Here’s the scenario:
A decades-old business is trying to decide what to do with its aging headquarters building amid shifting market demands and new expectations from its customer base.
Now if instead of business, market and customer, you substitute the words church, community and members, then you begin to appreciate that churches face many of the same challenges as businesses in deciding when and how to adapt their buildings and property to meet changing needs .
Legacy versus relevance
There’s probably not a better capital improvement project in the Greenville area that demonstrates how a church has had to contend with a whole range of considerations than First Presbyterian Church’s The $33 million building program is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
Founded in 1848 and deeded the property it now occupies in 1850 by Vardry McBee when he laid out the original municipal core, the 3,000-member First Presbyterian Church has been a downtown landmark at 200 W. Washington St. for generations.
Despite a population shift to the suburbs beginning in the 1960s, church leaders remained committed to remaining actively involved in downtown, according to David Dixon, a church elder and member for more than 35 years.
Dixon is also a principal architect with Greenville-based Craig Gaulden Davis, the firm handling the First Presbyterian project. He says the building project was inspired in equal parts by an appreciation of the church’s heritage as an integral part of the downtown landscape, along with a commitment to remain relevant and engaged with the city’s center.
“Looking to the future I think what (church leaders) see is such a vibrant, growing city and still a city that has a strong faith base to it,” Dixon says. “They really want to be engaged with the city of Greenville, engaged with the people.”
To that end, the design team had to develop spaces that could fulfill multiple roles. The roughly 75,000 square feet of new construction had to blend seamlessly with the existing 150,000 square feet of the main sanctuary and attached family life center.
Central to that purpose is a courtyard facing West Washington Street that connects the original sanctuary with a new multistory youth facility and arts center/auditorium that also incorporates a new gym on the second level.
That courtyard is meant to be open and welcoming to the public and will be bounded on one side by a privately run coffee shop that will also be open to the public, Dixon says. Fellow CGD architect Rebecca Wilson says the incorporation of such an open space at the heart of the First Presbyterian campus underscores the church’s commitment to being actively engaged with downtown life.
“They have a really amazing location downtown and they have a huge courtyard that could easily have been building space that they’re kind of giving back to the community,” Wilson says.
Dixon adds that with the church property comprising only about two city blocks, planners wanted to accommodate a range of uses with the new buildings. The arts center features a 1,000-seat auditorium that will be used for both worship services and performing arts shows. Between the upper level of the auditorium and the new gym is a gallery space where art will be displayed.
The ultimate vision for the arts center, Dixon says, is to engage the community with visual and performing arts.
Devising buildings that can meet the needs for a performance space, whether through a contemporary worship service or through theatrical or musical performances, is a growing need among churches nationwide, according to Equip Studio Founding Partner Sims Key.
The Greenville-based design firm works with churches across the country and specializes in buildings and spaces to fit their needs and the communities they serve. Increasingly, churches need their buildings to serve a wide variety of needs and that designs now incorporate AVL — audio, visual, lighting — to achieve much of that versatility, Key says.
Churches increasingly recognize their facilities have been underutilized and that upgrading them to fulfill more roles enables churches to expand their ministries’ impact within their communities, according to Equip Communications Director Morgan Reynolds.
Reynolds says a lot of the firm’s clients specify that they want a space “that performs really well for worship on Sunday morning but does X, Y and Z the other six days of the week.”
Like First Presbyterian with its arts center auditorium, churches around the country are increasingly using their worship spaces to welcome and engage with their surrounding communities.
“I think we’re seeing a lot more community-driven programming,” Reynolds says.
He adds that COVID has also prompted many churches to incorporate production space into their AVL upgrades as they seek to expand their online ministries.
As communities grow and transform, the churches that serve them continue to change as well. Many churches, particularly in suburban areas, now see an opportunity in converting empty big-box stores into worship and multipurpose spaces, according to Key of Equip Studio.
Meanwhile, urban churches like Greenville’s Grace Church face severe space constraints and are having to look at novel ways to meet growth.
The church is now considering trading a small parking lot adjacent to its downtown campus for two or three floors of space in a 10- or 11-story building that could be developed on the parcel, according to Grace Business Operations Manager Jeff Randolph.
Augusta Road Baptist Church is grappling with an aging building that would cost an estimated $1 million just to restore it to full function. The historic congregation is now trying to find the balance between fulfilling their mission and being good stewards of their resources, according to Ed Zeigler, principal architect with Craig Gaulden Davis and an Augusta Road member who is helping develop a new master plan for the church.
“We have a 20th century facility and we’re trying to do a 21st century church,” he says.
The good news is churches and their members are increasingly willing to try novel approaches and creative solutions to meet evolving needs.
“You’ve got to always be thinking about what’s next,” Zeigler says.