Chapter Six: Easy Access
Gordon and Joan were invited to a 25th wedding anniversary celebration. They were given general directions to the church where the celebration was to be held. "It’s an old, established church. Anyone in the neighborhood can direct you there/7 they were told. But they couldn’t find the church, despite numerous inquiries, and returned home disappointed.
Church people often assume everyone in the neighborhood knows where the church is located. One church consultant enjoyed exposing this mistaken assumption. When he was invited to a church, he would play a little game. Standing on the sidewalk not far from the church, he would ask passersby, "Can you help me find Oak Lane Baptist Church [or whatever]?" Many couldn’t help. Later, as he met with the church, he would tell of his experience.
Obviously, if people don’t know how to get to your place of worship, they won’t come. And if new people experience difficulty finding their way around in your facilities, they may not return. How do you help newcomers get to and around your facilities? In what ways do your facilities enhance the welcome you give? Focus on these questions as you read this chapter.
Helping People Find Your Place of Worship
An evangelical church once mailed an advertising brochure to our home. The attractively designed brochure told about the church program. One essential bit of information was missing, however. There was no address or phone number. As a newcomer to the community, I had no idea where the church was located. I looked carefully for a listing in the phone directory, without success.
Perhaps it was a simple oversight, or a printer’s error. Nevertheless, it’s common for churches to advertise without addresses or phone numbers. They assume everyone knows where they are. Such advertisements announce loudly and clearly, "You’re welcome if you know where we are. If not, find out yourself!"
The best way to help people find your meeting place is to bring them or accompany them. When you must give verbal or written directions, make them clear. "You can’t miss it" usually means you most certainly will. Some church brochures include clearly drawn maps. These can be helpful, particularly if your church facilities aren’t on a main street. A clearly drawn map says, "We want you to find us! You are welcome!"
A sign tells a lot about an establishment, be it a place of business or a church. The sign is the primary information many people have until they enter the building. Many churches have drab-looking signs, or none at all. And many church signs aren’t lit at night, making buildings hard to find on winter evenings.
Good signs say you expect new people, who need such information, to attend. Good signs say Welcome!
Have you ever been confused by doors in unfamiliar church surroundings? On a Sunday morning visit to a neighboring church, I found a middle-aged couple standing outside. It was the time between the education hour and the morning worship service.
I introduced myself and asked if I could help. They said they were waiting for someone to show them which door they should use to enter the building. Regular members of this church would probably find this humorous or puzzling. But to these first-time guests, it was an important question: "Which door shall we use?"
The Open Door Christian Church meets in a gymnasium. Ironically, they lock the regular entrance door during the worship service! The only way late worshipers can enter is to walk around the building and find another place to come in. To thwart petty theft of coats and other belongings, this church has closed the door to people who don’t know when or where to come in. The Open Door is shut to many!
Are all the entrances to your place of worship clearly marked? Are all the doors inside the building marked? Can guests find their way to the bathroom without embarrassment? Clearly marked doors help new people feel welcome. They help people find their way into your church facility and into your fellowship.
What first impressions does your building create? Does it look cared for or run-down? The exterior and interior condition often says something about the self-esteem or morale of a congregation. It’s particularly easy to overlook peeling paint or unfinished decorating work when one worships in the building every Sunday. Indeed, people who love each other deeply will meet under almost any conditions and in any facility.
But new people notice the more visible things. Is the grass cut? Is the front gate in good repair? Are the windows clean? These small things can make the difference between an inviting church and one that will make a guest feel like something is wrong.
A Place to Sit
Our family of five once attended a church in a capital city. The auditorium was designed in theater style, with up to 27 seats in long rows of flip-up chairs. There was no middle aisle. The seats were close to each other front to back. It was difficult for people to move past others already seated, even if persons stood up. There was little space for standing or moving.
Consequently, the middle section of the building was sparsely filled. Persons chose to sit near the two ends of the rows, because it took much less effort. The physical arrangement of the building greatly hampered fellowship and movement. In case of fire, it would have been hard to evacuate the building safely.
A room’s seating arrangements make a difference in normal seating capacity. Most people don’t like to sit too close together. This is perhaps one reason why the seats in a church building are often sparsely filled. Most churches don’t grow in average attendance beyond 80 percent of the seating capacity in the sanctuary.
In a study of 700 churches in America, James Moss discovered that the average attendance over a year’s time was 57 percent of capacity. He concluded that people generally prefer at least 25 inches of pew space. He asserts that newcomers won’t feel comfortable unless there is that much pew space available.
One can easily tell something about the body life of a church by observing the seating patterns. If people leave the front seats empty and scatter to fringes, it often indicates that people don’t relate closely to each other. In contrast, when people come early to get a front seat, and the seats are full, this suggests expectancy in worship and eagerness to be with others. Newcomers can sense the difference from the moment they enter the place of worship. What does the seating pattern in your church communicate to a newcomer?
In today’s world, most people drive to church. As pollution and congestion mount, we may learn to end our love affair with cars. But for now, parking is a problem for many fellowships. Where church buildings were constructed before the common use of cars, there may be no provision for off-street parking. As businesses build new stores on the outskirts of town, people become used to ample parking space. In many churches, the undersized parking lot is full, but the building could hold many more people. How a church provides for hospitality in the parking lot has become a major factor in church growth, particularly for large churches.
John Maxwell, pastor of a growing church in California, emphasizes the importance of servanthood and self-sacrifice in regard to parking spaces. As pastor, he could demand a choice, reserved spot for his car. Instead, he parks more than a block away and walks to church to leave space for guests. Willingness to leave the better parking spaces for others has now become one evidence of Christian commitment for the leaders and members in his church.
Similarly, South Hills Community Church uses a satellite parking lot. Members ride a shuttle bus in order to leave parking spaces for guests. This is part of the church’s definition of hospitality.
Health buffs know the value of walking. To park at a distance from the church may prove to be healthier-both physically and spiritually—than to "hog the best space." Furthermore, it communicates clearly to new people, "Welcome! Share our space!"
Some congregations provide ushers outside the building to assist the aged or physically impaired, particularly in bad weather. Stepping up to an automobile to help a person across an icy pavement is a great way to say Welcome!
Ushers in the parking lot can help extend your church welcome in other ways. Dale Shaw tells the story of Willis, an unchurched man who had been invited by a friend to visit his church.
One Sunday morning, Willis and his wife drove to the church. As they pulled into the parking lot, Willis lost his courage and decided he couldn’t cope with the church service. He drove around the building, intending to leave by a second driveway. But a parking usher stepped up to the car with a friendly smile. Extending a warm welcome through the open window, the usher directed the visitor to a parking space. With fresh courage, Willis parked and came to the service.
Not long after, Willis confessed Christ as Savior and Lord and joined the church. He is now an elder. The usher in the parking lot removed a barrier which would otherwise have blocked the way for this man to find Christ and the church.
The Worship Center, a large growing church in Pennsylvania, is located on a busy street. Each Sunday, traffic guides help drivers to get out of the parking lot and safely on their way. They want to leave a good "last impression" of the worship service.
If you drive to the new United Methodist church near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, you might notice the nursery first. The large room faces the street through a huge plate-glass window. The pastor has a heart for mothers, who often stay away from the church because it’s more of a hassle to go than to stay at home. Good nursery facilities communicate Welcome! to tired mothers and energetic children. Even shopping centers and banks know that you reach parents’ hearts by caring for their children.
A good nursery can tip the balance in favor of your church if a young family is trying to decide where to attend. Here are factors to consider when providing for the needs of parents and children:
- Think of the nursery as a ministry. That’s what it’s meant to be.
- Provide a quiet place where babies can sleep undisturbed.
- Provide a place where young children can play safely.
- Provide for easy parental access between the nursery and the worship service.
- Provide running water if possible.
- Provide a place to change diapers.
- Provide quality toys and furnishings. Old, worn-out, or broken things communicate that the nursery is second-class.
- Make sure the facilities are clean. Some parents will make their decision on this basis alone.
How does your church reach out to people with physical impairments? Such folks often face extraordinary barriers to access in the church. In addition to the negative attitudes of some church members, they may face actual physical barriers, such as stairways. Aged people may need special assistance to park a car or to negotiate steps.
Persons confined to a wheelchair may find it difficult to make their way around the building because of narrow aisles or doorways, series of steps, or lack of adequate toilet facilities. A wheelchair ramp outside a church facility says Welcome! to people who can’t walk on their own.
Mike King suffered a tragic accident as a young teenager. Vital nerves in his neck were severed, and he lost the use of his lower limbs. But this strong young man didn’t let misfortune overwhelm him. To highlight the special needs of the physically impaired, Mike rode a wheelchair from Alaska to Washington, D.C. He often speaks in churches as advocate for the physically impaired. The following questions are ones which Mike could ask if you were considering ways to welcome people with certain special needs:
- Is there at least one primary entrance to the church facility which can be used by persons in wheelchairs?
- Do your doors have a clear opening of at least 32 inches? (Double doors must be operable by a single stroke or a handicapped person cannot use them.)
- Are toilet rooms accessible to handicapped, with a turning space of 60 by 60 inches to allow for wheelchair turning?
- Are water fountains easily hand-operated and accessible to people in wheelchairs?
- Are there seating spaces designated for the use of wheelchairs? (Perhaps a pew or two could be shortened.)
- Is transportation available for elderly or disabled people who don’t drive?
- Do you invite persons with disabilities to have active roles in the worship service? Making special efforts to provide access for new people can communicate a caring attitude and warm welcome. That way, if folks like Gordon and Joan are invited to a wedding at your church, they won’t go home disappointed.
For Review, Study, and Action
- Have you had difficulty following directions to a place of worship? Tell about your experience. How do you help potential newcomers find your church?
- Take a look at your church sign, if you have one. What does its condition say about your church? How do you tell guests which door(s) to use to enter the building? Do you have signs on all the doors in the building?
- What might the condition of the building communicate to a first-time guest? How might you brighten the appearance of the building or make better use of your facilities?
- Take special notice of seating arrangements and where people sit during the worship service. Make a list of observations.
- Consider car parking. How might your church extend hospitality to the outside of your building?
- How do you provide for the care of babies and young children? What kind of welcome does your nursery facilities give to the younger generation?
- What kind of welcome does your church extend to people with special needs, such as the physically handicapped? How might you improve your welcome, as revealed by the checklist?
For Further Help
Accessibility Audit for Churches, edited by Toby Gould, Service Center, The United Methodist Church, 7820 Reading Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 45237. A helpful resource to help you measure the accessibility of your church facilities.
Mennonite Developmental Disability Services, Mennonite Central Committee, 21 South 21st St., Akron, Pa. 17501. This resource office can deal with specific questions or direct you to other agencies.
People Spots, by James Moss, Sr. (Eastern Pa. Conference Churches of God, 1988). Chapter five gives helpful information on seating patterns and seating capacity.