Familiarity is not always a good thing. We become used to certain habits and surroundings especially in the church. We fail to see that what may be familiar to us may seem as strange as walking on the moon for a first time visitor. While we may be used to our surroundings, a visitor may have a bit of anxiety as they walk through our doors for the first time. Unfortunately, sometimes our facilities may become our own worst enemy and is a deterrent to visitors and we do not even realize it. First impressions often can determine whether a visitor returns or not and this can include whether or facility is one that will leave a good impression on a visitor. Now I understand that facilities aren't the whole story. Certainly, how people are treated and loved is a major component as well as the spiritual atmosphere of the worship service. But if we are to "prepare for the people" as Isaiah 62:10 states then the facility and its connection with first time visitors should not be overestimated. In this blog, I would like to raise several questions concerning how user-friendly your facility is with visitors. Feel free to make comments and add some of your own ideas to things I might have missed.
1) How does the entry way and the outside area look? Is the lawn mowed? Are the bushes trimmed? Are the weeds pulled? Are there flowers and pleasant looking grounds? How about the entry way into the sanctuary? Does it look clean? Does it smell clean? I am not suggesting that one has to hire a professional landscaper but people with "green thumbs" should be encouraged to use their talents to create a nice well kept yard to the church. I have seen a church that was overgrown with weeds and looked neglected. In fact, one might wonder if the church was abandoned or if it had closed its doors. I have also seen a church that when I opened the front door, the first smell was the smell of bat dung and stains on the ceiling and walls from bats. Sometimes churches have a musty smell that is a cross between a locker room and a flooded basement. While the regular attendees might be used to those odors and appearances, it sends a message to the visitor that this is not a pleasant place to be.
2) How easy is it to get into the building? Are entrances and directions to the sanctuary well marked for visitors? Long time members may know how to get in, but visitors may find themselves hunting around door to door trying to figure out how to enter a church building that seems more like a corn maize than a church. This is a problem in especially older church buildings that have a myriad of doors-some of which may be locked. Another factor is whether a church has handicapped accessibility and even if it does, is the ramp easy to find? A simple solution may be to post signs and to place an usher or two at some of the entrances.
3) How about the restrooms? Are they well marked with signage throughout the building? Is there handicapped accessibility? Are they clean and painted? Is toilet paper stocked up for Sunday morning? Nothing could be worst than for a first time visitor to use a restroom that hasn't been properly cleaned and is out of toilet paper! It is unlikely they'll be back! Unfortunately, some church restrooms I have seen through the years aren't much better than some service stations I have used. Some church restrooms seemingly haven't been updated since indoor plumbing was invented! Restrooms are one of those first time impression factors that stick in visitors' minds.
4) How updated is the nursery and children's classroom area? Again, cleanliness, safety and smells are important to first time visitors with children. In my previous church, there was a regular schedule to make sure the toys were cleaned and scrubbed. The church also had a security camera system in the hallways in the children's area so that they could be monitored during worship. This was done fairly inexpensively but it was a way to improve the safety of the children.
5) What about church clutter? An active church (and inactive ones too) will always struggle with clutter especially in facilities where closet space is scarce. Unfortunately many churches could easily be on an episode of "Hoarders." This is due to a number of reasons. First of all, no one dares to throw anything away because it might offend someone who donated the item thirty years ago. But the film strip projector given by Aunt Gladys in 1961 needs to go. Secondly, it is too easy to just let stuff collect. If an organized closet isn't available, perhaps the church should take the approach that if the item hasn't been used in a certain time frame (ie. two years), then it should go. I served one church that had saved Vacation Bible School murals that were over five years old and sitting in a closet. This meant that newer stuff that had to be put away had no place to go which increased the clutter problem. Finally, a decision was made to have a major clean out and it was amazing how much space became available! For the first time visitor, clutter sends a signal that the church isn't very organized and is haphazard in its ministry. This will be a constant battle for many churches (not to mention myself since I am a borderline hoarder!), but one that must be dealt with if the church is to leave a good impression on a first time visitor.
In conclusion, I know these are just a few areas that should be looked at when attempting to make our facilities a place where visitors will feel welcomed and a place they can hear the message of the gospel without having the facility be a source of distraction. I know I have only scratched the surface on the various issues concerning facilities and I welcome your thoughts. Also, the suggestions I make here are easily within most church budgets and many of the ideas can be done inexpensively. For those who think that talking about facilities isn't "spiritual" enough, I am reminded of Scripture where great care was taken in making the temple a place where the Israelites could worship God. In the New Testament, while the temple and the law was no longer the centerpiece, nevertheless Paul says in I Corinthians 9:19-22 that "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible... I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some (NIV)." Doesn't it make sense that, as Christians, we will do everything (including making our facilities user-friendly to our visitors) to bring people to a relationship with the living God?