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Does More Space Mean Better Ministry?

A new survey shows how and why church are expanding, and to what effect.

Churches in the United States spent about $7 billion on church buildings in 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But did these churches construct new facilities or add to existing ones? Building on their current property or elsewhere? What prompted these projects?

In early 2010, Christianity Today International and Cornerstone Knowledge Network attempted to answer questions like these by co-sponsoring a survey on ministry facilities expansion trends titled, "Does More Space Mean Better Ministry?" The goal of the survey was to better understand how churches view their ministry space and to gauge their feelings about recent ministry space expansion. The study also attempted to identify correlations between the types of expansion, church growth rate, and makeup of growth. For churches that have not expanded, the study explored what elements of their ministry space they would most want to expand if they could.

Of the 1,126 "qualified respondents"—those who identified themselves as a pastor, business administrator, board member, elder, member of a building committee, a facilities or operations manager, or director—three-fourths said their church expanded its ministry space.

For 350 of those respondents, this expansion took place in the last three years. Of that group, 38 percent said they built a new facility on existing property, 20 percent relocated to a different facility, and 10 percent built a new facility in a new location. The average worship attendance of these churches was 346, but 58 percent report average attendance of 200 or less.

The Salina Bible Church, located in Salina, Pennsylvania, draws more than 200 attenders for its weekend worship services, and it is in the process of expanding its ministry space. The church's three-phase expansion plan began with the construction of a multi-purpose facility that will allow for additional seating for worship while doubling as a gymnasium and fellowship hall during the week. The second phase will provide a new worship facility, Sunday school rooms, and office space. And the final stage involves converting the current church facility into a Christian school.

Phase one will cost about $800,000, and Senior Pastor Paul Reiner says the church does not plan to continue its expansion until the cost of the first phase has been covered. "So as not to incur debt," says Reiner, "phase two begins when phase one has been paid for."

Riverchase United Methodist Church, in Hoover, Alabama, is preparing to vote on an expansion proposal that would provide necessary updates for its growing congregation. Riverchase, located in Birmingham's largest suburb, averages more than 1,600 people each weekend. For the last decade, Riverchase's attendance has risen.

Senior Pastor Jim Savage says the proposed expansion will better meet the needs for children, youth, and parking, and it will improve the traffic flow inside and outside the church.

"We do not have enough Sunday school rooms for children," Savage says. "On Wednesday evenings, the youth do not have a good place to meet. Our main entrance has a terrible blind hill and some folks are so afraid of it, they refuse to enter our property from that direction."

The proposed expansion provides 11 classrooms for children, a student worship center and two more classrooms, a new driveway with a four-lane entrance and restructured exits, two new parking lots (with roughly 150 new spaces), and new dirt work for future parking expansions. The plan would also rebuild Riverchase's Mission Center for Boy Scout storage and provide office space and a computer lab for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Phase one of Riverchase's expansion plan will cost about $5 million.

Like Riverchase, many churches in the survey desire more space. Classrooms ranked number one, in terms of space needs, followed closely by more fellowship space and a bigger sanctuary. What's fueling this desire for more classroom space? According to the survey, more than half (53 percent) of the churches that experienced growth in their membership attributed it to "young families." The second largest group was "children," but only 12 percent of the respondents listed this as their primary source of growth.

Savage attributes much of Riverchase's growth to the church's three Hispanic services on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

"Our Hispanic worship services have grown by 100 percent over the last three years," he says.

Savage also says that half of Riverchase's new members and new attenders are "churched" and the other half are "unchurched." But when broken down by service, Savage says that 75 percent of the new attenders at the Hispanic services are "unchurched," while only 25 percent of the new faces at the other worship services are "unchurched."

These numbers differ slightly from the survey results, which indicated that, among the churches showing a growth in attendance, 65 percent of it was attributed to an influx of "churched" members as opposed to only 35 percent of "unchurched" attenders.

Reiner says Salina Bible's teen ministry has experienced the most growth in recent years, but of the new attenders and new members, it's been an even split between those who are "churched" and those who are "unchurched." In four out of five types of expansion projects, respondents are more likely to say that the expansion has enhanced their church's ability to minister to those who currently attend their church. Fifty-six percent believe that a multi-site venue (whether in another location or on-site) does the best job of attracting the unchurched.

What areas will churches be eyeing for future expansion? According to the Ministry Facilities Expansion survey, 37 percent will add more classroom and office space in the next three years, while 33 percent will concentrate on expanding the nursery/children's area of their ministry.

And hopefully, when these projects are all completed, the majority will echo what more than half of the survey group said: "If we had to do it over again, we wouldn't change a thing."

A free copy of the full report is available for free.

Tyler Charles is a freelance writer living in Delaware, Ohio.

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