has its own entrance, a dedicated worship venue, a café, and a lounge area.

In both buildings, the physical space matches, if not exceeds, the online presence. Architecture that welcomes and engages with people helps a congregation grow.

Connection

As much as the phygital concept is essential to the future of ministry, it cannot replace the experience and connection of in-person worship. Growing both audiences is vital. Creating real disciples, however, is a more profound challenge. Fellowship, relevancy, and transcendence are the goals, and a space that fosters those ideals in the physical world is irreplaceable.

  1. Paul Prior, “Phygital—What Is It and Why Should I Care?,” Forbes, June 30, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinesscouncil/2021/06/30/phygital---what-is-it-and-why-should-i-care/.
  2. Per a personal interview with the author.
  3. Per a personal interview with the author.
  4. Per a personal interview with the author.
  5. Per a personal interview with the author.

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Cynthia Cradduck, from the United Methodist Church, is a managing partner at Cecilia Russo Marketing, Savannah, Georgia, United States, and was recognized as a “40 Under 40” leader by Georgia Trend Magazine.

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