3 Steps to Cultivate Belonging in Your Church Community Through Design

Congregations historically have been immeasurable wellsprings of belonging. People inside and outside the church express real longings to belong and find hope in the relationships and places where that human need is met. One of our client partners is currently cultivating a design project that can be an inspiration to other churches.

The Chapel of Saint John the Divine is a longstanding parish and university chaplaincy in Champaign, IL. Not only is the parish located in the same city as the state’s largest public university — the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign — but their lot also occupies prime land just west of the campus’ main quad and warmly calls the undergraduate library a next-door neighbor. These two factors of legacy and location are core motivators for the development of the congregation’s newest ministry tool: a new six-story, mixed-use building including student housing. 

This unique development is not a typical endeavor for a religious institution to tackle, so how did The Chapel of Saint John the Divine decide to take this approach?

The idea behind this improvement was to create a place where the church could partner with the UIUC campus and the local energy it creates to provide a living community for students of the university. This pursuit was taken with prayerful expectations that it would expand the opportunities of the congregation to better serve the campus with their property as a place of spiritual growth and belonging. At BLDD Architects, we’re delighted to partner with Saint John the Divine on this project to help a church embedded in their locale and integrated with the established rhythms of that place, step into an expanded season of organic and empowered ministry. 

To date, plans have started to take shape for the demolition of their detached and tired mid-century parish hall. The grand vision of its replacement is a new fellowship space for the chapel as well as five floors of residential apartments above. The new building will have a built connection to the parish’s beautiful neo-gothic cathedral, and the church and the students living above will be housed under a common roof.

Inspired by Saint John the Divine’s commitment to serving within their neighborhood, we developed a few steps that can help other congregations deepen their sense of belonging both within their church as well as their community.  

Step One: Tune in (Get to know your neighbors)

Listening closely to people who live in, work in, and visit the community where your church resides is key to honing ministry tools. Similar to the idea of gaining stakeholder buy-in, tuning your efforts into the frequencies of your specific place is invaluable when working with those outside the church. And tuning in can be easy! Consider hosting a weekly meeting or two at a local coffee house instead of inside the church office, or find a place where the neighborhood is already gathering and strike up a conversation to find out what their needs may be. 

The folks at The Chapel of St. John the Divine tuned in by having an active young adult ministry of coming alongside current students to better understand their needs. One of these needs is safe, close-to-campus housing that was supportive of their educational and spiritual growth. 

Step Two: Chip in (Participate in your neighborhood)

After step one, it should become more visibly apparent where the community is already being cared for and caring for others well. These are the types of efforts the church can partner in. In addition to being the hands and feet, these efforts will further open opportunities to listen more attentively to possible collaborators as well as those who potentially may be served by what is created in step three!

The church leadership of The Chapel of St. John the Divine chipped in with the help of a UIUC professor who created an architecture class project to develop a site plan for a new parish hall. Working directly with students — who even helped determine the building’s program — the church selected a winning submission that was used as a template for the resulting project developed by BLDD’s architects. And the best part? The church was able to engage students in a meaningful way and help their educational journey, all while getting valuable feedback from first-hand accounts. 

Step Three: Plug in (Serve you neighborhood well)

The final step is to put everything you’ve learned from the first two steps into action — roll out the ministry tool developed after listening and coming alongside your church’s neighbors. It could be using the empty parking lot Monday-Friday as a pop-up-market for locals; or planting a butterfly garden and walking path to add beauty to those who walk by your church; or develop a completely new idea and vision for your congregation’s property goals. 

At The Chapel of St. John the Divine, the completion of step three will come in the form of a ribbon cutting ceremony and first move in day — the morning the first students cross their thresholds to call the new parish hall their home away from home. It is BLDDs mission to provide them a building that can continue St. John’s rich legacy and bless students in that very way for decades to come. 


When churches are deeply connected to their neighborhood and actively involved in shaping the culture of it, ministry and outreach has the potential to reap far beyond the expectations of the sower. If you would like to learn more about how your church can better cultivate belonging in your community through design, contact one of our experts today! 

Gregory Butler, NCARB
BLDD Architects, Inc.

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