The Joys & Pitfalls of Church Construction



Tips that can mean the difference between success and failure in your church’s building program.

A church construction project can be one of the most exhilarating or most aggravating experiences a church can have. Ministries Today managing editor Jim Buchan recently sought the advice of Homer
McKnight, an Ohio architect and builder specializing in church construction, about how to make these projects as trouble-free as possible.

Q. What initial questions do you have for a church that is considering a building project?

A. We start by asking them about their vision and their ministry objectives.

We then inquire about their current need for better facilities and ask what planning they have already done.

Some of the common needs are:

More seats in the sanctuary More room for children’s classes or programs

Additional space for fellowship or special activities Larger and more attractive rest rooms

Additional parking

More office space

instead of only focusing on current needs such as these, we encourage churches to expand their vision and see their facilities and ministries as a whole. This means looking at not only the current but also the projected needs.

After analyzing whether some of their objectives can be met by a more creative use of their existing facilities, we prioritize the remaining needs that might point to some sort of construction project.

Q. Some church growth consultants say that if a church building is regularly filled to 80 percent of capacity, numerical growth will stop unless the church gets a larger facility or adds services. Do you

A. Yes. Except during special programs, it’s hard to totally fill a church. New people, in particular, often feel intimidated and uncomfortable if they come to a very crowded church that has people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the foyer talking to their friends.

Q. How do you analyze whether the problem of an overcrowded building is best solved by construction or by adding worship services?

A. We seldom recommend construction for a church if the only reason for building is because the sanctuary is more than 80 percent full. Typically we recommend adding a service or being creative in some other ways.

The smaller churches have more trouble adding a second service than does a church with 300 or more people. Small churches often pride themselves on having a “family feeling,” and people often don’t want to give that up. We try to get congregations to think beyond their own comfort and see the additional service as an instrument of growth.

Unfortunately, there always will be some people who have a “We’ve never done it that way before” attitude. That kind of resistance can be a great detriment to the changes necessary for a church to reach its community for Christ.

Q. Are there any solutions to a full sanctuary other than adding services or enlarging the building?

A. One solution that immediately adds more sanctuary space is having the children dismissed to their own classes or services during the entire time of the service in the sanctuary.

Q. What are some other trends you see in how churches use their building space?

A. Many churches are trying to make their platforms bigger, usually by taking out the first few rows of seats. Also, more churches are getting rid of their pews and using chairs. The flexibility of chairs is a big factor, and the churches that have chairs love them.

Taking the pews out of the sanctuary and putting in chairs can be a great way to increase the versatility of how the space can be used. It’s important to note that I’m talking about nice chairs, not fold-up
chairs that everybody is uncomfortable on, but comfortable stacking chairs that look nice and feel good.

Chairs are usually the best choice until you get 1,OOO people or more. In buildings of more than 1,000, there are often fixed seats and sloped floors, making the option of pews or theater-type flip-up seats more appealing.

Q. How do you advise churches that are considering a building program simply because they think the aesthetics of their building are a hindrance to reaching new people?

A. Not having an inviting face on the building can be a valid reason for construction or renovation.

There are also certain other things a church needs: an inviting foyer; an entrance visible to those who pass by; clean, bright rest rooms; and nice nurseries. These are very important features today if a church is trying to draw the unchurched.

Q. How do you approach financial concerns with a church that is considering a building program? What kind of questions do you ask them?

A. I want to know the church’s income and what they have designated it for-salaries, missions, building fund, general fund or whatever. I find that most churches are spending everything they take in and have very little money left over.

That being the case, we get into the question of a stewardship campaign. Very few churches start any kind of major building project without a stewardship campaign to help raise funds.

Q. Should churches conduct their stewardship campaigns themselves or get help from professional fundraising consultants?

A. What we have seen is that churches doing it themselves raise about half the money they would have raised with an outside group. Some churches try it on their own and only bring the consultants in if
they don’t make their goals.

Usually the consulting services that emphasize biblical teachings on giving and stewardship benefit the churches many times over the fee that is charged.

Q. What factors should churches consider when selecting a fund-raising company?

A. Many of the differences in the programs are subtle, such as whether pledges are taken in the homes or at banquets. The major emphases are similar: a lot of prayer, a lot of talking about the need and the worthy objective, and a lot of teaching on stewardship.

It is always best to talk first with the stewardship company’s representative who will run your campaign. You may like one program a little better, but the most important thing is to choose the consultant you like the most.

Q. How much additional money can a church usually raise through a stewardship campaign?

A. Most fund-raising organizations say that in one of their campaigns you can raise two to three times your current giving in a three-year building campaign. If a church is taking in $500,000 a year, they could expect in a three-year campaign to receive pledges of $1 million to $1.5 million specifically for the building.

Most congregations don’t believe they can raise that much more than their usual revenue, but experience has shown they can. Of course there are unique circumstances in every case.

If a church has not had a building campaign for a long time, that church is ripe for one. But if a church has already been sacrificing 10 years for building projects, it will be much more difficult.

Q. Are there times a church needs additional space but simply can’t afford to do anything about it?

A. That happens occasionally, but it’s not very often that we recommend a church just wait and do nothing. Master planning is crucial for most churches. That gives them a road map from where they
are to where their ultimate vision is. Generally, there’s something they can do as an intermediate step that will take them toward their goal and allow them to continue their growth and momentum.

Momentum in building programs is vital. You only have a window of opportunity during which to take action.

I have seen churches wait too long to make a decision, causing them to lose momentum and then to start losing people. Within five years they often come back and say they’re growing again and need to do something. Some churches have met with me periodically over 15 years, yet still have done nothing-and they are no bigger than they were 15 years ago when they first called me.

I’ve seen other churches that have acted during the window of opportunity every time they have needed to expand, and the church has continually grown.

Q. What are some advantages or disadvantages of buildings designed as sanctuaries vs. ones designed for multipurpose uses?

A. I’m an avid proponent of multipurpose buildings. My home church, for example, wanted to provide a variety of ministries that included athletics; mother’s day out; latch key; a preschool and day care
center; community events and outreaches; concerts; youth, singles and seniors groups; counseling and a whole host of other things we believed we needed to minister to our church members and our community. Obviously we could not afford a building that had all of those specific spaces, but we could construct a versatile building in which we could do them all.

Although some of the more traditional church members initially may be uncomfortable with the idea, usually their doubts are alleviated by the very first service in a multipurpose building. They find that these buildings allow freedom of worship, creativity and expression that is impossible in a traditional sanctuary.

I recently had a conversation with the pastor of a traditional conservative church that chose to construct a multi-use building. He told me that his church originally had a handful of people who were
concerned about the idea of basketball hoops in the sanctuary. Now, in just two years, the church has had 55 percent growth, and not one person has objected to those basketball hoops since services began in the new building.

Most people never even notice the hoops because we design them with minimal structure, glass backboards and white hardware, and they are put up against the ceiling during services.

Q. What types of construction materials do you normally use for multi-use buildings?

A. Pre-engineered steel is the most economical type of construction.

Pre-engineered steel buildings can have brick finishes, stucco siding and various kinds of roofs. You generally don’t see even one piece of steel. People walk in and are amazed to see that it’s a multi-use
facility because it looks like a traditional church on the outside.

Few churches still build multipurpose buildings with traditional materials such as masonry and wooden arches.

Q. What about the cost of expenses such as utilities and long-term maintenance?

A. Multi-use buildings are generally very energy efficient and very economical to maintain. I’ve had congregation after congregation tell me after they moved into these buildings that the utility bills were
considerably less than they expected.Painted steel roofs are the best roof system you can put on a building today. With little maintenance they last longer than any other roof system-and roofs are generally a church’s most expensive item of maintenance.

Q. Worship is a very important part of most churches. How can a congregation ensure that its new or renovated building will have good acoustics?

A. Because of the advanced computer programs available, it’s easy to know what the acoustics will be like before you build. You actually design the building in the computer, and it gives you what the acoustic characteristics are going to be. We don’t design a building unless we’ve checked the acoustics.

Acoustically, a church needs to be a compromise between a speaking auditorium and a music auditorium. Unlike some other kinds of events, a church service includes both the spoken word and music, each of which is very important.

We strongly recommend that a church hire an audio consultant to advise them on the many types of sound systems and equipment. We provide the space for the sound system conduits, but the churches work directly with the consultant on the equipment.

Q. Stories abound of churches that have run into serious conflicts and even splits during their building programs. Do you have any suggestions for how churches can maintain harmony during the building

A. We urge churches to make unity of vision their No. 1 one priority. If they can’t settle on that up front, with everybody in agreement on the direction they are headed, we know trouble is ahead.

I actually have told churches that they are not ready to build because they are so divided. When the church has a clear unity of purpose and mission, it’s easy for an architect to develop a building that will
meet that need.

While the building program is under way, church leaders must avoid getting so caught up in details that they overlook the need to create an atmosphere of excitement, anticipation and unity. Construction details are best left to the building committee, the consultants and the contracting architect.

Q. In addition to trying to maintain a sense of excitement, vision and momentum, what other advice do you have for a pastor during a building program?

A. I would encourage a pastor to use that time to plan new ministries and to get ushers and other necessary workers in place. A building project is a rare opportunity to impact the community. People
in the community watch a building going up and are often receptive when they’re invited to see the completed facility and hear of the new ministries the church has to offer. It can be a great marketing time for the church.

Q. How should a church determine who should be on the building committee and have input into the project?

A. There are usually a lot of people who want some type of input, but the actual building committee is best limited to five to seven people. Large committees are unwieldy and typically require lengthy

It is not necessary for the building committee to have expertise in construction, but it should be comprised primarily of the visionary and ministry-oriented leaders of the church, both staff and lay members. They should be people with a proven commitment to the church, and it’s good to have at least one finance person involved.

Q. Do you think it’s smart for a church to save money by having its members do some of the construction work?

A. The downside of saving in this manner is that by the time the building is completed, everybody is worn out and ready to take six months off.

In such a case, those doing the work are lost from any other ministry during the building project; then they’re lost for several months afterward because they’re recuperating. A church may save a few
thousand dollars, but often it loses much more in opportunities to expand with fresh ministries.

Q. You seem to believe there should be a clear correlation between church construction and outreach to the surrounding community.

A. I firmly believe a church that meets needs is also a growing church. And meeting needs often requires additional space.

Although some churches have a strong preaching ministry and everything is geared around that, it seems to me the churches that are really growing are usually well-rounded, meeting a variety of needs and dealing with the whole family.

A church has to decide who it is going to minister to and what kinds of needs it will attempt to meet; its decision about the type of building it should have will flow from those conclusions about its ministry