By Jennifer Taylor
Churches spend millions of dollars designing buildings and paving parking lots to make room for visitors. While bricks and mortar provide space for new people, leadership teams often don’t realize the impact of spending just a few more dollars to make those areas guest-friendly.
PlainJoe Studios, based in Corona, California, works with churches to incorporate environmental design into every phase of a project. From huge new buildings to modest renovations, simple strategies help every church open the door to visitors.
1. Think like a visitor
Although considering a newcomer’s experience seems obvious, it’s also deceptively difficult. Building teams usually consist of church members with years of involvement, and their familiarity can make them oblivious to visitor-friendly improvements.
“Churches need the perspective of someone who doesn’t already know the worship center’s location or the check-in procedure for children,” says Peter McGowan, design principal at PlainJoe. “Ask some ‘outsiders’ to review your project and point out what’s unclear.”
When new families visit for the first time, what’s the ideal process for moving them from parking lot to Bertolini chair? Sandals Church (Riverside, California) considered this question to intentionally guide visitors through its portable, spread-out campus.
“The first time I visited they had a ‘concierge service,’” McGowan says. “A volunteer noticed our group and personally escorted us.”
Because Sandals also faces the challenge of locating its children’s programming a shuttle ride away from the adult worship area, volunteers even extend the service to their youngest guests. “Parents appreciate knowing an adult will ride with their child and make sure he finds his class,” McGowan says.
3. Use your building to tell the story
Shepherding visitors to the right area is a beginning—sharing a message in that space is even better. McGowan believes any church can reach more visitors by using its building to communicate the gospel.
He points to his own church, Crossroads Chris-tian (Corona, California), as an example.
“When you walk in you see the words ‘Mercy triumphs over judgment’ painted on one wall,” he says. “These words from James connect to people and profoundly communicate one of our key values.”
Beloit (Wisconsin) Christian Church accomplishes the same goal in a different way; from the “Kidzworks” children’s area to subtle graphics of water towers and smokestacks, Beloit’s campus acknowledges its location in a depressed factory town—and its vision of rebuilding and restoration in individual lives.
4. Use your building to tell your story
“When Starbucks launched, they provided each branch with mandatory instructions for things like the point of sale area or the process for making an iced cappuccino,” McGowan says. “At the same time, Starbucks realized the uniqueness of different regions and encouraged each store to express its individuality through drink specials, decorations, and other elements.”
The connection? Although the gospel message remains the same, small touches can communicate your unique culture or history to newcomers.
The techniques congregations use to share their identity vary as much as the churches themselves. The lobby of Central Christian Church (Las Vegas, Nevada) features a series of graphics focusing on core values, and parking lot exit signs remind drivers to “keep lookin’ up”—senior pastor Jud Wilhite’s signature slogan.
On the other side of the country, Manchester Christian Church (Nashua, New Hampshire) developed its campus with a “restoration lodge” theme; the motif acknowledges MCC’s connection to the nearby Restoration House ministry, and the building’s dark woods and sepia-toned photographs create a warm, welcoming atmosphere.
5. Extend the experience
When the city of Anaheim required Disneyland to foot the bill for nearby highway improvements, Disney seized the chance to expand its “brand” by also influencing landscaping and other touches leading into the park.
Most churches won’t have the opportunity—or the funds—to affect their neighborhoods to this extent, but McGowan says they may have more clout than they think.
“Churches often must pay for street improvements, sidewalks, or traffic lights as part of the building process,” he says. “Since you’re paying for an item anyway, you might be able to leverage that expense by enhancing the end product to fit your campus.”
The key is knowing what your city will allow—and discovering those rules early on.
“Almost all churches operate under conditional use permits which specify details about acceptable use of the property,” McGowan says. “These permits can be negotiated—but only before you sign them.”
6. Facilitate fellowship
Although church families love to spend time together, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of designated socializing space.
“A few years ago we added seating areas to the master plan of a church lobby,” McGowan says. “The church questioned why anyone would want to sit there, but 15 minutes after we placed the furniture people began gathering.”
Churches in warm, dry climates can also create inviting spaces outside. A wide architectural “bridge” connects two buildings at The Crossing (Las Vegas, Nevada). Although the portal originally functioned as a storytelling device—large foam letters proclaim “The Journey Begins at The Crossing”—it also encloses an outdoor “room” where many visitors and members stop to chat each weekend.
7. Remember sign language
Well-done directional signage, or “wayfinding,” helps even brand-new guests easily navigate your building. A little attention to the placement and size of these pieces can quickly improve the experience for visitors.
“Ask your teams what questions they hear most often; perhaps it’s where to take kids, where to find the restrooms, or how to buy a CD of the sermon,” says McGowan. “If many people are asking the same question, you probably need a sign.”
But even the most strategically placed material loses impact if it’s indecipherable. PlainJoe uses the Society of Environmental Graphic Design to define standards for readability; this information, combined with their knowledge of the size and length of hallways or rooms, determines the ideal font size for every sign.
8. Change your names
Before signs can point the way to an area, it must first have a name. Although “fellowship hall” can suffice, more creative names offer churches another way to connect with potential members.
“I’m amazed at the number of churches that have ‘fireside rooms’ without fireplaces,” McGowan says. While the connotation of a cozy welcome is good, more descriptive (and accurate!) names
can be even better.
“Try to avoid ‘auditorium’ or ‘multipurpose 1,’” he continues. “It’s not about being clever, but making large buildings seem less institutional.”
Creative nomenclature also serves as one more way to share your distinctive church culture or raise questions about God.
“A guest might wonder why a counseling area is called The Living Room or a coffee shop is the Third Place Café,” he says. “It’s worth making the effort.”
9. Spend Strategically
Although many of these approaches involve creative thinking, not all require financial splurges. Inexpensive finishes can dramatically increase the friendliness factor of even a “big box” church building.
“Include budget dollars for paint and graphics, floor coverings, and accent lighting,” McGowan says. “These elements transform boring and generic into warm and exciting.”
Although each project varies, McGowan recommends allocating $2-3 per square foot for these items, and suggests thinking beyond beige.
“We used more than a dozen paint colors in Provision Ministry Group’s offices,” McGowan says. “It seems counterintuitive, but it’s really less work to maintain—colored or textured walls hide scratches. In contrast, it’s hard to keep big white walls looking good.”
Hypergraphics, or large wall-size images, also multiply the visual punch without adding huge costs, and churches can explore rolled vinyl flooring or stamped concrete as alternatives to high-maintenance carpet.
10. Make it your own
Although he offers these guidelines, McGowan encourages churches to personalize.
“Each church can uniquely communicate with its community,” he says. “Benefit from the learnings of other churches, but balance that with your mission and your culture. Whether you pique the interest of your guests or help them understand your congregation, visitors will realize the church cared enough to invest time and money in planning for them.”
Jennifer Taylor writes from Nashville, Tennessee, where she works as a contributing editor for CHRISTIAN STANDARD. Her blog is at christianstandard.com/writeaboutnow.asp.