Trends in Church Facilities: An Interview with Gary Nicholson of Visioneering Studios

This week, I am starting a new feature here on the blog where I’ll be sharing some interviews on topics of concern and interest for the church. The first few interviews will be on the topic of church facilities. We’ve seen a dramatic shift in this field over the past decade, so I’ve asked some of the leading experts in the field for their thoughts on trends they are seeing with church facilities. My first interview is with Gary Nicholson from Visioneering Studios at LifeWay.

Do you see more churches concerned about the size of their worship centers?

Yes, the past decade has taught us to be more thoughtful about how we design our buildings so that we can get the most ministry out of the dollars we spend. Before we build something, we must consider the right size. Building too big, or too small can be a problem for the ministry down the line. Defining what is “big enough” can be difficult, especially for a young, fast-growing congregation.

What are their major concerns?

Being good stewards is probably number one. Limited resources mean the church has to be very intentional about what they build, so they can carry on the ministry without over-taxing the resources at their disposal.

Having too many empty seats in a worship setting is another huge concern. When the room seems more than half empty, the worship seems flat. It takes all of the energy and sense of excitement out of the service.

Leaders want to create an environment that is magnetic, a place the community sees as an asset. Churches want to engage their community, and the facilities can be a big part of how the church is perceived.

What reasons do you see behind this trend?

The economics of the past several years have forced us to take a closer look at how we build worship space, as well as other facilities in the church, and that is a good thing.

Beyond economics, church leaders do not want to build in a way that the building gets used only once a week. They are thinking about ways the facility can be used multiple times, even seven days a week, as a tool for interactive and dynamic ministry. Mel McGowan, the president of Visioneering Studios, uses the term modern-day Jacob’s Wells. These are places where we can encounter people on their terms: people who need the Savior, just like Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well and shared the Living Water with her.

How are you addressing this issue as a church architect?

We design to enhance relationships. What happens as people gather before worship and before they leave can be just as important as the service itself, so we design with that in mind. We design people spaces that encourage engagement, not cramped vestibules that tend to hurry people on their way.

Often, we encourage churches to put off building a new worship facility until they are in two or three services. Sometimes that means we advise them to build more support space for other programs rather than a new worship space so the facilities can accommodate things such as the children’s attendance that a second or third service can generate.

We work with churches to help them think intentionally about building so that the church can leverage the space it builds in multiple ways for ministry.

Most importantly, however, is that we design the building to fit the culture, values, and unique ministry strategy that make that congregation different from any other in the world.

Any other information you can add?

I have seen a lot of changes in church design since I started decades ago, but one thing has stayed constant: strong and meaningful worship is a key to the function of a healthy church. The facility can help or hinder that. Having the right capacity is one very critical ingredient. I can say with confidence that I have seen far more serious problems that stem from building too large than building too small, though either can be a problem.

LifeWay has long been concerned about helping churches to plan their facilities. Today, we help them envision, design, and build compelling facilities for worship through Visioneering Studios at LifeWay. In April, 2014 we are conducting two workshops for churches considering construction, one is in Nashville, and the other is in Phoenix. We can be contacted at 615-251-2466 for more information, or to schedule a consultation.


  1. Nathan Rose says

    Thanks for the post! I am pastoring a that hasn’t updated our worship facility in several decades. While we aren’t ready to build a larger center we are considering making some significant updates. Do you have any advice, counsel, or wisdom regarding this matter? How important is it for a sanctuary to look up-to-date? What about any resources you would recommend? Thanks in advance for any help!

  2. Jeff Mingee says

    Any chance that future posts might help with the difficulty of defining what “big enough” might be for a young fast-growing congregation? We’re a church plant on the beginning end of considering future building options.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Jeff – Those type issues are typically contextual. I suggest you talk to a church architect directly.

  3. says

    Nathan – It depends upon what you mean by “up to date”. Facilities always send a message, and the message needs to be right for your church. If you are trying to reach one segment of society, or in a certain part of the country, your facilities should look very different from others. However, regardless of who you are ministering to, or where you are, the facilities should reflect well on the Savior we serve. They should be clean and, even if it is not fancy, it can show people that we care for their children through quality facilities for them. Your priorities as a church will determine where you place the emphasis: on worship, discipleship, fellowship, or service, and the facilities will almost always show it. If being up to date is important to fulfilling your ministry purpose, it should be reflected in your facilities.

  4. says

    Jeff – “big enough” is usually a function of your current attendance, your anticipated future attendance, how many services you will use to multiply the use of the space, and what you can afford. Feel free to give us a call to discuss this further.

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