Turn-Around Churches

st philips charleston sc

It is likely, if your church is older than a generation, that it’s headed in the wrong direction – literally.  The siting of churches with front doors facing a busy street is, in many cases, a remnant of a long-past era when people walked to church or parked along the curb out front.

Although few churches are as deeply embedded in the sidewalk as St Philip’s in Charleston, SC, where Church Street literally bends around the sanctuary and its fenced-off portico, it is common to encounter churches that just as resolutely face the street, opening their doors to but a dedicated few, or worse, signaling unintentionally that it is closed. With a sanctuary thus situated, the balance of the campus must typically be arranged behind, with parking relegated to the rear or other remote corner of the property. The configuration readily accommodates people moving from cars to classroom, but sends congregants into the sanctuary through secondary doors flanking the choir.The worst arrangements force anyone who needs to step out for a moment to parade before everyone else on their way to the bathroom.

This can be avoided with new construction of course, with a notable exception, and correcting it at existing campuses is not out of reach.

Where liturgical traditions direct orientation, the fix can be difficult. In the Catholic church, the liturgy has historically been spoken facing east, but the relationship between celebrants and congregation has changed from time to time. Current practice calls for the nave to be east of the altar and implies entrance on the same side, no matter the orientation of the site. (It changes every 500 years or so; be patient.)

In existing buildings, there are two options (three, if you count hanging up one of those signs that says “Back Door Friends Are Best”):

  • Reversing the sanctuary interior and
  • Redirecting foot traffic.

Both can be expensive and both can run into opposition based more on habit than fact.

Reversing the Sanctuary

In a one-story building with a simple structure, reversing the interior is straightforward. The approach is to replace the entrance with stained glass or some other strong element that is elegant and visible even when the room is not. The element can be a dramatic backdrop to the choir or isolated to control light. Existing pews or chairs and altar furnishings can be reused, and the opportunity taken to integrate AV systems. When the doors are moved opposite, access is simplified for the congregation. Unfortunately, it can be complicated for the choir and worship leaders.

Redirecting Traffic

Elevated structures, transepts, and balconies complicate everything. If turning the church isn’t possible or practical, or if commitment to a traditional siting is strong, it may be possible to move the people coming to it along a different path.  Sometimes parking can be relocated, but it doesn’t help with traffic between activities.

The construction of corridors along one or both sides of the sanctuary can allow people to flank the main room on their way to the entrance. The corridors might be tucked under the eaves of a traditional church and lighted in a way that protects the appearance of roof lines and stained glass. Critical prefunction space can be added or mechanical system distribution can be upgraded at the same time.

It bears repeating that there is little that a church’s facilities can do to replace the work assigned to its inhabitants, unless the facilities are the rocks that “cry out ” when believers are quiet (Luke 19:40 – NIV). A more appropriate expectation is that we build nothing that creates unnecessary obstacles to effective ministry.