Things to Consider

MEGA, MIDDLE, OR MINI: What size best fits your parish?

March 07, 2007



Ascension ChurchEvery building committee struggles with the issue of size for their new church. The answer for those who are considering building a new worship space is a complex web of requirements and considerations. This brief overview highlights some of these.

Determining the size of new worship spaces will include looking at these issues:

+     Demographics
+     Diocesan requirements
+     Functional connections
+     Financial considerations
+     Personal perception of space

While other issues may need to be considered in individual situations, these are present for all projects.  Each will have an impact on the final size of a parish worship space.


Gathering information about the demographics of the geographic area where your church is located, as well as church demographics, is an important early step in the process of building or renovating.  Essential to understanding the growth – or lack of growth – for a particular parish, demographics are a tool that help us to see patterns of where people are or will be living, and how many of them may or may not be attending a parish’s worship services.  These numbers can also tell you of the composition or mix of people – their ethnic heritage, how many are families or singles, what age groups are most prevalent now or will be in the future.

The statistics available in demographic studies will help plan for the needs of the parish now and in the future. City, county or state offices can give needed information about general population trends.  Studies from your diocese or national studies, such as those compiled by CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) at Georgetown University, can give you helpful information about trends in the Catholic population.  A simple demographic survey of the parish itself might also be valuable.  Such a survey can help with the scheduling of Mass times, for example, which in turn may affect the size of the needed worship space.

Diocesan Requirements

Each diocese will have its own set of requirements for the building of a new church.  These can range from simple financial reviews – can you raise this much money? – to very specific regulations about the size and configuration of the church and the elements within it.  More and more dioceses are requiring that new worship spaces seat at least 1,000 people.  This number alone puts new Catholic churches in the mega-church category.  This is happening at the same time that we see Protestant mega churches moving to the decentralized models of multi-site churches.

Inherent in the size of mega churches (over 1000 seats) are issues of intimacy and connection.  The worship space and how it is designed (size, configuration and surface treatments) will affect participation in the worship rituals.  Careful attention to details and their impact can make a difference in the final effect a space can have – no matter what its size. At the beginning of the design process it is very important to contact the appropriate offices in the diocese to find out what the process is for approval of the parish’s project and what the requirements are for the design of the worship space.

Functional connections

Today we rarely find a church standing alone. New churches are far more likely to be part of a complex or campus of other related buildings.  The siting, placement and relationship to other buildings (schools, social halls, etc.) will affect the size of the church.  In the Master Plan phase for the project, relationships of all parts of a church complex are explored.  The creation of a Master Plan provides a road map that guides the current project and any future expansions.  It is a useful tool that can save money and headaches in the long term.

Financial considerations

How much money a congregation can raise is always a determining factor in the outcome of any design process for a church. When facing the reality of what we can afford after the dreaming and visioning stage, there is a sobering moment of truth.  Realistically looking at how a project can be phased and where it can be cut back is the next step. Often there are creative solutions that do not alter the general footprint of the building.  Sometimes the project will be phased, but only rarely will a project stop for purely financial reasons.  An architect and a liturgical design consultant can assist in prioritizing the project.  It is important at this time to keep focus on long term goals and values the parish holds for the project.

Personal perception of space

Our spatial perceptions are part of the many considerations that go into making a decision about the size of a worship space.  Recently, these issues of how we as humans perceive space have been given a more thorough academic lens.  The work of ANFA (The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture) has brought together neuroscientists, clergy and architects to explore identifiable responses in our brains that may support or enhance our understanding of sacred space.  They have looked at the science of issues that affect our personal experience of worship spaces. Questions such as when does a person feel ‘lost’ in a space that is too big, or uncomfortably crowded by a space that is too small, are being tested.  The efforts to answer these and other questions about how we perceive and understand space will be of great value as they unfold now and in the near future.

There are many things to consider when building or renovating a worship space.  Exploring the impact of demographics, knowing the diocesan requirements, understanding the functional and connective aspects of your building, considering the financial status of your parish, and being sensitive to personal perceptions of space help bring into being a successful project – a church that is the right size for the faith community, whether it is mega or mini or somewhere in between.

Carol Frenning is a liturgical design consultant in Minneapolis, MN.

Photo of the Church of the Ascension in Minneapolis by Mike Jensen


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