Open space opens minds
July - August 2002
Director of Christian Education Cathy Schulz spends time with the children during the Sunday morning service at First Congregational UCC in Battle Creek, Mich. W. Evan Golder photo.
Space. It may be the final frontier not only for Captain Kirk's Starship Enterprise but also for churches seeking to renew their ministries.
In Battle Creek, Mich., that was the case for First Congregational UCC, which boldly went where no church it knew had gone before and completely gutted its building, from domed ceiling to dirt floors and from wall studs to ceiling joists. Then it redesigned its new-found space to realign the sanctuary, make dark halls bright and narrow places wide, cover its courtyard with a transparent sun roof, and infuse its design with a sense of theological purpose.
"This building demonstrates the connection between space and faith," says the Rev. David Young, senior pastor since 1990. "I think of it as an eight-cylinder car that was firing on only seven cylinders. We had good worship, music, Christian education, youth programs, outreach, pastoral care and an excellent staff. But the one cylinder not firing was the building.
"We all know the church is not the building, but it is a resource that supports ministry. And our building had become tired, well-used and worn out."
The transformation process evolved slowly over nine years, including a new vision statement, and eventually cost $6.5 million.
"It took two years for those of us on the committee to say what was right and what was not so right about the old building," says Larry Shouldice, who joined the church in 1943. "Then it took another couple of years to convince ourselves and the congregation that our plan was doable.
"Now I think this is how it ought to be. The new space affects me tremendously. My mother would be astounded, since she had to drag me to church."
Instead of 11 entrances, the church now has four, each leading to the center of the building. Flexible sanctuary seating features a combination of pews and moveable chairs with the communion table sometimes in the front and sometimes in the center.
"This sanctuary is so flexible it should meet this congregation's needs for the next 50 years," says Young, "no matter what kind of worship or music they choose."
A grand staircase and an elevator replaced the narrow, steep stairs to the second floor.
"Before, you never saw older people on the second floor," says Dorothy Bosse, church council president. "Now people who haven't been upstairs for 25 years are teaching church school and volunteering on mission teams. It's like the whole church belongs to everyone."
Light and color brighten all the rooms, which feel warm and welcoming.
"Now we have more children crying when they have to leave the pre-school room after church than when their parents drop them off at the beginning of the service," says Christian Education Director Cathy Schulz.
Rooms are designed especially for their occupants. The library has a lie-on-the-floor space for parents and children, and the toddler's room has low ceilings, and kid-size doors, windows and toilets. On the other hand, the Heritage Room has photos of previous pastors and furniture befitting older adults.
"The openness of our space has led to an openness of the congregation," says Schulz. "People no longer say, 'We never did it that way before,' because now we can't do it the way we used to do it."
Kim Kuhlman joined the church staff two years ago. "It's a pure joy to come here," she says. "The building itself has moved members to go further and to be open to new things."
One of the new things is the creation of 20 "mission teams" that involve more than 300 members in such programs as Habitat for Humanity, Burmese refugee support, adult foster care and a Third World mission trip.
"When we asked the council about using the courtyard for a Kids Care feeding program for inner-city children," says Schulz, "we thought there would be a temptation for them to say, 'Whoa! We've got a brand-new building. Now let's preserve it and protect it.' Instead they said, 'Go ahead! This is what our church is for.'"
"Before, we self-selected," says Ken Schimmelpfenneg. "We all had our own interests. But everyone volunteered in making this happen. We just rolled up our sleeves, so now there's a great sense of unity I've never seen before."
That sense of participation included giving to the reconstruction, according to Bill Rothney, who co-chaired the finance campaign. "Usually a $6.5 million effort would have one or two lead gifts in the 10 percent range of the goal," he says. "But we didn't. Instead, we had a whole lot of gifts ranging from $10,000 to $100,000."
"Now we feel more like one congregation, not lots of groups of people," adds Schimmelpfenneg. "My personal faith has increased tremendously as I have talked with these people while we created this space."
"This space supports faith growth," says longtime member Dick Lovell. "It's a place to take your faith and work on it."
Go to www.michucc.org for a "spiritual connections map" describing how architecture, building design and use of space enhance the faith experience at the Battle Creek church.