One can, and should, worship anywhere. But if you’re considering using an existing building as a place for corporate worship, here are some practical things to keep in mind. What are the characteristics of size, height, structure and other attributes that most affect the usefulness of a particular space?
Rules of thumb for seating area vary widely. The most efficient type is pews, but chairs follow closely and offer greater flexibility. A few churches have experimented with “café ” or table seating, which requires about twice as much space per person as other options.
We’ve been asked to look at factories, department stores, and warehouses as homes for all kinds of worship and find that the least understood aspect of “size ” is volume, which is what you get when you multiple “size” by height. It is also the most difficult to evaluate. Acoustical consultants indirectly recommend height when they suggest a certain volume per person, but shortcomings there can, in theory, be mitigated by sound systems and finishes. A greater challenge, in my mind, is gaining enough height to “feel connected ” with others in the room or to achieve the sight lines necessary to see a presenter. The answer varies with the size of the assembly, but a space that is too low can feel like a nicely finished basement.
It is not necessary to be column free. Traditional worship spaces have long been interrupted (articulated?) by columns. Media-driven worshippers ask for open rooms and then plant their in-house mix and camera positions in the middle of the crowd. Seating and aisles are flexible, and structure, thoughtfully incorporated, is inexpensive decoration.
Some of the most engaging experiences have been disrupted by an ambulance siren or by the loud pipes on somebody’s motorcycle. If you’ve been in your house when a car with big bass speakers come by you know that light, residential construction is essentially transparent to low frequency sound. Wherever possible, look for a building that is substantial enough to withstand this kind of intrusion. Light walls can be “insulated ” if they’re surrounded by enough support space. Light roofs are much tougher to remedy.
Even the simplest worship environment needs a little help. Look for space outside the main room that’s at least a third of its size to serve as a narthex, lobby or vestibule (your choice). Check the Building Code to be sure you have enough water closets. Find space “backstage ” so worship leaders can prepare for their critical work.
The way we do things changes at varying rates. Existing theaters can be terrific settings for worship, but are less flexible in both the short- and long-terms than flat floor spaces with loose seating. Can the space you’re considering handle the change you anticipate or hope for?