Jesus said, “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.” Luke 6:47-48
It’s said that we only have one opportunity to make a first impression. That’s something I think about when I drive past our small, often rusty “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” signs. For there isn’t one congregation in the diocese that describes itself as unwelcoming. Yet might our appearances communicate messages we don’t intend?
What poorly-kept signs unintentionally communicate is that our church is tired, and that we aren’t expecting anyone to pay attention to us, much less visit on a Sunday morning. Sadly, in some of our churches, that message is reinforced when people visit for the first time, not by how we treat them, but what our environment communicates.
In his book, Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend, Andy Stanley tells of a time when he attended a mid-week bible study at a friend’s church:
The group met in a medium-sized assembly hall…The first thing I noticed was the smell. The room smelled old. The second thing that caught my attention was the clutter. Stuff was scattered everywhere. Sunday school literature. Bibles. Hymnals. Umbrellas. The blinds on the half-dozen windows were all pulled to varying heights. There was a bulletin board with a half-dozen flyers randomly tacked to it. The wall color was bad. The carpet needed replacing.
What was immediately clear to Stanley was that the people who met in this room had done so for so long they didn’t see it anymore. It wasn’t that they enjoyed clutter; they no longer saw it. But as a visitor, he noticed it immediately.
The real tragedy, Stanley writes, was the environment communicated messages the church wasn’t aware of:
- We aren’t expecting guests.
- What we are doing here isn’t that important.
- We expect somebody to clean up after us.
- We don’t take pride in our church.
I invite you to walk the perimeter of your church grounds and throughout your building with the eyes of a visitor. Walk into your worship space, as if for the first time. What might a visitor see that we, in our familiarity, overlook? I am in a different church nearly every Sunday and I see things each week that as a rector for 18 years I stopped seeing. I’ve seen everything Stanley writes of, and more.
I know for most of our churches, resources are limited. But cleaning up clutter doesn’t cost much. It would be a great summer project, cleaning and throwing things away.
My heart sinks when I walk into many of our parish libraries. The books look old and unread, like cast-offs from previous generations. What they unintentionally communicate is that there isn’t anything interesting or new to read about the Christian faith; that the faith is as tired and boring as the books on display. I long for all our libraries to be places of warmth and invitation, with some of the best Christian writings and audio/visual materials on display. It wouldn’t take much to throw out the book that hasn’t been opened in the last 20 years, and ask each member of the congregation to contribute books they have read and found helpful in their walk with Christ.
What if we threw out the old furniture and raised funds for a few welcoming chairs and good lighting? And if we highlighted in photographs not only the past, but our present ministries, with faces of children, elders, and all in between?
Of course, we must do more than clean for our parishes to thrive. But we only have one chance to make a first impression. Or as Stanley writes, “Our environments are the message before the message.” So why not take some time this summer to evaluate what our parish environments are communicating and see what small changes we could make?
We could start by replacing all the rusty “Episcopal Church Welcomes You,” signs in the Diocese. If you need help with yours, let us know.