Loving God, Loving People, and Changing Lives in Rural Illinois
By Mel McGowan
Central Christian Church in rural Mount Vernon, Illinois, views church as a waypoint: a place to pause, recharge, and then prepare to go back out into the world to continue sharing the gospel. The church’s wooded surroundings are picturesque and agrarian; its people are proud of being disconnected from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Central’s philosophy is that church should never be a country club, a “fort,” or a place where everything stops. Because their mission is to “love God and love people” and their vision is to be a “life-changing church,” they emphasize continuous growth and motion, from their youngest members to their adult ministry.
My former architectural design team led a master planning project for Central in 2012, and the church has carried their branding into the present. They wanted to implement a connection café and a children’s building, while also integrating the soil-specific story of the town into the story of communicating love at the church.
Kid Depot: A ‘Fundustrial’ Warehouse
Because industry has been important to Mount Vernon’s economy over the years, Central’s leadership team wanted to weave the idea of packaging, sorting, and sending the gospel to the world into their master plan and design. For the kids’ space in particular, the church wanted to communicate the idea that they are training up and discovering “lights of the world” for the gospel.
The entire concept of the Kid Depot building was designed with the idea of a “fundustrial” warehouse facility in mind. The building’s exterior resembles a shipping container, with an asymmetrical “opening” at the roofline on one side. This glass-paneled skylight, which allows natural light to filter into the facility, resembles an open container’s “lid”—like a box opening that reveals what’s inside.
The building is divided into four segments: Check-in, “Receiving” (nursery-toddlers), “Sorting” (preschool), and “Warehouse” (K-5). A minimalist design sensibility was implemented throughout the building, with a color palette of oranges, grays, and whites. The design team primarily used graphic treatments with some fully fabricated decor to realize the “sorting warehouse” vision Central’s team chose for the facility.
Kid Depot’s check-in area features truss work designs that span the desk and kiosk areas, as well as galvanized gooseneck lamps suspended from the ceiling. The desks and kiosks resemble wooden shipping crates, and directional infographics lead families and children down the hallways and into their respective areas.
The Receiving area for babies and toddlers conveys the metaphor of “wrapping up the message of Christ” and bringing it into the world—much like parents wrap their babies in diapers . . . and in love and affection. As Central’s young families bring their children up in the world, the children learn to wrap the gospel close to their hearts from an early age.
After the young children have been wrapped, or “packed,” they move into the Sorting area for their preschool years.
“We’ve packed up the gospel,” says Johnny Davis, creative director of Spatial Storytelling at PlainJoe Studios, “and now we’re sorting it as the kids enter preschool.”
An iconographic input area leading toward the preschool rooms shows images of kids being sorted into their purpose in Christ.
“It’s designed like a simple infographic you might see in a packing warehouse to instruct employees as to how to pack and sort goods,” Davis says.
The hallway design is based on the idea of a conveyor that splits off into four different directions. Each path boasts graphic displays that describe different facets of God’s truth, and all lead to an indoor/outdoor teaching area with a centrally located stage. For preschool-age kids at Central, the emphasis is sorting out their faith, their purpose, and God’s character.
Entering the elementary area in the K-5 Warehouse is like walking through a portal of unshipped boxes that reemphasize the idea of sending. In the group teaching area, wall graphics depict hoists preparing to put boxes on various forms of transportation, like planes, trains, boats, and automobiles.
By the time students move out of the elementary classes, they’ve been metaphorically packaged, sorted, and sent into the world with the gospel.
“They’ve learned who they are, what their character is in God, what his character is, and what his purpose is for their lives. Now, they’re sending that out into the world,” Davis says.
The Hub: A Connections Café for the Church and the Community
“The Hub” is Central’s café space that connects the kids’ building to the main auditorium. It’s all about connecting with families, small groups, regular attendees, and visitors.
Central’s team opted for a simple, modern, minimalist architecture with a fundustrial overlay for the Hub. This design ties the Hub back into the blue-collar, working-class feel of the Kid Depot and the local area. And even though the design of the café is clean and modern, it doesn’t feel out of place in the town.
Central is an excellent example of a church that has embraced its past, fully owned its local culture and economy, and leveraged those attributes to propel it into the future. By continuing to embody regional values and emphasize continuous forward momentum, they’ll touch their community with the gospel for generations to come.
Mel McGowan is cofounder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios. He is a leading master planner and designer of churches in America.