Your Building Is Telling a Story
Your church building might be communicating more than you think. Your architecture is either helping or hindering your ministry. From the design to the people in charge of it all, there are ways to leverage your church building that actually help your church’s mission.
Mel McGowan is Co-Founder of PlainJoe Studios as well as a church architect. In this conversation, Mel shares with me his compelling thoughts on the theology of church architecture and practical insights into the building process.
In this conversation, we discussed:
The two things great church architecture does
Why a building committee will ruin your building
The ideal process for building a church building
Steps any church can take to make their space better
Join the Conversation
We’ll be talking about this more on Facebook and Twitter this week. Listen to the episode and then join in.
Some things we are hoping to discuss:
- How have you updated your space to make it more welcoming?
- What did you learn in the building process that you wish someone had told you beforehand?
- What are some of the most creative features of church buildings you’re seeing connect with the next generation?
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- Tony Morgan: 00:10 Welcome to the unstuck church podcast. My name is Tony Morgan, and every week we’re having a conversation about helping your church get unstuck and this week it’s going to be unique because I think I’m talking to one of the most interesting people in the world. Uh, he may not describe themselves that way, but he does share a little bit of his background in this interview. I’m going to be talked with Mel McGowan and Mel is the chief creative officer at plain Joe Studios. They’re working with churches and really all sorts of organizations when it comes to spatial storytelling, environmental design, a boy, they handle all kinds of other aspects of communications including web, social media, things along those lines. But today we’re going to be talking specifically about church architecture and why that matters both for big and small churches. And in this conversation you’ll hear some practical steps that really any church can apply to moving in the right direction when it comes to facility planning way, finding environmental design and just thinking about the spaces that we’re trying to create for ministry. So here’s my conversation with Mel.
- Tony Morgan: 01:23 Well, it’s great to reconnect with you. First of all, just give us a little bit of your story. I mean, it’s an intriguing story, but give us a little bit about who you are and your connection plane, Joe.
- Mel McGowan: 01:36 Sure thing. Well, I’m, I guess a unusual background. Uh, I grew up without really any relationship to church or priced actually was a military brat. Born in Vietnam, grew up in Europe, post-christian, uh, Germany, uh, pursued a path pretty early on. Originally film, uh, went to USC film school and then got a graduate degree and master planning and design. But I went to work for the Walt Disney Company. Spent a decade at Disney, uh, kinda. That was my real training camp slash graduate school again the whole time. Never really realizing that, uh, that there might be an opportunity to plug into a, the ministry. Um, when I accepted Christ a kind of as a, a young adult. I definitely had a tug towards evangelism. But, uh, it was pretty frustrated at my lack of verbal communication skills I have. I couldn’t complete a sentence without saying, dude, at least twice any kind of a missionary.
- Mel McGowan: 02:38 Um, so I just kept drawing, you know, and um, and again, it was a kind of a, a random thing where I’m a really the seeds of plain joe was sitting down with my brother, uh, another friend named Mike Foster. Um, and uh, we thought that there might be a way to somehow redeem and leverage. I’m kind of a unique experience, brain damage, a skill sets we have acquired kind of in the corporate world and somehow apply that to the kingdom and basically help the church tell a better story. Um, so that’s really the, the seed of plane, just so I have the privilege of, of getting to have kind of the, the Co founder a card, a title on my business card, but, uh, I really kind of focused on the role of chief creative officer, a overt plain zone. Our approach of telling stories in three dimensions.
- Tony Morgan: 03:29 Yeah. And that’s the thing. I mean, plain joe offers so many great solutions, not only for churches but other organizations. Uh, however, today we’re going to focus our conversation as it relates to church architecture and why that should matter to churches and their ministry strategy. And by the way, we’re not just talking about large churches today. We’re talking about churches of all sizes. And here’s where I want to begin the conversation. Now, some might say actually that you have a radical perspective to church architecture, um, in the fact that you, I believe, I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, it isn’t helping us reach who we’re trying to reach. The architecture becomes actually becomes a barrier to the ministry that we’re trying to accomplish. And so I’d love to hear your perspective. Uh, why, why is church architecture are critical to our ministry strategy?
- Mel McGowan: 04:24 Well, I’m not sure what’s radical about the idea of blowing up the word church architect, but, uh, you know, again, I think when you put those two words together, people instantly come up with that. A little children’s rhyme, you know, I don’t even know how it goes. You know, here’s the fold your hands, here’s the steeple and roll. Here’s the people, you know, something. No, there’s actually, um, some truth to that in terms of that is a box and a paradigm that people are stuck onto what churches should look, taste, feel like, what, what it means. Uh, and just in a nutshell, to me that common definition has something to do with the idea of being a modern day Kinda temple builder, a Modern Day Solomon and, and building this sacred space that how’s a certain, uh, visual and architectural vocabulary that you know, is kind of architects called the timeless rules. A liturgical design, you know, of ascension through stairs and ramps or, um, you know, natural light filtering in and, and physiologically psychologically manipulating you into feeling like you’re somehow stepping on to a higher or wholly hallowed ground. Um, and the reality is that, um, you know, as New Testament Christians, we’ve kind of learned that Jesus wasn’t all that impressed with the temple. And then in fact, where the temple, uh, and that, um, you know, that the, the idea of a being a modern temple builder or a sacred space, quite quote church designer, um, is, is kind of a little a theologically incorrect, unless you understand that what Christ is really called us to do is kind of take the shovel and dig boy like an addict. These post modern versions of Jacob’s well to that contemporary Samaritan. Uh, you know, that that woman at Jacob’s well that is not even remotely interested in, in finding a website to find a church and do some church shopping on Sunday. I mean, she’s just trying to survive the life, get a drink. Uh, and the ability to again, create designs that get all the layers, the noise out of the way. Just like, again, she had a lot of layers in geography and cultural and spiritual barriers that, uh, kinda separated her from getting the to Jerusalem, getting past the court of gentiles getting into the holy place. Uh, there’s no way that she would have crossed all those boundaries to get to where the presence of God was supposed to be, but that didn’t stop the God of the universe from busting through space and time to connect with her where she was at just again trying to get a drink. And then the same way when we design spaces, they can either facilitate those connections. And I, to me, it’s just all great design joins Christ in that Gospel Restoration of that broken cross shaped vertical and horizontal connection, again, horizontally with each other, with our families, our neighbors in vertically with, uh, the crater and with creation, that’s what great design does. That’s what great architecture does. Uh, and again, um, I think that’s not the way that most architects think about architecture. It’s not the way that most people think about churches. So when I launched actually, um, I kind of have the brand, the anti-church church architect, I was pretty convinced that, uh, you know, church architects that are just rubber stamping the same, uh, same old, same old without really questioning kind of a theological premise. And, and it really having a heart for evangelism and discipleship. We’re really kind of getting in the way more than actually facilitating.
- Tony Morgan: 07:58 Well, uh, that’s probably one of the reasons why I’ve appreciated you so much through the years, Mel, is because I have a similar, a lack of appetite, I guess, for ministry strategies that churches use that really aren’t helping us fulfill the mission God called us to. But we’re doing those ministry strategies because we’ve always done them. I’m just a side note, uh, the church steeple as an example. I’ve always been curious about that. I’ve never saw any mention of a steeple actually in scripture, but do you know what the history of the Church steeple is?
- Mel McGowan: 08:34 Would relate probably back to gothic architecture. But I think the reality is there was in medieval era as you know, I mean, of course the original cathedrals were just the Roman basilicas, you know, that, that the Roman public halls, shopping malls, that they basically converted. but as far as that vertical, a bell tower as fire element, you know, I think it just had to do with, the central lot of faith in the medieval era and you know, that was the center point of community that was the heart of the Piazza and having that tallest high hill that verticality, you know, in a way that it does kind of mirror what culture at the time is valuing. So just like one of the earliest Manhattan High Rise was the woolworth tower, they called it the Cathedral of commerce and they specifically took that gothic architecture language because they were basically saying what we’re worshiping now. And so it’s kind of interesting how that changes over time, whether it’s a sports arena, whether it’s a concert hall, whether it’s the Google plex or whatever.
- Tony Morgan: 09:43 So already, you’re kind of hitting at typical church architects. And I hope we don’t have any other church architects listening to this. Podcasts are going to come after me after this conversation with you. But let’s take it a step further. Now. Let’s go after the typical process that a church engages whence they decide we need to build a building or renovate a property or whatever that might look like. What’s wrong with that standard operating procedure that churches use where typically they would appoint a building committee than hire an architect. I mean, what could go wrong with a church committee?
- Mel McGowan: 10:20 Well, I’m convinced there’s a room for a reality TV show called church gone wild. Basically know against somehow some way, um, I don’t think they teach it in seminary school, but somehow guys get out of school with, through Osmosis or something with some perception that there is this standard operating procedure, sop of how tricked projects are supposed to happen. It goes something like this. Basically, there’s no one person, uh, you know, especially the senior pastor that wants to take the, the credit and slash, or the responsibility of trying to pretend to be a real estate developer when in fact they, they skipped Harvard’s a MBA program or graduate school of design. They basically appoint a committee, right? You know, council wisdom of a group. The problem with that committee approach is that there’s no one person really taking a core responsibility. The other problem with is you might have some real rock stars on that committee. You might have the biggest contractor in town, the best developer in town, the best architect in town, but they’re used to their opinion being worth something, you know, if it’s their area of expertise and they’re used to charging $150 an hour and people really listening to their advice, they get in this committee and their voice is worth the same as a, the chairperson of the women’s decorating committee and, and, you know, over the process when see their, uh, their voluntary time, a kind of, uh, being wasted when they’re seeing poor decisions getting made or, or people not understanding the time value of money. That can be really frustrating. And it’s, it’s actually quite a common occurrence for either senior pastors or pastors involved with building projects or committee members to actually end up leaving the church or leaving ministry, um, out of these. But anyways, to get back to the ideal process, you have a, a perfect building committee. Uh, they provide a perfect wishlist. Uh, they, they hire the only person in town that’s actually gone through the process before a, which probably is a local church architect. I mean typically the way that starts as one guy, uh, volunteered his time and learned on, on the expense of his churches back how to do church architecture. Um, and then he gets a referral to a, you know, his past, refers them to another guy in town and he becomes the local, Goto church architect. And again, usually is a godly good, nice guy with a solid reputation. Not necessarily very designed, but he’s kind of a trustworthy guy that’s been through the process. The problem there though is the way architects have been trained as they’re kind of like waitresses that just take orders, you know, that, um, you know, the waitresses job is not to do a credit check and figure out if you’re going to be able to pay the bill or end up in the kitchen doing dishes afterwards. Her job is to ask questions and hear clearly on what you would like for dinner, you know, and the flame and Yon. And uh, you know, in your wallets a nonexistent, that’s not her problem. She just has to transfer the information to the kitchen. And again, that’s what a good architect is wired and trained to do is to literally take the order, take the wishlist and brought up. I literally just yesterday was talking to one of the top national financial gurus with churches and he, he told me the story of the Church architect that actually said specifically he absolutely does not want any financial expertise in the room when they’re going through the predesign and design process because that would basically hinder his ability to be creative and to anything out of the box. And, and the reality is there’s, there’s actually studies that say 75 percent of the plans that get paid for and run up, get thrown away because of having no bearing in any type of fiscal financial, a reality. No one, everyone ignored. Just basically count the cost of the tower before at least designing it, if not our drawing it in building it. But, but again, in that perfect world, perfect committee hires a perfect church architect, uh, who gets all the wishlist, draws up the requirements that goes out to bid and we call that a, you know, design, bid, build, I call it the blind poker game where the winter is the guy that had the lowest bid. And again, everyone assumes that that’s again, a perfect contractor that is going to the project for something that resembles that winning low bid. Uh, and of course anyone that’s been to that project or that process understands that that bid no does not resemble in any way, shape or form what the final cost is because typically it’s, it’s pretty common for the contractor to have looked through the documents and the drawings to have already identified. I’m pretty good a number of errors, a missions and consistencies, and basically has a number of change orders already in his back pocket that, you know, once you’re in the midst of construction trying to hit an opening day, you’re kind of just add his mercy. So there’s no negotiation, no competitive bidding a at that point. And the reality is that that process that I just described, a design bid build is not one that in my career working with commercial clients know, savvy developer ever uses that approach. And most governments these days or.
- Tony Morgan: 15:47 Yeah, that was going to be the obvious question I was going to ask you because you’ve worked with are organizations other than churches, none of the other organizations build the bill. Start with the building committee. Right,
- Mel McGowan: 16:01 Exactly. I mean, the idea of actually having a professional project manager that has experience in development is, is kind of a starting point, no brainer because at the end day a committee not move decisions down a critical path efficiently and uh, and take the responsibility.
- Tony Morgan: 16:20 Yeah. Using your illustration, it would be like the waitress at the restaurant asking the community what they want to eat in every committee member has different food preferences. I mean, dietary restrictions, things like this. And so the order would never be clear then based on that description,
- Mel McGowan: 16:39 That’s also how you ended up with a lot of beige everywhere you go.
- Tony Morgan: 16:43 That’s right. So yeah, that that’s true. When you’re, the more people you involve the, I say, the more mediocre the results
- Mel McGowan: 16:54 I guarantee. I’ve asked this across the country to thousands of people. Um, I asked people, where do you go in your free time for vacation to just relax, spend free time. I’ve never once found anyone choose a destination that was designed by committee. You might find that a hospital or an institution which is usually place people want to get out of church. Architects are classified as institutional architects. Institutions are mental facilities, prisons, schools, hospitals, places that you usually want to get out of, not, not break into. So again, it’s just a, it’s a different approach.
- Tony Morgan: 17:31 Yeah. So let’s, let’s shift gears then and talk about the better way. Okay. So there, there has to be a better way to approach this, this connection between architecture, the buildings that we need a for, to accomplish many ministry, the ministry itself and then the people that we’re trying to reach. So is, is there, is there an anti architectural approach to church architecture?
- Mel McGowan: 17:57 So I call it the, uh, Open Kimono Process. And really what you’re doing is you’re establishing, rather than the typical adversarial relationship, uh, where the architect is expected to be perfect and have a perfect set of plans, contractor is expected to be perfect and have a perfect bid. And the second that, that human imperfection rises its ugly head, everyone’s pointing fingers at each other and the church has to be the arbitrator, uh, instead of that normal adversarial relationship, it, it creates a collaborative relationship because what you do on the front end is you hire the builder, the, the construction partner based on qualifications. You negotiate a construction management fee, which is again, just the, the, uh, the general contractor’s three to 10 percent, whatever that overhead fee is. But all the direct construction costs, that’s, that’s done by all the multiple trades is all a, again, open book, a competitive bids. I’m the designer, the church, the, the construction manager can look at all the multiple bids at any point in time and choose the right bid based on qualifications, pricing, so on and so forth. So there’s no kind of hidden agendas. And it really just creates a process where, again, from the first time that the instructional partner is looking at even master plans and looking at overall just square footages, uh, and just bringing their best assumptions of overall cost per square foot to the table. They can really kind of bring their expertise and that, that budget comes into greater and greater clarity. The further you go down, uh, the process and again, been through about a thousand projects a, whether it’s a billion dollar projects for Disney, whether it’s 100,000 dollars, you know, just a design the intervention for small churches. And you know, I’ve explored, I’ve been an owner in a design build company. I’ve worked with a different contractor. I’ve never once gone through that competitive design bid build process because of all the problems that can create. Um, but again, having a collaborative partnership is really, uh, the only way to go. And certainly I’ve learned that from some of the great leaders in ministries we work with. The kingdom is built on relationships, not on lawsuits, not on contracts, and definitely not on bricks and mortar.
- Tony Morgan: 20:16 So Mel, you might imagine we work with all types of churches and I’m sure listening to the podcasts, there’s all types of churches, some of them are, are considering building projects, building something new, some are considering renovation projects, but most of the churches listening today aren’t ready for that. They’re not ready to move forward with that either because of financial resources or timing. But what are some steps said even those churches can be taken at any time to remove barriers. It comes to their current spaces.
- Mel McGowan: 20:48 Well, again, I think the idea of having your space be a ministry tool and again, having buildings, bricks and mortar wall get out of the way of, of uh, connecting the lost and the found a church and community your message from those who are desperately waiting to hear words of eternal life and living water. That’s, that’s Kinda how I think of it as like starting with some demolition. And, um, you know, that, that idea of not letting space get in the way, you know, if, if there’s something about the exterior that is scaring people away, it doesn’t take a big building project to let’s, let’s get that obstacle out of the way, you know, let’s, let’s get, you know, if it’s some dated a thing, you know, I mean, let’s, let’s just, um, it’s Kinda like that extreme makeover or that, you know, diet, if you’re wearing a, some out of date, crazy, ugly outfit, just let’s not wear that jacket for those, for us, some pants or whatever. and so that, that idea of bringing someone in that, um, you can trust their judgment, their tastes, that can kind of curate the experience. That’s kind of a starting point. So typically we come in and do kind of a kind of a, a guest audit and really just, uh, you know, there are functional things of what is this, what is this communicating to me as I’m just driving by at 40 miles an hour? Uh, if, if for whatever reason I did decide to pull in, um, how hard would it be for that mom with three kids, you know, from teens, you know, to toddlers, how, how hard would it be to figure out her way around without getting frustrated and nervous and anxious? Um, you know, what is it about this space? It would make a kid more anxious versus more excited to go deeper into the rabbit hole. and again, those kind of intuitive psychological things, not underestimating the power of space to, to shape it, to facilitate a kingdom connection. Again, for us, that foundation is starting point is his story and you know, it really starts even before you ever get to the building. It starts really from the ether all the way through the environment. So if you’re checking out our church website, um, it can either under promise or over promise because you can have the most relevant experience or website. But then once you actually get to the physical space, it can be a complete bait and switch, you know? So having that consistency, I guess from brand new building is something that we feel really strongly about that really helps pastors that maybe have a great gift thing as a verbal oral storyteller. Uh, but um, you know, sometimes it helps to come alongside them, raise up their own by helping them tell that story before someone ever even steps into the building. And then certainly as a progressive place where they’re sitting in front of them being able to hear the gospel.
- Tony Morgan: 23:46 In fact Mel, I think that’s really where the strength of your team is. I’ve walked into churches that had adequate physical space. The amount of space wasn’t the issue and actually even the configuration of the spaces, what wasn’t the issue. It was the story that, that space was telling that was the barrier to the ministry that the church was trying to engage and you and your team came in and really transformed how, how the environment’s felt, especially to new people connecting with the church. And it really helped to completely transform the Ministry of the church. And the great news about that, it’s going to cost some money, but it’s not like building a new building or significant renovation expenses are incurred that it’s more of a, I hate to use face lift because it’s more than that, uh, you’re really changing the story that your space is telling. And so I really appreciate the work that your team does. And thanks again for joining us here today. Likewise for friendship.
- Tony Morgan: 24:47 Well, thank you Mel and thank you to our listeners and in fact, I want to know who you are. If you’re listening, we know that thousands of people now are listening to the podcast every month, but I’m curious who, who are you? And so if you would take a moment and go to twitter, shoot me a message @TonyMorganLive and just let me know. This is a bit of my story and why I listened to the unstuck church podcast. And then we’ll look forward to being with you again next week.