Over the years how many church facilities do you think you have visited? As a visitor to that church how easy did you find it to not only access the site and building but to also find your way around that facility once you were inside? Taking on the persona of a visitor, how inviting is it for people to access your church facility?
In my work with churches, I have visited hundreds of them over the years. And though I have become adept in interpreting what I find, I am still constantly surprised by so many churches’ inability to accommodate a visitor to their site and facility. Most churches I visit need a map and or a personal guide just to get a visitor from the main entrance to the nursery or for that matter the bathrooms! Is this the approach we want to offer our guests, making it a challenge for them to be comfortable within our own church home?
The welcoming attitude we all want our congregations to exhibit should also extend to the design of your church facility. However as unintentional it may be, many church facilities discourage visitors from coming or even staying. To address this, you first must seek to understand how a newcomer reacts to both human and physical conditions. Place yourself in a visitor’s shoes. Think about how they will respond to their first visit to your church: in meeting people; in circulating through the space even as they enter and exit your facility. While first impressions are not always a complete and fair portrayal, they are often the most lasting. For a congregation committed to growth, special sensitivity to the perceptions and needs of these potential new members is necessary. There are many criteria that may be considered as beneficial in creating a home for your visitor.
SITE ENTRY: What aids newcomers in feeling safe and finding their way?
During my visits, too many times I am able to locate the church facility, but find no clear entrance to the church site or parking. I have found myself driving around the block a number of times just to find where I am supposed to park to visit the church. Or for that matter, I find the church’s main sign and what appears to be the front entrance on the opposite side from where the parking is actually located, usually on a one-way street going away from the church. The entrances to the church’s property should be easily visible and accessible for someone approaching the site, with proper signage to enforce the location of the site’s entrance. Other issues to consider in locating the entrance to your site are:
- Driveway – Check with local planning and highway officials for width, curb, and location requirements. Locations that are generally accepted are those at a reasonable distance from other intersections; with adequate sight distances; and provide a safe place for left-hand turns. If possible, the location of the site entrance should also functionally relate to the main entrance to the facility.
- Signage – The sizes (and sometimes materials, colors and lighting) are often regulated by local ordinances. The sign and letters should be appropriately sized for the speed of the nearby traffic. Also, provision should be made for ongoing information. A “basic” sign with flexibility for additional information listing special events may be an option. The location of the exterior sign should also aid newcomers in finding the entrance to the site and facility.
PARKING: What makes the exterior of your facility friendly and safe?
In connection with the entrance to the site, the church’s parking lot location and relationship to the interior of the church facility is vital. Too many times I encounter backdoor churches, where the parking and the “main” entrance members’ use is located at the back of the facility. Thus depositing a visitor into a rear hallway disconnected from any major space they would need to find. How disconcerting do you think is it for the newcomer who finds themselves in this situation? Some issues to consider when providing a friendly and safe exterior to your facility are:
- Layout – It should provide the ability to drop off passengers close to the main entrance prior to parking. Car and pedestrian flow conflicts should be minimized. Carefully consider weekday usage as well as weekend (especially if a weekday school is at the facility). Required number of spaces (including handicapped) and dimensions of spaces and aisles are generally regulated by the local planning ordinances. Newcomers could be discouraged by not finding convenient parking for your facility, so adequate, easily visible and accessible parking, conveniently located to the church’s main entrance should be the goal.
- Landscaping and Walkways – A good first impression comes from allowing exterior gathering spaces where greetings can be exchanged prior to entering the building. Much sharing takes place within the parking area coming from and going to the car. Highlighting pedestrian travel by painting or using different surface materials for the walkways helps to make access to the facility safer.
- Lighting – Safety and security may be the primary reasons to light the parking area but other factors such as aesthetics, economics, color rendition and fixture placement are important criteria. The appearance of the light upon people, trees and buildings should be balanced against pure economics and function. The fixtures should be located to provide the required safety and security while enhancing the visual experience of the parking and facility, all weighed against the economics of the operating and maintaining the lighting. The light fixtures should be located to project onto the surfaces requiring illumination, not up and out into the night’s sky. Mounting lights on a building near the entrance to shine on the parking lot puts uncomfortable glare into the eyes of those walking toward that entrance. Rather, lights out of the pedestrian’s line of sight should illuminate the main entrance and other lights should light the parking and walking surfaces.
- Additional Uses – A well thought out parking area can also be used for weekday recreation, (basketball, bicycling, etc.), thus aiding the church with their ministry outreach possibilities.
BUILDING ENTRY: What relieves the fear of entering a new place?
Too many times I find myself walking around a church facility trying to find which door I am supposed to use to just enter the facility. Sometimes the numerous doors ALL look like the main entrance, and during the week it is even more confusing when you try to find the one leading to the offices. Usually the doors are solid masses of wood, baring you from visually seeing what lies within. Then, once inside the facility I often find it difficult to find the offices, the restrooms, or even the sanctuary. Every now and then I find myself with the ability to wander the halls aimlessly without supervision or security of the facility. No one even knows I am there. Is this the same experience you would want a visitor to your facility to have? The main entrance into the church should be just that, the main entrance. It should be clearly marked as such and conveniently located, accessible to the parking, with a visually welcoming appearance. If there is another entrance used during the week as the “main” entrance it too should be clearly designated as such. A couple of issues to consider when addressing the main entrance to your facility are:
- Approach – A covered car drop off and level walkway is ideal for the disabled and able bodied alike. It creates a warm, inviting, and protected feel as one enters your facility.
- Door – This communicates whether the building is a fortress full of mystery or a transparent facility which can be understood easily. Glass doors and adjacent windows open up the interior so that newcomers not only know what to expect when they open the door, but they may also see people they know.
BUILDING CIRCULATION: What can make people feel at home?
When entering a church facility through the main or any secondary entrance, ideally, these entrances will lead the visitor into the same centrally located circulation space. From this central location the newcomer can easily find every major functional space they will need to visit to make their stay most comfortable. Spaces like the offices, nursery, restrooms, and worship are easily accessed and visually seen from this space. Our firm has used the design concept of the central narthex developed by our Founding Partner, Rev. L. Gordon Bucy to solve functional circulation problems found within existing facilities and to layout many new facilities, (See our article, “Church Space Relationships – General Model”).
- Narthex – Think of some of the most pleasant hotel lobbies you have experienced. These lobbies are the communication center and family room for the entire building – all services required for your stay at that hotel are within a few steps of this space. A spacious hotel lobby is a better model than a residential rear door “mud room” for making a newcomer feel comfortable and at home in your church facility.
- Hallways – All hallways should be well marked to avoid the unsettling feeling of walking down a storage corridor without “road signs” confirming you are heading in the right direction. In fact, if the Narthex can be the core of the building so that all major functions (offices, worship, education, fellowship) are immediately adjacent and a few steps away, there is no need for a “maze” of confusing hallways to happen. A condition which plagues so many of today’s church facilities.
So the question is: Is your church site and facility designed to be an open house or the home of a secret society? If the facility is a tool of ministry, is the tool only being used for those already inside? Look at your facility through the eyes of another, the newcomer. Make your facility a “welcome place” for those to whom Jesus said “Come unto Me”.
John W.G. Rosecrans, AIA is the Owner and President of DIMENSIONAL DYNAMICS, Architects and Planners, Inc. located at 455 Old Baltimore Pike, Chadds Ford, PA 19317. phone: 610.388.0755 fax 610.388.2761 email: firstname.lastname@example.org webpage: www.dimdyn.com