Visual Cues, or Sometimes You Can Tell a Church By Its Cover

by Sarai Schnucker Rice

Six years ago, I made my very first trip overseas – to New Zealand – and it was fabulous! Breathtaking scenery, generous people, amazing art. With the exception of the indigenous Maori culture, which was literally another world, I felt like I “got” everything about the country.

My next trip? China. And again it was fabulous, but this time I “got” nothing. I couldn’t automatically tell whether someone was well-off or not. I couldn’t distinguish one neighborhood from another. I had no way to process cultural norms like split pants or outdoor kitchens. That’s when I realized for the first time that I carry in my brain an enormous vocabulary of visual cues that didn’t apply in China, and that I was used to processing these cues at lightning speed without even noticing.

We do this with churches all the time – we look at the building and draw conclusions without even noticing.

Imagine, for example, a church at which I preached recently—a smallish 60’s red brick A-frame set far back from the street with a large lawn, shrubbery lining the single driveway in and out, and untended weeds in the shrubs and around the small sign.

Were you to drive by this church—which you would have to do if you wanted to see it, because the congregation doesn’t have a website—what would you expect to find inside? If you guessed a small congregation of mostly older adults with an older pastor, you’d be right.

The thing is, there could be some wholly other kind of congregation in that building, but unless you were looking for a congregation of mostly older adults with an older pastor, you would never know! Based just on your visually-informed conclusions about the congregation, if you were looking for anything else, you would have gone right on by.

We reach conclusions without noticing—and, more importantly, because we don’t notice what our brains are doing—we also don’t notice what our buildings are saying to the brains of others. After all, to us our building always says “home!”

So, what are some common visual elements of church buildings, and what might passers-by conclude when they see them, whether their conclusions are accurate or not?

  • “Monumental” buildings. These usually physically occupy entire blocks, often downtown or near downtown, with seating capacity in the thousands but small parking lots. At one time, these were aspirational congregations attended by the elite in a community, but by now the assumption of passers-by whether on the street or to the website, will probably be that the congregation has shrunk and is struggling to maintain its building.
  • A-frames. These were a popular building style in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, often in rapidly expanding suburbs. At the time, they communicated “new,” “contemporary,” and “growing.” Now, the assumption of passers-by will likely again be that the congregation has shrunk and is no longer contemporary or growing.
  • Signage, or the lack thereof. When signage is done well, we don’t even notice it because we can automatically tell where we’re supposed to go. But too many churches have had multiple building renovations and now have multiple exterior entry doors, with no clear indicators of which door functions as the “front” door, especially for worship. Passers-by will not become visitors if they cannot figure out the right door.
  • Overgrown trees and shrubs. What members experience as beautiful—mature trees that were lovingly planted when they and the church were young—are now trees that effectively hide not only the building but also any sense of the vigor and vitality that might exist within. If passers-by see anything other than a wall of leaves, they may assume that the congregation has neither the insight nor the finances to tend to their landscaping.
  • Weeds and bits of tiny trash. What members may see as the very first thing on their list for the annual congregational work day two months hence, passers-by will see as a sign that the congregation isn’t big enough or energetic enough to take care of basics like yard maintenance.

Assuming that passers-by make the decision to visit your building, the same kind of list can be generated for interior visual elements:

  • Clutter that is viewed by members as a sign of activity may be seen by visitors as a sign of poor organizational ability.
  • A-frame interiors that are still viewed by members as contemporary may be seen by visitors as dated or poorly lit.
  • “Parlor” furniture that was viewed by members as expensive and special years ago when it was acquired may be seen by visitors as worn and outdated.
  • Fellowship/meeting space furniture that is viewed by members as donated and useful may be seen by visitors as haphazard and odd.
  • Center-stage organs that are viewed by members as magnificent may be seen by visitors as out of proportion and possibly idolatrous.
  • Bathrooms that are viewed by members as recently redecorated (10 years ago) may be seen by visitors as old-fashioned or just old.
  • Pictures of Jesus in the style of previous generations that are viewed by members as deeply meaningful may be viewed by visitors as sentimental and out-of-touch.

None of this is to say that good ministry requires new buildings, that large trees must always be cut down, or that furniture must always be new. My point is that what is comforting and familiar to members may be seen completely differently by others. Buildings communicate, and every congregation needs to see and tend to what its building is communicating about its life and its faith.