On a warm day during Lent, you’re driving by a church in a suburban neighborhood. You see a Christmas wreath hanging on the church door. Quick, what’s your first thought? Is it, “That’s the place for me!” or “What’s wrong with those people?” Church buildings convey volumes of information, much of it by accident. This congregation’s building seems to be announcing that they’re clueless and that nobody’s in charge—which is surely not the message they intend!
This problem is not limited to door decorations. The outside of a building offers many options for communicating unintended messages about a congregation:
- If trees that were carefully planted and lovingly tended decades ago are now covering your building so that passers-by can’t tell that you’re a church, is your building saying, “Welcome,” or “We don’t want you to know we’re here?”
- If the only available parking ten minutes before the service is across a busy street, is your building saying, “Join us,” or “Don’t bother”?
- If there’s only one accessible entrance and it’s poorly marked, is the building saying, “Come in,” or “Go somewhere else?”
If a passer-by decides to enter, buildings speak through their interior design as well:
- If the bathroom features a flowered wallpaper border, if there’s a “parlor” furnished with what appears to be Grandma’s living room suite, and if bulletin boards are still used to communicate information rather than digital screens, is the building communicating, “We’re committed to young adults,” or “We’d rather not change?”
- If the nursery carpeting is 30 years old, is the building saying, “We love children,” or “Children are not important?”
- If there’s no clear path from the entry to the sanctuary, is the building saying, “Let us help you,” or “If you don’t already know the way, you’re not important?”
Buildings communicate, whether we realize it or not! Admittedly, there are some understandable reasons we lose track of what our buildings are saying:
- Some of us may think the building is beautiful just the way it is. (Which is just the way it’s been for the forty years we have been members!) We don’t notice that standards of beauty or trees or traffic patterns have changed.
- Some of us are governed by the maxim, “We’ve always done it that way.” If that hutch has always been precisely centered underneath that portrait of that significant past pastor, then the hutch, the portrait, and the significance of the pastor must be retained.
- Some of us have a hard time adapting to change. If our volunteers know how to do bulletin boards but have no idea how to create screen-ready PowerPoints or videos, then it’s hard to ask them to step aside so that the congregation can move forward.
But regardless of internal barriers to change, if we want our building to communicate that ours is a thriving, adaptive, lively congregation, we need to rethink our design in order to refresh our message.
If Walls Could Speak
For example, digital screens have increasingly replaced bulletin boards as a way of communicating everything from the location of the nursery to the date of the hayride. Screen content doesn’t need to take a lot of volunteer time to create and can change frequently and automatically. Screens don’t take up a lot of room and don’t contribute to a sense of clutter. Screens are familiar to younger people in the same way that bulletin boards have been familiar to older generations. Their absence unintentionally suggests that a church has not moved with the times.
Parking lots present another opportunity for new thought. Over the last century, church planners shifted from dependence on street parking to today’s mega-lots to accommodate attendees who arrive in separate cars. Today the cutting edge in urban transportation is ride-sharing, bike-sharing, and e-vehicles. Perhaps our buildings will communicate “welcome” in the future by adding self-serve bike-share stations and electric vehicle charging stations rather than more asphalt.
New Styles of Gathering
Gathering areas also communicate. The first church I ever served had an entryway the size of a small bathroom, and no one gathered there! Today gathering areas have expanded as churches work to break down barriers between themselves and their communities. Some church “lobbies” look like co-working environments, with places to sit privately as well as spaces to meet in small groups to build relationships, support creativity, and learn collaboratively. Churches whose gathering areas still look like hallways communicate their inability to change.
The idea of “relational space” applies to youth areas as well. Newer school buidlings still have exterior walls, but learning spaces are more flexible. Moveable walls, natural and artificial light, small learning spaces within a larger space, and an abundance of whiteboards, tackable surfaces, and display areas enable children with a variety of learning styles to join in faith formation. Church buildings that offer only small, box-like classrooms look dated and unappealing to today’s parents.
What can a congregation do with a building designed for an earlier time? How can we transform the building so that it conveys our congregation’s liveliness? Work with a designer. Be courageous about knocking down walls. Change some surfaces (paint, carpet, floors, wall coverings, paving, landscaping) every year. Practice looking at the building with the eyes of a visitor rather than as a long-time member. Most importantly, decide what you want the building to say about your congregation and then focus your resources on delivering your message!
[box]Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.[/box]