I hear frequent complaints from pastors about their buildings. The lists usually start with boilers, plumbing, leaky roofs, and boilers again.
But there’s often a deeper sense of something-that-isn’t-quite-working. Especially with their worship space.
And often that something is this: small-group worship in a big-group space.
THE CHALLENGE: LISTENING FOR MISMATCHED MESSAGING
To understand the challenge, you have to start with Architecture 101.
Buildings speak. Architecture always sends messages and gives directions. Church buildings can say everyone face this way. Or look up and feel small because God is big. They can say soak in the solitude or gather around here together.
Buildings can suggest being quietly reserved or wildly boisterous. They can make you feel seen or anonymous. They can invite active participation or nudge you to sit still and watch.
And all of these messages can be perfectly faithful for worship.
The problem shows up, however, when there are mismatches between what your building is saying and what you want your worship to say. And it’s a particular challenge for small congregations in oversized sanctuaries.
Maybe you’ve noticed this challenge. If you worship with 47 people, your worship can say powerful things like let’s create this important event together or welcome home and join in.
But if your sanctuary holds 250, there will be mismatched messaging. The space has been designed to guide a larger group. The architecture probably says things like take a seat and quietly watch the leaders.
Small groups hear this mismatched messaging. They may feel shy, alone, and exposed in oversized space. They’re less likely to sing confidently, move freely, participate boldly. The human impulse to find the back pew, of course, makes it worse. But the simple truth is that spread-out folks can feel like spread-thin hope.
It turns out that here’s an optimal density of bodies for buildings and for worship. Jesus required only a couple. But your building may be demanding more. So your job is creating the building density that fits your small-congregation worship messaging. Gather in. You matter. Let’s meet up with God together.
The fix? Remember the intimacy and comfort of that blanket fort in the living room? Smaller spaces can encourage a different kind of belonging and sharing–your kind.
So here are a couple of easy, practical solutions for creating that comfort and intimacy in an oversized building.
FIX #1: PEW BANNERS
This simple project shrinks the feel of the space and increases the density of bodies.
Picture a tall, sturdy pole (6 feet or more). A long, thin banner draped from the top. And something like a Christmas tree stand holding it all up.
Now picture a whole row of these banners tucked across a pew–as far forward as you’d like worshipers to sit together.
Like that blanket fort, the row of banners suggests a smaller, more intimate space. The banners block off the back part of the sanctuary. And this quietly directs worshipers to move forward. Closer together. Until the density of the group matches the messaging of the worship.
There are simple, beautiful designs for these pew banners. Check out instagram. Find local artists. Make your own! There are MacGuyvers in every community to craft clever stands. Send me pictures of what you create.
FIX #2: BEARS
Or you can try bears. Really. One pastor with a small-group-big-space challenge found an unexpected approach. She saw the loneliness and vulnerability of worshipers spread out from each other. So she placed enormous stuffed bears throughout the sanctuary. People eagerly sat next to them. Nestled against them. Enjoyed them. And somehow the space felt fuller. And freer. Like maybe Jesus was right about entering the kingdom as a little child.
The point is simple: imagine; make do; increase the density of bodies; help your worship space call out, “So glad you’re here. Make yourself at home with us!” Banners and bears are just starting possibilities. You’ll figure out more. And share them.
HOW THE GOOD NEWS TALKS BACK
But there’s a bigger issue for small congregations in less-than-ideal buildings. The worship space may be whispering anti-gospel nonsense. Like “this is not-good-enough” or “you can’t keep up” or “just look: you’re barely alive anymore.”
Pay attention if you’ve heard these whispers. Because this challenge can’t be undone with a simple project. Or even with a bulldozer and new blueprints. Because this is a challenge of theology, not architecture. It marks a crisis of faith, not space. It means your building has become your hope.
Let’s be clear: the kingdom of God cannot be reduced to brick and wood. Our hope has never been in our addresses, furnishings, and facilities. The Good News has no trouble talking back to sin and death, so buildings can pose no threat. By God’s grace, we are enough, we have enough, and resurrection overturns once-and-for-all the lie of “barely alive.”
God’s people have worshiped in temples and cathedrals. But we’ve also worshiped in wilderness and underground burial chambers. Ezekiel announced it long ago. God rolls with us like a wheel. Even through the rubble of a destroyed temple. Wherever. Emmanuel is our good news. God with us. Here! So we roll out, too. Our worship buildings are simply tools of our ministry.
We are not ultimately defined by worship space. We are defined by our worship. There’s a two-dollar word for this God-talk: ecclesiology. It means the study of the Church. And it’s never been about architecture. It’s always been about faithful bodies figuring out how to be the ecclesia—the working folks of the kingdom of God called out together.
And for small-group-big-space congregations, this should be wildly freeing.
It means you can worship lavishly in soup kitchens, parking lots, back yards, parks, nursing homes. Pull in close together. Grab your paten, chalice. Wheel out your baptismal. Go. And use your building like a tool for building a blanket forts for kingdom of God. Make it available for neighborhood meetings, after-school groups, even addiction recovery groups. Be with the people in your community.
And know this unlikely truth: your challenges with worship space are actually a powerful gift. They invite you to clearly separate out building-talk from God-talk. Then share this Good News distinction with the Whole Church.
Listen. Gather close. Talk back. Roll out.
Thank you for your ministry,