Loose Fit

All buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong.Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn

A building’s design is usually built upon what architects call a “brief” or “program ” or an inventory of spaces and requirements.. Programs are built upon assumptions about populations and activities. Yet you can’t predict church attendance or exactly what you’ll be doing to reach them in a decade, anymore than you can know their ages, marital status or the ages of their children ahead of time. So, how many loaves and fishes will we need for, say, 500 people?

Counting Sheep

Churches necessarily try to get a handle on what God only knows. Some of the methods are more valid than others, and we feel pretty good when more than one yields the same number. (Please notice that I’m talking only about attendance. Membership is usually a useless statistic: we don’t build space for people who don’t show up.

Let me weigh the counts:

  • Extrapolate recent attendance growth into the future,
  • Correlate attendance to demographic trends in the geographic area served (I know of one church that used market data from a national hamburger chain to make its predictions),
  • Calculate the capacity of the site (conventional wisdom says 100-120 people per acre for a single block of activity)
  • Remember how many people attended during the church’s “glory days,”
  • Select a neighboring church you would or wouldn’t want to be bigger than, and/or
  • Double, triple or quadruple current attendance (without getting unmanageable.)

Certain Uncertainty

When I was a kid, my father and I sailed small boats on lakes near our home in Atlanta. When I was in high school, we took a course in celestial navigation, in anticipation of an ocean trip. To warn us of the imprecision of our newfound art, the instructor told a story about a young navigator who, when asked his position, took readings from the sun, consulted his reference books, and after a some lengthy calculations, pointed to a spot on the map. “There, ” he said, with confidence. When asked the same question, a more experienced navigator, weathered from decades of squinting at the horizon from the deck of an open boat, placed his open palm on the map and says, “here. ” In the face of certain uncertainty, we’re still tempted to try for a perfect solution, a game of inches. As good stewards of “now ” we work to allocate square feet based on a carefully wrought model, maximizing space and minimizing the infrastructure that supports it.

Good Bones

Perhaps a better approach is to aim for a “loose fit, ” a structure that’s not too closely tied to today’s best thoughts about what ministry will look like tomorrow. In the days when I drew house plans, we tested the design of every bedroom by seeing how many ways we could arrange the furniture.

Buildings intended to serve enduring purposes should offer the same flexibility. They should have “good bones ” – a simpler, more flexible infrastructure that offers the freedom to change as ministry opportunities and approaches change.

Even when we admit having taken on an impossible task, many of us still seek monumentality over flexibility, art over adaptability. In Brand’s words, we’re “houseproud. ” When conditions arise that don’t match our model, we’re unable to respond quickly or effectively. And when we build something that keeps us from following the SpirIt’s leading, we’ve built an idol.