By Mel McGowan
Imagine you’re rearranging your office. You move your desk to one corner, your bookshelf to another. You move the lamps around to get the light just right. You adjust the couch so you can see your guests better. At the end of the day, you look around with satisfaction that all your office furniture, equipment, and supplies are in the right places.
Why is this so important to us? Because the furnishings of our offices are tools that facilitate things like ideas, hard work, and skills.
It should come as no surprise, then, that your sacred space should be designed for more than just seating and preaching platforms. Church buildings should be spaces to facilitate diversity, relationship, and discipleship—in other words, space for the kingdom.
It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I was hanging out at Disneyland one afternoon when I ran into an old pastor friend of mine. He introduced me to his buddy Jason Aguilar. As Jason and I got to talking, I had a strong feeling we were meant to meet.
Jason is the visionary pastor of Cloud Church, a two-year-old church plant in Irvine, California. He’s an exuberant guy with a quick wit and a great big heart for introducing people to Jesus and then turning them into disciples.
“At the end of the day, if you cut us, we bleed one thing,” said Jason. “We bleed disciple-making. Disciple-making is the lifeblood of our church.”
When Jesus commanded that we “go into all the world,” he didn’t give us the option to stop preaching the gospel. He expected we would go beyond the street corner, take the hands of new believers, and guide them toward becoming lifelong disciples of Jesus.
Jason and the leaders of Cloud Church believe discipleship is their core mission. But they’re also convinced discipleship can’t happen without relationship.
“You go from stranger to acquaintance, and acquaintance to relationship,” Jason said. “And that relationship eventually leads to a conversation that goes, ‘Hey, Jason, I’m going through something, man. What do you think?’ And then all of a sudden now I can actually have a spiritual conversation.”
Strategic Well Digging
What I love about talking with Jason is that he’s so strategic—it’s almost his second language. He sees relationship building as the outcome of an almost mathematical equation. It goes something like this: the right environment creates comfort, comfort creates openness, and openness leads to a discipling relationship.
So when Cloud Church decided to convert a space in an office park into their church home, Jason’s primary motivation was to create a welcoming, relationship-nurturing environment.
“We’ve always felt our sacred spaces should be more like modern-day wells,” Jason said. “We want to see our spaces as wells where the modern-day Samaritan women of the day can come and have conversations that will lead them to eternal life.”
Space for Diversity
Jason and I worked together on an environmental design for their new building, and as I got to know some of the men and women who make up Cloud Church’s leadership, I recognized another element of his well strategy that leads to a comfortable environment: racial diversity.
You see, the story of the Samaritan woman is not just about meeting people where they are, it’s also about reconciling people groups to one another and loving them no matter where they come from. And Cloud Church is striving to be a place that does both.
“We’ve always felt there are two major diversities we want to see in our church that we feel God has called us to. We are to be multiethnic and multigenerational,” Jason said. “We believe that everybody brings a unique culture and life experience to share with the rest of us in the church. It’s a blend of all that we bring—our ethnicities, our backgrounds, everything that we are—into what we call ‘kingdom culture,’ which is the culture of Jesus Christ.”
It’s not diversity for diversity’s sake. Diversity has a power to transform the way we think. “There’s a certain humility that has to come with being a multiethnic and multigenerational church,” Jason said, “because there are people who are older that I can receive from, people who are younger that I can receive from, people who are from the east and people from the west that I can receive from.”
Jason is right. It’s not enough to create a beautiful space for worship. We can remodel, rebuild, and retrofit our churches to create comfortable places people will want to visit, but unless we also build a place where they feel accepted and welcomed no matter their race, origin, or culture, they won’t want to stay.
On the other hand, as Jason said, if the physical and interpersonal environments make them comfortable, and if their comfort opens them up to relationship, there’s a golden opportunity to show them how to be sold-out disciples of Christ.
“We’re not about building projects, we’re about building people. We know that creating the right sacred space is a huge element in that.”
Mel McGowan is cofounder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios. He is a leading master planner and designer of churches in America.