No One Notices (Except Visitors)
Visitors to your church are going to notice something, and it would be nice if it were God’s presence rather than that carpet stain.
Humans are remarkable creatures. Of all living creatures on this planet, we are probably the most adaptable. At the very least, we tend to put up with the most – how else do we explain the existence of Gangnam Style and Twilight? (Twilight Style? Hmmm…)
In so many different parts of our lives we simply “get used to something”. The weird smell in your house that leaves visitors wondering, can pass your notice with a shrug and a “whatever”. Bad habits that are harmful can become so ingrained we can’t imagine life without them, and find them difficult to break.
The things we get used to become blind spots, as the familiar defines what becomes the norm. In most cases they are inert enough – small idiosyncrasies that can sometimes even be charming. But other times they quickly erect walls with others, an unintended offense we’re no longer capable of seeing.
Organizations – made up of so many quirky people – develop their own blind spots. The culture of a workplace, the ethos of its staff, the expectations of its members and participants – all these aspects give an organization its unique feel – even its own personality – with all its flaws.
Churches have their own personality as well. Like the house with the weird smell, sometimes we get so conditioned to the things we do that we don’t even realize everyone else is holding their nose.
It’s a cliché that first impressions are the most important. But we all recognize it’s true in every facet of our lives, from that desperately needed job interview to meeting the parents. As much as we protest that we are unconcerned with what others think of us, the truth is that we really do care. And we care enough to order our lives in ways calculated to ensure acceptance.
This is simply a reality of our existence, and it has to be accepted.
Since most of your church’s exposure to its community happens in a certain building, the space in which you worship speaks volumes from the moment a visitor walks in to the moment he leaves (which is hopefully not the same moment).
We’ve all been to a dirty, disgusting restaurant and either turned around and left or tried to get out of there as soon as possible. Unless the food is absolutely amazing, the space itself can form your impression of that restaurant.
Churches are no different. For those of us who show up every week, there are quirks about the building or the grounds or even the services that we have simply gotten used to. The sidewalks are cracking. The bathroom lights are kind of dim. The stage always feels a little cluttered. The pictures or art on the walls are a little faded.
Perhaps it’s a little annoying, but after enough time it stops being a big deal.
Like the dingy restaurant, the space where we worship can turn people away. For families with small children, a dirty childcare area can raise red flags. Structural problems, lack of attention to the grounds, uncomfortable temperatures, and a host of other issues can be debilitating for a visitor. The last thing you want is for potholes and peeling paint to leave a more powerful impression than St. Peter or St. Paul.
Signs And Blunders
For whatever reason, churches seem to have a terrible time getting signage right. Visiting a new church is already overwhelming, but being able to find your way around shouldn’t be part of the equation.
The problem stems from repetition. Most churches have a critical mass of people who come on a regular basis, and this familiarity makes getting around second nature.
The first time anywhere is like exploring new territory. What is habitual for regular attendees can be perplexing for first time guests. We naturally assume that people know where to go when they visit our churches, without ever being told where to go.
Worse still, we often tend to use obscure language to describe our places on our signage. Terms like narthex and sanctuary have very little meaning to people who do not attend church regularly. This doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t be used, but their meaning needs to be clear.
Otherwise, we have these life-changing things happening in places that no one can find.
Over the last decade, having an online presence has gone from a nice thing to have to an absolute necessity. Many people – especially the holy grail of the young adult we write so many books about – will experience your church long before they ever step in the door. Your online face is thus the first thing that many visitors will see.
This inescapable reality means that your online presence cannot be an afterthought, but should be an integral part of your communications strategy. Since your website will probably function as a place to get information about your church, it’s critical to make sure the things you say and the face you present is not just for your members, but reaches out to the visitors who will be more inclined to see the quirks.
Much like the incomprehensible signage we tend to display, sometimes the language we use on our websites gives the impression of being aimed toward the insiders. For example, many churches tend to group their programming for different ages around a broad “ministry” label. Thus, we have children’s ministries, student ministries, media ministries, etc.
For the average unchurched to less churched visitor, they rarely encounter the term “ministry”, except perhaps in a re-reading of 1984. For this person, trying to find out what time a support group meets does not naturally lead them to search under “adult ministries” or “connection groups” or the thousands of other insular sounding names we like to give to our ministries.
For those of us who create, work, or participate in these programs, the language seems natural and just makes sense. But to the outsider it can be impenetrable, especially on a website. Making yours user-friendly by making it comprehensible to navigate (imagine that!) will not only help your church present its best face to the world, but maybe even give someone that extra push to come and check it out in person.
It’s hard to admit, but for most of the things we buy we are inextricably drawn to the packaging. Niche retailers often put a great deal of time and effort into making the box something that makes you say, “Wow, that’s really cool.” Even in our own small way we tend to wrap Christmas presents as if the extra effort makes the real gift all that more special.
Nothing in the buildings where church happens or on the websites can compare to the Gospel we proclaim, but neither are we disembodied minds who only approach the world with a rational squint. Our embodied nature means that the physical and often mundane facets of the places we worship have an effect, for better or worse, on the way that message is received – especially by those that are there for the first time.