Things to Consider

Mitigating Problems in Large Worship Spaces - Part 1

June 16, 2009


This is Part 1 of a 2-part article.  Read Part 2.

Christ the Light Cathedral, OaklandLarge worship spaces certainly present challenges to communities faced with building them, utilizing them well, or adapting them in changing times. They also present many advantages that might not be as easily achieved in a more modest space. This is not a subject easily approached, as the circumstance of each community is so diverse.

There are growing communities needing large or larger spaces. There are stable communities continuing to utilize older spaces, and perhaps occasionally adapt them for circumstances not previously foreseen, such as accessibility. There are small communities, often in urban areas, which inhabit spaces built for a much larger and perhaps more heterogeneous community than the one currently in the space. This smaller community may simply not have the resources to adapt the older building for its needs and even its culture.

It seems obvious, but important to mention, that “large” worship spaces are not necessarily more problematic than smaller spaces, and in fact, they may offer some clear advantage. They present different advantages and challenges than smaller spaces, but the path for resolving issues may well be similar.

Since the topic could be much too broad for a single article, I will try to offer some observations in three ways, first of all addressing the “definition” of a large space, second the advantages and challenges of large spaces, and third some strategies for mitigating the challenges faced in large worship spaces.

How Large is Large?

Size can certainly be a matter of perception. If a community is building a new worship space, it will want to examine carefully what its current needs and projections are for future growth. In the best of all possible worlds, Christian communities build spaces that serve the needs of their worship and their ministry. One would hope in our time that competition or ostentation not be motives for building large or extravagant spaces.  Of course, the size of the parish community has much, if not everything, to do with the need for a building of one size or another. A look at some statistics might help inform our perceptions about the relative size of both communities and worship spaces.

There may be be a number of studies available that give statistics about the size of church communities, but some are available online which may be helpful. One, the National Congregations Survey found that the median number of attendees in U.S. churches is 75. Another study (from U.S. Congregations) puts the average attendance at 186. This may shock some readers who are accustomed to some urban and suburban communities! Megachurches have been defined as those having 2,000 or more attendees on Sunday (Cf. the Hartford Institute for Religious Research.)  Many Roman Catholic parish communities would easily fall into this category (although there are other factors to consider as well).  In the Roman Catholic tradition, recent data gathered from CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) suggests there are about 64 million Roman Catholics in the US in 18,479 parishes. That would mean an average of nearly 3,500 members per parish, and if one accepts 25% as the average number of attendees on a given Sunday, about 865 people would participate in Sunday worship.

Hopefully, this gives some idea of median and average sizes when it comes to the communities, and from this perspective, a worship space accommodating even 200 or more worshipers might be considered “large.”

When I have asked architects what they consider a “large” space, what I hear most often is “a space that will accommodate 500 or more persons.” Most have been reticent to give a number of square feet as opposed to a number of congregants. Certainly, worship styles, denominational requirements, monetary resources, and other factors will affect the eventual dimensions of the space.

Continue to Part 2 of this 2-part article...

Rev. Robert J. Kropac is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio and a liturgical consultant.

Photo of Christ the Light Cathedral in Oakland provided by Daniel Miller.

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