View Your Building Through a Visitor’s Eyes

There are so many churches in the Chicago area that were started by the Greatest Generation when they came back from World War II. They arrived home with a new resolve to expand their horizons; the GI Bill gave people who would never have been able to afford to go to college the chance to do so; transportation was changing so it was possible to move out of the city but still be employed there. Those men and women gathered like-minded people and started congregations all around the perimeter of the city and beyond. They built nice, new buildings for their church and filled them with their children and the children in the neighborhood and their friends and family.
Now, 75 years later, many of those buildings still look pretty much the same as they did when they were built, except shabbier. Those buildings and their long-delayed maintenance are one of the reasons that churches are closing. They cannot afford to make it safe, let alone bring it up to code. If you still have money and energy and your building needs help, don’t put it off.
As I visit with sessions of congregations that are thinking about closing, I realize they do not see what a visitor sees. It is like the characteristic smell of your own home, usually a mixture of the food you cook, the pets you have, the detergent you use, and the cologne you wear. You don’t notice it when you walk in, but visitors do.

Imagine approaching your church building as a visitor. Here are some of the things I notice.

  • What door should I enter? Many churches have multiple doors and the one that the architect originally intended as the “front door” is not the way most members enter. I have sometimes sat in my car outside of a church on a Sunday morning until I see someone walk in because I have too many times tried two or three doors before I find the right one.
  • What does the outside of the building look like? Does it seem like it is abandoned when you look at the paint or the roof or the state of repair of the sidewalk? If there is landscaping, is it maintained? I once walked up to a church that clearly had planted gardens around the building at one time. (Remember, I am a gardener.) They looked like they had not been maintained for years. A few scraggly perennials were doing their best to grow, but the beds were overgrown with weeds. It was all I could do not to pull a few of them. It would be better to take out the gardens and plant grass that can be mowed than to leave these symbols of neglect.
  • What are the bathrooms like? In many smaller churches, most of the members live close enough and are there for a short enough time that they never use them. I have lost count of the number of times when I have gone into a kind of scary, dark ladies’ room only to find a little sign by the toilet that gives me instructions about how to flush. ‘Hold the handle down and count to 10; wait five seconds; flush again quickly,” or something like that. If you need to give this kind of instructions for this basic task, call a plumber!
  • Are there stacks of dusty old books, curriculum, etc. in the corners of the sanctuary and the hallways? Are there announcements pinned to a bulletin board about events that happened months ago? Does it look like this is a living organization or one that is dying?
Imagine a family looking for a church as the new school year starts, a time when some families decide they are going to get their schedules organized and might add church into it. What will they see when they approach your building? The number of people they see when they come into your sanctuary may not be as important as the impression they have already formed in the time it took them to approach your building from their car or train or bus. Our buildings should reflect our call, not to glorify the history of our congregation, but to bring hope to all whose lives we touch in the name of Jesus.
Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
(312) 488-3015