by Visioneering Studios
Over a decade ago, former Disney Imagineer Mel McGowan started calling into question the true meaning of the spaces we commonly call “church.” Since he knew environments can facilitate mission, the overwhelming emotive of the archetype church building and its surroundings seemed to not be mission-like at all, but rather characterless. A bit vacant. Unoccupied. Much like a church parking lot during the week.
Church “space,” for the most part, had become lost to its original mission. Institutional, commonplace and disconnected from the surrounding community, the word “church” had come to mean “a building” or even worse, “a building with walls” and even worse than that, “a building with walls where only Christians go.” For centuries, communities were built around a central cultural, commercial and spiritual hub. Churches weren’t just an entity. They were integral to the larger social spectrum.
Mel, aware that a process of cultural shifting and liturgical architectural stagnation had essentially steered the design of “sacred space” into “a building with walls,” founded Visioneering Studios in Irvine, CA and set out to instigate a paradigm shift to create true centers of community where the lost and the least would feel at home seven days a week. Fortunately, we found others that were on the same path. Across the country and around the world, many churches are recognizing the need for change.
“Jesus accomplished quite a bit of ministry outside; why limit our definition of facility to indoor, air-conditioned space when we can use buildings to frame up outdoor rooms that can become the “third place” of community?”
– Mel McGowan, Chief Creative Officer, Visioneering Studios
Creating A Church Without Walls
State College, PA’s Calvary Baptist Church or Harvest Fields, located near Pennsylvania State University, is a great example of a church that is removing the barriers to both community and nature, inviting what normally would be “outside” into the church itself. From the church’s 100-acre hillside location, guests can enjoy iconic views of the surrounding community and the church grounds, as well as a 600-seat worship center (expandable to 1,500 seats in the future), a children’s wing featuring an indoor play area, a spacious café and a student ministry group room.
Multi-purpose amenities set amidst its park-like surroundings, including a children’s playground, soccer field, “dog-friendly” walking trails, picnic areas and fishing ponds further encourage opportunities for recreation, meditation and even official business. An area called The Lodge offers professionally equipped meeting spaces, a prayer cabin is available for quiet retreats, and a barn is open to all for outdoor cookouts and activities.
Executive Pastor Dan Dorsey said the new facilities are the realization of a simple goal: the comfort of home.
“I said I wanted a place where a single mom with three kids could walk in and let her kids run because she wasn’t afraid they would break something,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen. I said I wanted a place that feels like home. It does.”
Coming Full Circle
Today, the notion of a “big box” church is being replaced by a much more relevant concept. Churches, rather than standing apart from their surrounding communities, are becoming once again a crucial and viable destination that serves the greater good, bringing them full circle to the churches of centuries ago. That’s exactly where they should be.
When it comes to facilities, are you dreaming outside the box?