Post-COVID19 Worship Center Seating Capacity

The current pandemic is providing great opportunity to rethink the way we gather as local church bodies. There are many aspects of regathering to consider while anticipating a new normal. Here, I’d like to focus on seating capacity and spacing in the large-group worship center itself. This is not meant to be authoritative, but rather, thought-provoking.

Pre-COVID19, 80% capacity in a worship service was the rule of thumb. I expect Post-COVID19, if changes are not made to seating arrangements, this will change to somewhere around 60-70% capacity.

In terms of square footage, for new construction most builders would recommend an estimate of around 17 square feet per person. I expect, in a post-COVID19 context, this recommendation may increase to 25 square feet per person or more. If you use this square footage metric for seating capacity, moving from 17 square feet per person to 25 square feet per person would decrease your maximum capacity by 32%.

“If you use the square footage metric for seating capacity, moving from 17 square feet per person to 25 square feet per person would decrease your maximum capacity by 32%.”

The 80% rule was based on the idea that church members do not generally sit immediately next to one another in the worship center. Even pre-COVID19, on pews family units would spread out with 2-4’ between them; in chairs, they would skip 1-3 seats. Because of this, at 80% capacity a family of 4 walking in at service time would have difficulty finding a place to sit together. Ushers can help, but generally when a growing church gets to 75%-80% capacity, they are looking into other options (like adding a worship service, planting a church, or building a new facility).

As churches are beginning to regather and plan for post-COVID19 ministry contexts, it would be wise to consider a new metric for worship center seating and spacing. If you cannot physically rearrange your worship center seating, at least consider rethinking the 80% (or 17 square foot per person) capacity standard.

If you can physically rearrange your worship center seating, here are some guiding thoughts for accommodating increased personal space for gathered worshippers:

1. Increase the space between rows of chairs or pews. If your worship center utilizes pews, it is likely that they were originally installed with intention to squeeze as many people as possible in the building, using the 17 square foot per person metric. Typically the suggestion has been a minimum of 36” spacing measured from the back of one row to the back of the row behind it. But Post-COVID19, you will need to make some changes here. Rethink the spacing between rows of chairs or pews to allow for increased space between gathered worshippers.

2.  Increase the space between chairs. If your worship center utilizes chairs, it is likely they are interlocked within their rows (this is technically called “ganging”). It may be prudent, now, to consider adding a 2-3” gap between chairs, consequently lowering the total number of chairs in your worship center to provide for more personal space per worshipper.

3. Pay attention to aisle spacing. With the building philosophy that squeezes as many people into a room as possible, it is likely the isles between rows are currently set at the minimum recommended 4’ spacing, or less in some church buildings. But if worshippers are concerned about tight spaces in 6’ hallways, how much more concerned will they be about 4’ aisles? If you can rearrange your worship center seating, allow for a minimum of 6’ aisles. 

4. Don’t forget the choir loft and stage. Now is a great time to either do away with the chairs in the choir loft altogether, or at least re-space them with the same standards you use for congregational seating. Also allow for increased personal space on the stage between musicians and seated church leaders.

5. Rethink entrances and exits. If you have entry and exit points in the worship center that are blocked off or are not currently being used, consider opening them and encouraging their use (with property security measures in place, of course). More entry and exit points will ease the traffic flow pre- and post- service.

6. Update your seating capacity numbers. After you rearrange your worship center to accommodate for increased personal space of worshippers, do the math precisely to find your new maximum seating capacity, and your new 80% mark. By way of comparison, if you were to use the square footage metric for seating capacity instead of counting chairs, moving from 17 square feet per person to 25 square feet per person would decrease your maximum capacity by 32%.

7. Plan for the future. Plan now for what you will do when your church attendance is bumping up to the new capacity numbers. Will you plant a new church? Will you add a service? Will you build a bigger building? If you wait until you are maxed out, it may be too late.

“Plan now for what you will do when your church attendance is bumping up to the new capacity numbers. Will you plant a new church? Will you add a service? Will you build a bigger building? If you wait until you are maxed out, it may be too late.”

Admittedly, not all of these suggestions are possible/relevant in every congregation. But I pray they will help you think through how to best plan for seating capacity adjustments in your worship center toward a post-COVID19 worship context.

Grace and Peace,
Tony

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