Designing for Multiplication with Millennials in Mind

What story is your physical gathering space telling about your church?

Derek DeGroot

As a design architect for Aspen Group, my experience over the years has helped me identify two essential factors for church multiplication: people and place.

We’re all familiar with how most of today’s churches grow, or add people–by casting a wide net to attract new people to Sunday service and by members inviting their own family and friends. Growth spurs multiplication. As the number of attendees grows beyond the capacity of the space to hold everyone, then multiplication can occur, and a new church can be born.

While igniting a culture of multiplication always begins with people, it always happens within the context of place.

As we’ve seen, place can take many forms. It can mean meeting at the local Panera or someone’s home until you’ve had enough consistent growth to warrant starting another new house church, or renting or buying a church building so the original faith community can grow even more. It can mean setting up and tearing down every Sunday at your local high school. And it can mean gathering in an actual, physical church building.

Church planters often downplay the significance of place as a key factor to church growth. Churches can grow, they argue, in any setting. And this is true. But the setting we select to gather God’s people tells a story—both about the space itself and about the people occupying it. The physical place a church chooses to call “home” says something about that church—who it is, what it values, and how it reaches and disciples people in the context of our culture.

Millennials, today’s 18- to 30-year-olds, are especially attuned to the way a physical space either helps them find their place or pushes them away. In our recent Barna/CKN study, “Making Space for Millennials,” research revealed that young adults are looking for churches that recognize and meet their needs for cultural relevancy and authenticity (“Is this church for real?”), visual clarity (“Tell me where I am and what I should do next now that I’m here”), modularity (a recognition that Millennials are piecing their lives together based on myriad options) and a craving for physical spaces that help them connect with God through nature.

Churches that understand Millennials’ needs are well-positioned to make room for them to discover God and grow in their faith. If you want to spark a movement of multiplication that includes Millennials, here are some aspects to consider about your church’s space:

Get your visual language right

In our study, “Making Space for Millennials,” the need for “visual clarity” emerged. Visual clarity includes everything that a person sees and experiences when they interact with your church. Starting with your church’s website, which is frequently the first impression someone has of a church, people infer certain things about your church based on the way you present yourself. If your website seems dated, confusing or dry, many will assume this is what they’ll experience when they go to your church. If your church has a website, does it convey your church’s DNA—who you are, what you believe, and what people can expect when they worship with you?

What about the physical space where your church gathers? What story is it telling people about you? Do people come in and immediately know where to go and what to do? Is it clear where they should sit? Are there unwritten codes of conduct that new visitors would understand but would make first-timers feel confused or alienated?

Committed believers need inspiration; the unchurched need to identify whether they belong. Does your church send visually clear signals—and are they the signals you intend to send?

Provide a respite from the movement

Churches focused on multiplication are driven by a big vision, which is typically built and executed by high-energy, high-capacity leaders. And yet Millennials are reminding all of us of the need to build respite into our spaces. Sometimes in growing a church, we forget about creating spaces where we can be alone with God, space that’s free of function. It won’t take much—a nook, a grotto, a tucked-away seating—to show young people you have their best interests in mind, and not just your own vision for multiplying the church.

Don’t forget the Third Place

Things have changed within the church. Once the hub of spiritual activity, today’s church provides just one piece of a modular spiritual journey. We may worship together, but we also attend Bible study on Google chat, give money to multiple causes, volunteer at local religious groups and so on. We piece together the experiences of our lives. And Millennials, more than any generation, live in this modular way.

Third Places–neutral community spaces that encourage social interaction–are a vital way to offer connection in the face of modularity. If you need to go off site to places like Starbucks or Panera for all of your church meetings, mentoring opportunities and life conversations, you probably need to create a Third Place space to call your own.

Don’t forget the windows

All generations love nature, but Millennials crave it. If you’re looking for a new church building to rent or own, keep nature in mind. How’s the view of God’s creation? Even in cold climates, young people want access to outdoor spaces to connect with God. When identifying a space to worship in, consider the natural light. If a space is completely lacking windows, maybe it’s best to pass.

It may seem like a small detail, but natural light actually plays a huge role in our emotional well-being. Design 101? Maybe. But don’t forget the windows.

Design for multiplication

If you want to ignite a culture of multiplication, you have to design for one. What is the physical space where your church meets saying about your congregation? Does it help people find their place in your church? Is it an environment that will facilitate multiplication, or is the space where you do church a barrier to it?

Derek DeGroot is a church architect for Aspen Group, an integrated design-build company serving the Midwest. Learn more about designing for multiplication at DeGroot’s “Designing with Millennials in Mind” workshop at Exponential East 2015