Downsizing for Growth

May 9th, 2012
Removing pews created a more intimate space.

I have been a part of two new church building projects, and one expansion, but never a church “downsizing.” Until now.

The idea for downsizing our worship space emerged after listening to a story told by a good friend. She serves a 500 member church with average worship attendance of 250. That’s a good number of folks, but the sanctuary seats one thousand, leaving worship feeling empty on Sundays.

Once, while my friend’s church was remodeling the sanctuary, the 250 attendees worshiped in the fellowship hall for a few months. With about 300 folding chairs arranged in several semicircles, the people enjoyed the warmth and intimacy of their Sunday gatherings. After worship, they were already in the same room where coffee and fellowship time took place. It was a natural transition from worship to conversation and refreshments. When the remodeling was complete, they didn’t want to move back upstairs. The gathering downstairs “felt” so good!

I’ve been told that when a sanctuary is 80% full, new folks have a sense that there’s no room for them, but when a sanctuary is less than 50% full, people get a sense that there’s something wrong. Our environment—the conscious and subconscious “feel” of worship space—has a profound affect on our worship experience and our community life together.

Something felt wrong on Sunday morning in the small town church I serve.

We had a Sunday attendance of just under forty. The sanctuary of our 83-year-old church seated 180. There was a lonely feeling on Sunday morning with people sprinkled throughout the large space. During hymns, people felt like they were singing solos. After worship, we served coffee in another room, but most folks just went out the front doors.

We decided to “downsize.” We removed ten pews from the back of the sanctuary, and repainted and re-carpeted the whole room. Forced to sit in a smaller area, people now enjoy the friendliness of sitting closer together. We can hear each other sing, and hear each other laugh. When we pass the peace, we tend to bump into each other. That’s a good thing!

In the space opened up in the back of the sanctuary, we created a new fellowship space where people can get coffee and have conversation after worship. Some years ago, I got to design the basic floor plan for a new church. It was important to me to have the coffee and fellowship space “between” the sanctuary and the church entrance. In order to create a sense of fellowship, warmth, and community, I wanted people to be able to mingle before they went out the front door. It worked. In the new church, after worship, people got to smell the coffee, and needed to navigate through a crowd, before they could leave. They loved it.

Now, in our little church, more people stick around after worship for fellowship. More people take turns bringing refreshments. New friendships are being made as we now have a time and place to share more of our lives together.

Our church has become a warmer and more inviting place on Sunday mornings. More members are inviting friends and neighbors because worship feels “full,” more energetic and interactive.

Our attendance is growing. It’s consistently between forty and fifty now. One trustee jokes about having to put some pews back in. We saved them, and when that time comes, we’ve already identified the wall we’ll remove in the back of our sanctuary so that we don’t lose our fellowship space!

Who would have thought that smaller is sometimes better?

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