Architect Jack DeBartolo III, designer of The Grove Church in Gilbert, brought out a relatively recent shift in how the church has thought about itself. For a period in Christian history, the local church in a city or town was the largest and most aspiring architecture. In fact, it was often against local ordinances to build buildings that rose above the steeple or spire.
Then, the Christian community became more invested in the idea that God dwells within the individual, and thus the individual is the church and expression of God. Not that this is theologically wrong, but it took the church away from engaging the power of physical place, and replaced it with the austere factory-like architecture we often see today that is more about functionality than meaning.
Jim Mullins, a pastor at Redemption Tempe, affirms the value of place by un-drawing lines between “sacred" and "secular.” If God is a creator and placemaker (as we see in Genesis), then we are tasked with both creative and preservative placemaking. Designing place that glorifies and demonstrates the DNA of God as Creator is not just a Sunday experience, or an individual purpose, but a corporate and all-culture endeavor.
Mullins encourages the church and the Christian to think about place in terms of buildings (the built environment), the home, and the ground. How do faith communities create spaces that draw people towards God, and towards each other, Monday-to-Monday.
Space that Draws People Up
DeBartolo III took our group on a tour of The Grove Church in Gilbert, especially highlighting the main sanctuary. He closely designed it with the church’s leadership team to feel like a living room that connects people horizontally to each other and vertically with God.
The building itself is sunk into the ground, and centered in a grove. All the doors can pivot open, connecting people and generations, and the corner dematerializes as they do so. Different seating and arrangements are inside, ranging from couches to hard pews, representing the varying moods and life stories people enter with. The seating is arranged in a square, surrounding the main stage. The levels of the seating were carefully designed so that nobody felt they had to look too far up or down at each other. The sanctuary looks out at the grove and trees to remind congregants that what they learn together is meant to impact the community – church is not about “me.” Much of the surrounding elements of the main seating area include reclaimed wood, symbolic of how we are made new through the gospel.
The last stop of the Tour was Agritopia, an urban farm in Gilbert, Arizona. The visionary behind it, Joe Johnston, has lived at the site for decades with his family. As development encroached on the farms in the area years ago, many farmers moved farther away. A strong Christian, Joe realized he could do the same, and separate agriculture from suburban life, or he could incorporate the two together. Believing in the lessons and community that can come from farming, Joe chose the latter and flipped the script.
Agritopia is now an intergenerational community that surrounds a farm in the center. Through both for-profit and non-profit ventures, Joe has created a community that brings people of different socioeconomic statuses and generations together. The homes are designed with porches close to sidewalks, to enable conversation among neighbors. The homes themselves stretch more up than out, allowing different floor plans to be side by side together (not often done in typical housing developments). Smaller apartments are often in the backyards, where homeowners can support older members or those with socioeconomic difficulties. A private school sits next to an assisted living facility, so that the generations can be close to each other as they mature and age.
Meanwhile, the Johnston’s old ranch house has been converted into a burger stand-restaurant, and a coffee shop sits nearby. The surrounding community is able to come in weekly and pick up produce, and the produce grown on the farm goes to many surrounding restaurants. An older barn on the property is being converted to a maker space, hosting creatives to design and sell their products and services. The farm pulls the community inwards toward each other.
The two tour sites present a couple opportunities for faith communities. The first is the potential of the church to be a physical space that brings people together and creates a vertical focus on God. The power of the church as a Third Place will be the next piece of the conversation – Monday-through-Monday, how does the church serve as a creative hub for collaboration, intergenerational relationships, and launching ideas?
Second, the church is purposed to launch people of faith into an appreciation and development of their local surroundings as an expression of good news. Place and the built environment is not separate from what is sacred.
The conversation about how the church designs, inspires, and engages with creative space is just beginning!
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