The Power of Visual Impact

Having a great facility does not guarantee your church will grow, but like it or not, church facilities can either enhance or undermine the worship experience of people; especially visitors. When it comes to church visitors, you don't have a second chance for a good first impression. And one of the first impressions visitors have of your church is its building; first outside, then the inside. Visitors don't need to be professional architects to sense that the ceiling is too low, the halls too narrow, the windows outdated, or the color scheme is from a different generation. These subtle impressions can have a big negative impact.

As Marshall McLuhan once said, "the medium is the message." And your building is your medium. The design and architecture of your church has a much bigger influence on your visitors than it does on your regular attendees. Your 'visual impact' will affect your church mission.

The longer a person is at your church, the less he or she is able to see the building through the eyes of a newcomer. Most of us become oblivious over time to things like frayed carpet, foggy windows and faded paint that may bother people new to your church. The saying is true, "time in, erodes awareness of."

These things don't really matter to long-time attendees. They are coming for the people, the relationships. They’re coming for  the fellowship, the spiritual growth; they’re not coming for the facilities. But for visitors with none of these reasons to attend, other things shape their first impressions…and your building is one of them.

[bctt tweet="Time in, erodes awareness of." username="kellystickel"]

But if "time in erodes awareness of", how do you even recognize that you have a 'problem' in the first place?

Ask yourself:

What are you communicating?

  1. Clean & tidy communicates that we are expecting someone. So it is reasonable that if the facility is not clean and tidy it is communicating “we are not expecting you” and if a guest gets the feeling that they are unexpected they will automatically assume they are unwelcome. For example a big one is the bathrooms. It’s important to not just clean the bathrooms once, before the service and then assume they will remain that way. I think it is good if they are periodically checked on during services to make sure that they remain clean and tidy and stocked with the necessaries.

2.Being Organized communicates that we take what we do seriously. Therefore being disorganized communicates that we don’t care — so why should you? If a guest feels like we don’t care about our church, our own people, then they will assume we won’t care about them as well. For example, if you walk into the bathroom at a restaurant and it is a mess and is disorganized chaos, you’re subconscious question will be “I wonder what the kitchen looks like.” And you will not likely want to come back. The same is true in a church. They will be wondering what the children’s area looks like. If the facility is disorganized, if the service is disorganized, if the children’s department is disorganized, then people will subconsciously assume that you don’t care and won’t care about them and their family and they will not come back.

3. Having energetic people in the parking lot and in the entrance of the facility communicates “we are expecting you and we are on top of things”.Energy is attractive. If your own people aren’t excited about being there, then people will subconsciously suspect that you are not the place they are looking for.

4. Design, decor, and attention to detail communicate that we understand our target audience. If your design is dated 20-30-40 years, then people will assume that you are trying to attract a demographic that is not them. People automatically come into a new environment wondering if they belong. If your design doesn't match your target audience, again your guests will assume they won’t fit in and will feel too uncomfortable to return.

Do we have contagious energy?

We regularly tell our host teams to host a party, don’t just work a shift. This is an attitude shift. I mean, think about it. If you were to host a party in your home, how would you treat your guests? You would welcome them at the door. You would walk them into the living room or the place in the house where the party is. You would show them where the bathrooms are. If they didn't know everyone, you would introduce them to everyone there. You would ask them what they’d like to drink or eat and get it for them. These are just natural things we do at home, yet when we get to church, we take our “positions” and work a shift like it’s a duty instead of hosting a party, like it’s our home.

We tell our hospitality teams that:

    1. Hospitality is not a department. Which means it's not a job, its an attitude and everyone is responsible.

    2. Happiness is a personal problem. Which means you must lead your feelings, don't let your feelings lead you.

    3. People, people, people. Which means Church is about people!

Are the environments irresistible?

Andy Stanley writes in his book “Deep & Wide” about creating “irresistible rather than just relevant environments” for reaching unchurched people. This is a major mindset church people have to change, to create “irresistible environments” for the unchurched generation.

So, regardless of whether your facility is owned or rented, ask yourself: 

What is the mood we are creating with our environments? Is it warm and inviting? Or is it cold and institutional? Everyone needs to investigate their facility and environments and ask questions based on the five senses:

  1. What are people seeing? Is it dark and murky? Or bright and energetic?

  2. What are they hearing? What music are we playing in the background? What mood is that creating? Is that mood consistent with what type of service we are planning? Does it distract or enhance the environment?

  3. What are they smelling? Is it welcoming or repulsive? Is it subtle or obtrusive?

  4. What are they tasting? How is your coffee? Please make good coffee!

  5. What are they touching? Are the chairs comfortable? Pay attention to textures of everything from the chairs, environments to the toilet paper in the bathrooms (we provide all sorts of guest products - deodorants/hygiene products/hair products etc. in our bathrooms that communicate we are prepared for you and we value you and we have thought of everything).

[bctt tweet="Excellence communicates “we care and value you.” Details matter." username="kellystickel"]

Think about it. What effect does the environment of a McDonald’s have on it’s culture verse the effect of the environment at the Keg? Or the design of a Starbucks verses the design of a Tim Hortons? The environments and designs are chosen very much on purpose to enhance the desired culture and clientele those companies are trying to reach.

“Design creates culture.  Culture shapes values.  Values determine the future”. ~Robert L. Peters

As a church we may know what we value or believe, but traditionally we haven’t always been intentional about our “culture” and how the design of environments affect an unchurched person’s perspective of that culture.

Church people often resist spending money on their facilities and environments because they underestimate the impact it has on their guests. The thought is that the church money should go to ministry, missions, and outreach. But our facility is an amazing tool that enables us to reach our community more effectively. It needs to be seen as an outreach tool and used as such.

“A branded environment matters because it differentiates you from the competition”.  ~Phillip Petty

We are competing with the best in the service industries and entertainment world. Notice I didn't say other churches! We are working with people’s expectations, and if we can serve them above and beyond their expectations then I believe they will be more open to receive the message of Jesus.

So, our environments need to complete with the best hotels and conference centres.Our sound needs to compete with the best concert halls. Our children’s facilities with the best play parks and centres.Our coffee needs to be as good or better than the best coffee served in town. Our media and visual arts need to compete with what people are used to watching on TV or in movies.All of this effort goes into just helping them become receptive to receiving the message. 

I know people are thinking, the message is enough and it doesn’t need to be packaged, I agree! It is absolutely enough. However, most people don’t even open up to hear it because the church has become largely irrelevant in it’s delivery of the message.

My motto is taken from Acts 15:19 where James, the brother of Jesus said, “let’s not make it difficult for anyone who is coming to Christ.” The difficulty isn't in the message - it comes from us and often our delivery system. It’s like having a really expensive Christmas gift wrapped in dirty newspaper - the recipient might not want to even open the gift simply because of the wrapping. We must pay attention to the wrapping so we can invite people to open the gift.

A few years ago we began focusing on reaching unchurched people, without compromising the Gospel.  This required a overall purge of the environment of churchy phrases, clutter and churchy small talk to create an environment that engages unchurched people rather than an environment that causes them to “cringe”.

The first thing I did when I walked into the building on my very first day was make a subtle change to the environment. At the entrance of the auditorium hung the pictures of all of the staff in a circle with the phrase “our ministers” in the middle. I asked our facility manager, Rick to take the entire display down. I then addressed all of the staff and told them why I did it. I did it because, while I knew that the intention was to inform the people who worked for the church, it communicated that the staff did all of the ministry around here. I guessed that they had a tough time recruiting volunteers, to which they whole heartedly agreed. I said, that the culture we wanted to create was one in which the staff served the volunteers who were the ministers, not the other way around. I didn’t want a hierarchy and I didn’t want our attendees to know who was paid staff and who were not. To me, there shouldn’t be a difference in treatment from those who were paid and those who volunteered. If anything, our volunteers should be the most honoured. It has seemed to work, we have a great volunteer base now who are absolutely amazing!

Are you regular investigating through the eyes of a first timer?

Like I said earlier, “time in, erodes awareness of”. The longer we are used to something, the less aware we are of the cringe factors. It is so easy to settle and to miss the cringe factors. It requires regular investigation through the eyes of a first timer to spot the o’so subtle cringe factors where we drift to complacency. As leaders, we need to constantly provoke excellence. Excellence isn’t natural. It is intentional. What we tolerate becomes our standard and so if we begin tolerating little messes and slight disorganization, it soon becomes the new standard and the drift begins. 

[bctt tweet="Excellence shouldn’t be the exception in churches, it should be the norm." username="kellystickel"]

You have to keep it simple. Running complicated, unpredictable services tends to create disorganization which creates clutter and a lack of efficiency. We may like spontaneous and unpredictable services as regulars because then we aren’t bored, but if you are trying to attract the unchurched and make disciples, then it doesn’t work. It only adds to their already cautious uncertainties. Keep it simple.

Another key is to create an “all in” culture. The saying; many hands make light work, is so true. If we are all in and all focused on a clear purpose - a clear why - as to why we are doing church the way we are, then we will be a well oiled, unified team with optimum efficiency. This takes constant reminding and coaching. We have team huddles every single Sunday reminding our volunteers of our purpose and vision and why we are doing church the way we are; to reach the unchurched. Last year, we had 870 first time decisions to follow Jesus and that is worth celebrating. 

[bctt tweet="Every ministry environment communicates something. There are no neutral environments." username="kellystickel"]

Environments are the messages before the message. It’s our responsibility to shape the way people view our church. We can’t leave this to chance. This is vital because the church is the hope of the world and we are on mission to reach every available person, at every available time, by every available means with the gospel of Jesus Christ.