by Kevin L. Callahan

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Rocket Art

How can we get back to being able to move that furniture? It’s not rocket science, but it is rocket art. All we need to do is remove the pews our grandparents and parents bolted to the floor. At the very least, we need to make them movable. In addition to the modern liturgical calendar is the fact that different seating configurations help to enhance specific topical series or various types of worship. Perhaps the band is off to one side or behind the seating (God forbid, we have a different layout than that of worshipping the worship band). The Church as a whole today is gradually realizing that performance doth not worship make.

One such church is Grace Community Church in Noblesville, Ind. Originally, the church was considering a new 4,000-seat space – quite a change from their existing 1,200-seat sanctuary with four services. However, early in the design process, Senior Pastor Dave Rodriguez and other key leaders became increasing uncomfortable with the performance gestalt of worship in such a large space. Once they saw the ancient-future bent of the soul space “light,” they desired to return to participatory, adaptable, worship assembly spaces and to reclaim connectedness and intimacy in worship. Rather than constructing one large new building, they opted for four separate smaller worship spaces all on the same campus. We call them “concurrent worship spaces” because the term “venue” implies performance, as opposed to participation. Each of their four concurrent worship spaces has a distinctive gestalt, and all have adaptable body language options of varying degrees.

Eyes in the Back of My Head

Let’s underscore something important here: First and foremost, churches should be externally driven, going where people are and living/loving alongside them like Jesus did. You’ve seen the recent studies. People simply aren’t coming to church anymore as their initial spiritual experience. As co-researcher Barry Kosmin of the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey points out, “These people aren’t secularized. They’re not thinking about religion and rejecting it; they’re not thinking about it at all.” However, when we love alongside people where they are, like Jesus did, instead of loving at them, they will be drawn to such an “others focused” perspective.

When the faith community does gather – as we socially driven humans are prone to do and our Lord commands – then the body language of the space where we gather should reflect the “both/and” reality of the inherent participation of the externally focused church philosophy. In other words, we participate both “out there” and “in here.” So, if you’re participatory and you know it, then your space should surely show it – just like your mother who had eyes in the back of her head.

Multi-directionality is essential in an adaptable participatory environment. Even though the 1,600-seat Grace space has 1,000 fixed perimeter seats on wraparound, fragmented terraces that gradually increase in height, the remaining 600 center seats are movable on wide, flat terraces. This results in eight different potential body language seating layouts, with up to 1,800-seat capacity, including totally in-the-round. While relatively few churches are building new spaces, every design principle in the Grace project is both scalable and transferable to worship spaces of any size, new or existing. Worship spaces by their very nature as assembly spaces – even warehouse or big-box church spaces with some columns – are basically large open spaces. Sloped floors, terraces, raked floors, will not prohibit participation; they are still open spaces and can be creatively redesigned and renovated to achieve a participatory body language.

Not Your Average 12-Step Program

In making the transition from performance-based “loving at” spaces to participatory “loving with” spaces, the most difficult thing is not architectural, engineering or technical systems – although, as we’ll see next time, those do matter. It’s the mental, philosophical shift from putting on a show (“worshipping at” people) to participation (“worshipping with” people). It happens in 12 simple steps. Begin by standing on the platform where the speaker would normally stand and then take 12 steps forward. That will be the point at which participatory body language begins. How far you take it from there will tell you how serious you are about really loving people.

While this news may be painful for the “full frontal” performance of the last century of worship, the good news is that it’s simply the other side of the coin. While having movable seating for multidirectional body language is key, so also are the audio, video and lighting technical systems – a subject for another time. (Hint: If you want participation to go up, then turn the sound down, the lights up and incorporate images all around. We call it “surround tech” – stay tuned.)

So, kids, please try this at home – move that furniture!

Kevin L. Callahan AIA NCARB LEED-AP is a cultural anthropologist, liturgical design consultant and architect. He is founder of Callahan Studios Soul Space, an architectural design studio involved in the ancient-future environmental transformation of assembly and worship environments. Callahan’s book, “Soul Space: Ancient Realities in Post-Modern Worship Spaces,” was the basis for this article. Contact him at 480.227.2836 or [email protected]

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