Mel McGowan, “Redefining Church Environments” (#Exponential 2010)

Mel McGowan is President and founder of Visioneering Studios (, a national architecture, urban and interior design firm which recently was given the Solomon Award for “Best Church Architect.” Mel is the author of Design Intervention: Revolutionizing Sacred Space and Saving Suburbia: From the Garden to the City.

Here are my notes from the workshop session with Mel entitled “Redefining Church Environments for the Third Millennium.”

Studied film; used to be with Walt Disney; then with urban redesign work and studies

Sister ministry with Stadia & Church Development Fund

Live – Worship – Play

Changing mental paradigms for architecture from suburban (Orlando, FL) to urban re-imagineering (Anaheim, CA)

“Mr. Brady” architects who just unpack the same solutions over 20 years

Myth: “Build it…and they will come.”

Re:define (anti-church/anti-architecture):

  • Church: ekklesia – Christ-centered community;
  • Architecture: process / place design – multi-sensory, experiential environment

Need to be cultural anthropologists first and architects second

Economic progression: Commodities (basic coffee beans) → Products (Folgers/1950s) → Services (7-Eleven/1970s) → Experience (Starbucks/1990s) → Transformation (Global Needs Café/2000s)

Three places for human experience: Homelife – Workplace – Community Living Room/third place (Greek agora; Spanish piazza; New England village green)

Other examples of transformational economy:

  • iPhone
  • Celebration, FL – vision for a better tomorrow (Epcot); 17-minute video on his deathbed; village green, sidewalks, & smaller backyards
  • U2 concert experience

E.P.I.C.  Stories (form follows fiction – not form follows function):

  • From informational to EXPERIENTIAL
  • From passivity to PARTICIPATORY
  • From absorption to IMMERSION
  • From individualism to CONNECTEDNESS

False notion of church: 1 hour/week experience or, if we’re really religious, 2 hour/week experience

Pre-modernity: Form follows Faith

Modernity: Form follows function…sometimes

  • buildings as machines – houses as machines for living; churches as machines for worship
  • built around the functionalism of the car
  • prefabricated houses…and churches
  • con – temporary: literally, “with temporariness”

Raises the issue of stewardship: we should be thinking about maximizing kingdom return on investment

Raises the issue of locality: what is specific about the setting, climate, culture, and ministry philosophy

Some stats:

  • America is the 5th largest global mission field
  • Church attendance is declining by generation
  • Those ages 18-32 are the least likely to describe themselves as religious, as Christian, or as committed Christians
  • The church is losing ground in a post-modern, ‘post-Christian culture’

Postmodern Placemaking

  • Strategy: form follows fiction – spaces between the building (guiding metaphors for space)
  • Strategy: form follows finance – environmental graphics
  • Strategy: form follows feet
  • Strategy: form follows faith: Postmodern Agora; Destination Architecture; Architectural Evangelism

The Process

  • Envision: Strategic Planning & Feasibility (partnerships in community; mixed-use zoning;
  • Design: Destination Architecture & Architectural Evangelism
  • Build: Project development – From Dream to Dedication Day

Life Church (Memphis) – built through a strip mall

[This is part of a series of note-posts from the Exponential 2010 conference.]

8 thoughts on “Mel McGowan, “Redefining Church Environments” (#Exponential 2010)

    • Thanks, Terry. I didn’t know you were there or would have tried to connect face to face after connecting via Twitter.

      I really appreciated Mel’s words and insights. We are a two-year-old church plant that currently meets in an elementary school. The session with Mel gave me plenty to consider as we continue working our way through what it means to have a space that reflects who we are in creative and missional ways.

  1. We have been meeting for worship for six years in an elementary school and have nocurrent plan to move. Mel’s session was a reminder to work on environmental stuff apart from the building of physical space. One thing we have done is leased a 1000 square feet space in the center of our community as missionsl space to connect Monday through saturday

    • I’d be interested in hearing more about how you decided to go this route with your facility decisions. What were the considerations that led you to leasing the central community space versus buying land or rehabbing an existing facility for your meeting space?

      Also, how do you utilize the leased space. When you say ‘missional space to connect Monday through Saturday’, what does that mean for you as a church?

    • Brian,

      I wish that I could give a good response to this. I bought Mel’s book there but have passed it along to our land and facility team and haven’t seen it recently.

      My notes don’t provide much on this comment either.


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