Cultural Factors that Affect Building Design

Cultural Factors that Affect Building Design

When we design a church building, cultural factors heavily influence us. We add certain elements, such as a steeple, for cultural reasons. The size of the building is culturally-driven. The decision to install air conditioning is based upon expectations rooted in culture. Even the primary purpose of the building is affected by cultural norms. Our culture drives design. 

My role is to help church planters in Portugal. The same cultural sensitivity is needed in Portugal. There are at least eight cultural factors to take into account when designing a church building in Portugal. My hope is that reading about these cultural factors will help you realize what cultural considerations you need to think through in your community.

The Word “Church”

The word church is synonymous with a large stone structure that is more than 150 years old. It doesn’t have to be a cathedral, but it has to be tall, old, and made of stone. In our region, any church group that meets in a storefront and places a large sign out front with the word church on it, will be never be viewed as legitimate.

I hear this all the time from neighbors and friends: “That can’t be a church … it’s the old mini market.” For several years, we held services in a remodeled building that was once a muffler shop; before that, a livery stable. Our present facility was once a bar. While we’ve been unable to escape the reputation of being in the old Steva bar, at least a lot of people know where we meet. It seems that particular bar was once very popular. 

If you can’t afford a large stone structure, it’s far better to not call your building a church than to violate this cultural norm. A church in a storefront or a warehouse will never be viewed as a legitimate church. We hurdled this obstacle by constructing a multi-purpose facility and giving it a neutral name—Park Place. We’re located on Park Street across from a park. 

Funding the Building

Evangelical churches in Portugal find it nearly impossible to raise the necessary funds for a building from within their own membership. There are at least three reasons for this: 

  1. Portuguese salaries are among the lowest in Europe. In our area, the average salary is 750 euros per month (about $860 in 2018). The average apartment rent is more than 500 euros per month ($585). Portuguese Christians have considerably less disposable income than their brothers and sisters in America. They are unable to give large sums of money and few can tithe ten percent without significant sacrifice.
  2. Tithing is not a part of the religious tradition of the country. The institutional church was supported by the state. Individuals are accustomed to giving only a few coins to the church’s coffers at the end of the worship service. It’s more like alms for the poor than planned, percentage giving. This doesn’t imply that no one has ever preached about generosity and giving. 
  3. In recent decades foreign evangelists of the prosperity gospel swept through the country. These preachers taught generosity as a means of financial gain. Many rode into a town, preached their message, and then rode off with the life savings of the poor. Consequently, the average person is very suspicious of those who teach about biblical generosity. Most pastors err on the side of talking too little about money in order to distinguish themselves from these groups and their leaders. 

Taken together, these realities mean that churches will either need to settle for a small building and austere facility budgets or raise funds outside of the country.

House Churches

A house church is not a viable option. The house church model violates a cultural norm—you don’t normally invite people into your home. To invite someone into your home, in addition to being socially awkward, obligates your guest to invite you to his home in the near future. Few people want this obligation. Therefore, most people will decline an invitation to enter your home. 

This means that home Bible studies and house churches face an uphill battle in gaining acceptance. People meet at the café, not in homes. 

Maintenance

Building maintenance is not a priority in the culture of Portugal. When the government builds a new school or hospital, they tend to build a state-of-the-art facility, but may not maintain it. For example, we recently had a public school official visit our main building which includes our headquarters, school and retreat center that we own and operate. This man was absolutely shocked that our facility was twenty years old. He claimed that his school wouldn’t look this good after only two years, let alone twenty.

Maintenance is not something they budget for. Corruption can play a role in the reluctance of individuals or groups to save money for future large ticket maintenance needs. For example, a condominium association that I know of dutifully saved money for painting the exterior of the building only to discover that their funds were stolen by a dishonest facility management service. Crooked managers escape the country with their stolen funds or bribe judicial officials to avoid punishment. For this reason, popular wisdom claims that it is cheaper to not save, but instead borrow the necessary funds to paint one side of the building at a time. No one will steal your loan repayments.

The cultural norm is to use something until it breaks and then decide whether to repair or replace it—or just live with it broken. Therefore, churches should design buildings that are as maintenance-free as possible. 

Small Size of Churches

The average evangelical church in Portugal has forty members. Only two churches in our association have one hundred attendees or more on a typical weekend. Attendance at the other churches is consistent with the national averages—thirty to fifty people. 

The fact that a typical congregation has forty members influences the total revenue the church can expect, the size of the facility that is needed, as well as the number and types of programs the church can staff.

Governmental Expectations

The government is expected to meet all needs in the community, including social and recreational needs. Contrast this with American culture which depends upon volunteers and non-profit organizations to fill in the gaps left by government programs. American churches can distinguish themselves as integral members of the community by cleaning up a park or providing a tutoring service.

In Portugal, it is the responsibility of the city government to run the soup kitchen, organize events, offer free canoe trips for teens, show movies at the civic center or pay street sweepers to pick up scraps of trash. Community service is practically unheard of. Perhaps an example from our church’s recent history will illustrate this. We surveyed several people to find a need that was felt but not met by the city. We stumbled upon the idea of creating an indoor playground in our multi-purpose facility that we would open to the public, free-of-charge, on weekends during the rainy season. People came and really appreciated the service. However, they were shocked to find out that we paid for it ourselves. They assumed that everything was provided by City Hall. 

Churches in Portugal have to be very creative in their building and program designs if they want to convince the citizenry that they truly care about the city. 

Personal Space

Portuguese people do not value personal space as much as Americans do. Portuguese are accustomed to being packed together.

We kid about it on our team when someone asks about seating capacity. We say, it seats 60 Americans or 90 Portuguese. Since Portuguese do not value personal space as much as Americans, a smaller facility can serve a larger crowd. 

Building Contractors

It can be difficult to find a high-quality building contractor. The mindset here is more relaxed. Frequently there seems to be less concern about attention to details. The American mindset of “time is money” does not exist here. Contractors do not appear to be worried about being called back to fix things. As a result, rarely will a construction project be done right the first time.

In fact, it seems that few items function flawlessly after being built or installed. A call-back is just part of the process. The contractor may or may not come back in a timely manner. He might not come back at all. 

Imagine what construction would be like if there was no fear of being sued nor concern of lost business due to a poor reputation. Imagine the frustrations if it was the responsibility of the buyer to repeatedly call the builder or installer to come do the agreed upon work. These things are common in Portugal. 

A wise church-planter will not design a building that requires anything too fancy or outside the norm of everyday experience. He will also have to be diligent in inspecting the work prior to making full payment.

What Would a Portuguese Community Build?

What do Portuguese organizations and civic groups build when they construct a space for public gatherings? What does it look like? How big is it? How is it decorated? The answers to these questions give us clues as to what an indigenous church congregation might want to build.

The vast majority of public gathering spaces are simple in design. They are relatively small spaces that resemble classrooms. They are multi-purpose by design. They are spartan spaces with little decoration. 

Buildings here are designed with a longer lifespan in mind. I was told that the lifespan of the average building in America is sixty years. Perhaps this relatively short lifespan is the reason we choose to use building materials such as drywall and laminate flooring. The average lifespan of a Portuguese building, at least historically, is well over one hundred years. That is why they construct interior walls out of hollow brick and concrete covered with plaster. Floors are tiled. Roofs are made of clay tiles. Other than a coat of paint, the facility won’t be updated for decades.

The Building is a Tool

I’ve heard it said that a building is a tool, nothing more. That’s probably true. But, a tool for what purpose? Is it first and foremost a gathering place for the saved? Or is it primarily an outreach center for building relationships with the unsaved? 

The majority of evangelical churches in the country were started by missionaries carrying the belief that the way to plant a church is to locate a space and start church services. Thus, nearly all evangelical church buildings are designed to be gathering places for the saved. With few exceptions such buildings consist of an auditorium plus a few classrooms. The objective seems to be to “coax as many people as possible to enter the building, at one designated hour each week, to study the Word and be encouraged that there are other believers in their city. However, the growth of indifference in the mainstream, the presence of unprecedented levels of suspicion caused by scandals and greedy cult leaders, a sharp decrease in the immigrant population, plus a change in work schedules makes it difficult to coax a crowd into the building on Sunday morning. 

Those on the other end of the spectrum don’t have it any easier. Why design a building around the needs of the unsaved when few people are coming to Christ? Research shows that among the believing Portuguese population, a minority of them became believers while living in Portugal. The majority found Christ while living abroad and then returned to Portugal. So why build a facility designed to facilitate connection with the lost? The lost aren’t looking to the church for answers, or even help. What makes a small band of believers think that they could ever capture the attention of their lost neighbors?

Questions and Answers

I don’t have an answer to the question, “What should we build?” I wish I did. I have tried to make a careful study of factors and cultural constraints. Rather than provide a definitive answer, I want to suggest that we ask the following questions. 

  • How can we inspire and equip lay people to plant a sustainable, scalable church?
  • How can we plant multiple congregations simultaneously?
  • What are the minimum facilities required by our answers to the first two questions?

I may not have the right answers, but I’m convinced these are the right questions.

Perhaps lessons from Portugal can help you in the United States consider changing demographics in your community. May these questions help you effectively reach those in your community with your next building.

2018-07-20T20:26:22+00:00By |Great Buildings, New Building, Operations|

About the Author:

Andrew Cook
Andy serves as a team leader for an amazing group of North Americans who partner with national believers to help them launch new congregations in Portugal. Together they are planting churches and staffing strategic ministries while also operating a school for ex-pats. Prior to moving to Portugal in 2011, he was a pastor in rural New York for 20 years, a personnel director at a Christian camp and a teacher & guidance counselor in a Christian School. He is married to Mara and has three college-age kids.

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