Our church environments speak to visitors a long time before the pastor gets a chance to preach to them. Think about your church environment for a second. What is it saying to your visitors? Does it say what you want it to say? Does it say: We love you come in? Does it say: Go away we are weird?
Andy Stanley in his great book Deep and Wide has a section in the book where he talks about church environments and what they say. He tells the following story to illustrate his point about the importance of thinking about the vibe our church environments give off:
We arrived about twenty minutes before the service was scheduled to begin. Andrew was with us. He had just turned three. We had to ask twice where to find the children’s area. Signage was almost nonexistent. Someone finally pointed us to a door. We peeked in and the only person in the room was a man who looked to be in his late twenties. When he saw us, he came to the door with a big smile on his face. A little too big for me. We told him this was our first visit. He assured us that we were at the right place, and he invited Andrew into the room. That’s when I noticed a back door standing open that led to what looked like an outdoor playground. But it was hard to tell exactly where it led. Sandra asked if we needed to fill out any paperwork. He looked a bit confused and said we didn’t and that he hoped we enjoyed the service. Then he turned and went over and began talking to Andrew. We just stood there—both thinking the same thing, but neither of us wanting to say it aloud. Ignoring our raging parental instincts, we headed off to big church. During the second song, Sandra turned to me and asked, “Do you feel okay about Andrew’s situation?” I assured her that I did not and that it was all I had been thinking about since we left his classroom. She immediately slid out of our row and headed back to the children’s wing. It took every ounce of self-control I had to not follow. A few minutes later she came back and informed me that there was, in fact, another adult in the room along with a dozen or more children. If you have children, I bet you aren’t surprised to know that we never visited that church again. Worse, that’s the only thing I remember about our visit. Every time someone mentions the name of that church, I think about that incident. I will be the first to admit that our experience couldn’t possibly be the norm. But I still wouldn’t go back. That was seventeen years ago. Similar to my previous story, this church taught several lessons they didn’t intend to teach. Lesson #1: We don’t expect new families. We have the same kids every week. Lesson #2: If there is an emergency, we don’t plan to notify you. Lesson #3: Your child’s security is not our primary concern. Lesson #4: Our volunteers don’t understand the way parents think (i.e., our volunteers are untrained).
He then goes on to talk about the effect the shabby children’s environment had on him:
Every ministry environment communicates something. There are no neutral environments. Environments are the messages before the message. The messages your environments communicate have the potential to trump your primary message. I do not remember a single thing about the message preached at the church referenced in the illustration on page 153. Not a thing. I was too distracted by the four-point message of the children’s environment. As I am constantly reminding our leaders, the sermon begins in the parking lot. By the time I stand up to deliver what is traditionally considered the message, everybody in our audience has already received a dozen or more messages. Many have already made up their minds as to whether they will come back the following week.
We want to do everything to welcome new people to our churches. Is your church environment repelling people or welcoming?
What can you do to make it more welcoming?
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