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With Massive New Sanctuary, Leawood Church Redefines Worship For The Next Generation

Alex Smith
The Church of the Resurrection's massive new sanctuary reflects a church design trend away from the strictly functional and toward the sacred.

On Sunday mornings at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, prayers that are quietly murmured in most churches seem to almost rumble like thunder.

Thousands of congregants crowd the huge suburban auditorium for weekly services, which feature huge video monitors, an orchestra and a full choir. With 20,000 members, it’s the largest Methodist church in the United States.  

Amy Mogharbel, 30, says attending services here took some getting used to.

“When I saw how big the church was, I was definitely scared,” Mogharbel says. “That was a lot of people, and I can be really, really shy, especially at first. So I was definitely overwhelmed at first.”

Credit Alex Smith / KCUR
Like many large churches built in the past few decades, the Church of the Resurrection's current sanctuary was designed in large part to accommodate a big congregation and audio/visual system.

Church of the Resurrection members cringe at the term “megachurch” and its association with the bland, convention hall-type worship and buildings that often cut back on religious symbols to enhance their appeal.

However, since the 1980s,  megachurches like this have shaped a generation of church design, spreading beyond Protestant and nondenominational groups in the suburbs to influence many Catholic and urban churches as well.

But surveys show that young people want something else.

And the Church of the Resurrection, while still growing bigger, is part of a trend away from megachurch design and toward the idea of a church building as sacred space.

A sermon in architecture

On a weekday afternoon, Senior Pastor Adam Hamilton shows off the Church of the Resurrection’s massive new sanctuary, a $90 million building under construction on its Leawood campus just south of 135th Street and east of Nall Avenue.

It’s nearly the size of stadium: a grey-white building that seems to arch skyward. Inside, columns of light shine into a palatial sanctuary, and behind the pulpit a stained glass window the size of a basketball court – possibly the largest in the world – will depict stories from the Bible.

Credit Alex Smith / KCUR
Senior pastor Adam Hamilton calls his church's new sanctuary a sermon in architecture.

“We wanted the architecture to mean something, to have a message that it was proclaiming,” Hamilton says. “We say it’s a sermon in architecture.”

A recent study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research shows the percentage of young adults who attend megachurches has been declining in the last few years.

Hamilton believes one way to draw them back is to return to the idea of a church building as a place designed to inspire.

“What we’re finding today is that millennials are drawn to sacred space, and they’re drawn to symbolism, and they’re drawn to mystery,” Hamilton says.

Surveys conducted by the Barna Group, a nonprofit Christian research group, show that people in their late teens through mid-30s are surprisingly old-fashioned when it comes to what they want their churches to look like.

The largest percentage like churches with clear religious symbols. The buildings that rate lowest are the big megachurch-style auditoriums.

And that’s true not just for regular churchgoers; it includes people who didn’t grow up going to church.

“If they’ve not been going to church or if they’ve been brought up in households where no one could tell them what things mean, then, yes, they’re going to be curious, it’s just sort of a natural thing,” says the Rev. Richard Vosko, a Catholic priest and architect based in Albany, New York.

Vosko says interest in the sacred and in traditional symbols among millennials and other younger age groups shouldn’t be confused with a new fascination in traditional religion itself.

Younger congregants still want religious services and activities that speak to their interests.

“It could be a beautiful old church, but if the sermons are uninspired and the music is boring, forget it. I’m not coming back,” Vosko says.

The Church of the Resurrection's new sanctuary may be one of the more ambitious examples, but the renewed interest in more sacred church design can also be seen on a smaller scale in Kansas City.

Urban renaissance

Credit Alex Smith / KCUR
Pastor Scott Myers of the Westport Presbyterian Church says the church's new building was designed to preserve features of the old church, which burned in 2011.

A few days after Christmas 2011, the 107-year-old Westport Presbyterian Church building was destroyed in a fire.

The progressive congregation might have been expected to start over with a new, modern building. That would have been their cheapest option.

But the Rev. Scott Myers says that’s not what happened.

“We all felt that it would’ve been a shame to completely just demolish the building and build something completely modern,” Myers says. “We felt that would’ve been out of sync with Westport.”

Instead, the new building, which opened a few weeks ago, preserves the old church’s stone walls and stained glass and combines them with some modern design elements to create a bright, clean 21st century take on a classic neighborhood church.

Like Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection, Myers is hopeful the building will appeal to younger congregants.

Westport has been a focal point of the urban renaissance in the past few years, with lots of younger people starting local artisanal businesses, and Myer sees the church as part of that.

He says the new building reflects the neighborhood’s energy by conveying religion through art.

“Hopefully, by building this church, which is a work of art, there is a sense that love for God is being expressed through the creation of this building,” Myers says.

After decades of dominating church architecture, megachurches – and their convention center buildings – aren’t likely to disappear any time soon.

But in coming years, sacred inspiration may just lead to a Kansas City church landscape marked by basilicas, steeples and domes instead of food courts and cappuccino bars.

This story is part of KCUR's series called 30/30 Vision, in which we examine Kansas City's past to reimagine its future.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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