Engaging CultureStrategy & Marketing

Using the Power of Architecture to Tell Your Story

In a world where so many churches are drab buildings, or where leaders could care less about building design, I was reminded about the power of architecture after my wife Kathleen noticed Grace Community Church in New Caanan, Connecticut. Their design is really remarkable, and its been covered in major media outlets across the country, allowing them a remarkable way to share their story. In my book “Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media,” I have a section called “The Branded Building.” Here’s how I put it:

One area that a handful of pastors and ministry leaders have maximized is the concept of using architecture to impact the brand. Pastor Greg Laurie’s Harvest Church in Riverside, California, has created a public meeting place that looks like a cross between Barnes & Noble, Starbucks and the city square. You can have lunch, buy a book or CD, drink gourmet coffee or sit in the California sun and relax. It has become so popular that people who would never darken the door of the church on Sunday gladly drop in during the week for lunch. The contemporary design welcomes visitors, and the practicality makes them feel at home.

Years ago, mega-churches took a lot of flak for building a coffee bar in the lobby or expanding restaurants and shops; but the truth is, these churches understood the importance of building community as part of the brand. It makes a particular impact among young people, who are trying to initiate connections of their own and are looking for places to meet.

Douglas B. Sosnick, Matthew J. Dowd and Ron Fournier feature a conversation with Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz in their book Applebee’s America, describing how that company discovered the power of community.  Schultz was always aware of the changes in the culture. He first recognized the need for place. So he built a company that didn’t just sell a product but also created a safe and comfortable place where people found community. He used architecture as the starting point of building the brand.

He recognized the need in people’s lives for a “Third Place.” That’s the place you want to be after home and work, and it’s the Holy Grail of many retailers. As a boy growing up in the South, my Third Place was church. We had activities of all kinds throughout the week, because it was a real focal point for the community. The church lost that position beginning in the sixties; but now, pastors are seeing the possibilities of reclaiming that spot in people’s lives.

Branding extends even into the details of the building. Because a sense of community is important for Starbucks, anything that made people feel alone and separated had to be eliminated or at least toned down to a minimum.  How often do we think of how people interact when it comes to church design?

The right tools are the gateway to expressing your brand identity to the world. Whether you use church bulletins, highway billboards, websites, radio, television, podcasting, social media, architecture or something else, using the wrong tools or using them ineffectively will blur your story and contaminate your identity. Create a clear vision for your audience and express that vision from the highest quality launching pad possible.

A great brand will always be hurt by poor communication; and without the right tools, you’ll never reach your largest potential audience. As the congregation at Grace Community Church discovered, architectural design is a powerful tool in that toolbox.

How about you? Where have you seen design used well with a church, ministry, or nonprofit?


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  1. Thanks Phil Cooke for consistently bringing a balanced perspective to the eyebrow raising criticisms toward progression or “unnecessary spending” and the importance of executing strategic details on our greatest missions in life!

  2. well said Phil. Architecture mattered to the early church so much as their viewed their structures, and the building of them, as something sacred.

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