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Your Church's Body Language

Rev. John Simpson, General Superintendent
Baptist Union of Victoria, Australia

Number 253

.Silly as it may seem, most people already have formed a few ideas about your church before they ever go on site. And they will form a few more should they manage a visit to a service.

The body language of your building speaks with great clarity and the messages conveyed may not necessarily bring you much comfort. Surprisingly little thought seems to be given in many churches to the way the church building appears to the community. While much effort is directed into making services meaningful, seeker sensitive services do not necessarily lead to seeker sensitive facilities.

Visitors Look Through Different Eyes

It is the old story. How we see our own home is very different from the way visitors see it. Familiarity blinds us to the letter box perched on a tangent, or the front door which needs a coat of paint, or the cat's scratch marks on the lounge, or the kids shoes and bags all over the floor: ordinary things we simply accept as being "hallmarks" of our place. A But the visitors notice without prompting. They see it all with a different set of eyes.

And so it is with your church. Familiarity blinds us to our church building "hallmarks" which are painfully obvious to the visitor. Examples? There is no shortage of them. Take the special church display board still detailing the Christmas Carol Service in March. Either this church is way behind the pace or getting the message out early. Most observers will conclude the church lacks speed. Or take the church bus which picks up young people for Sunday School and youth group. The church's name is in full view, well almost, apart from layers of mud and grime which are part of the presentation. No one can remember when it was last washed.

What kind of body language is that?

Notice Boards and Other Considerations

How about the common oversight amply demonstrated on many church notice boards? Although the new pastor was inducted last year some time, the church board faithfully provides information about the previous pastor who has been long gone. Quite apart from being of no practical help now, it is as if the new pastor has not arrived yet. Well, about as helpful as failing to show the new service times. It is a bit embarrassing when visitors show up early (or late). We should fix it; make sure we put that on the next agenda for the deacons.

But there is yet more. Many notice boards are amateurish, dull, poorly maintained, badly located and hard to read except for pedestrians with 20/20 vision. In these days of professional presentations, many church notice boards belong to the 1950's. And when alterations are made, they are sometimes done in a style or colour different from the rest of the lettering on the board.

These may be low cost up dates but will not impress the curious. Such boards happily portray a congregation unintentionally presenting itself as being out of touch with the interests, needs and expectations of contemporary Australians. They are wonderfully effective exercises in mis communication.

Now if they care to look beyond the notice board and the church bus, your visitor may see a lawn which is badly in need of a mow. One church creatively solved the problem by having a resident sheep tethered in the church yard: not as noisy as a motor mower although there were other draw backs.

But if the lawn is a jungle and the garden beds over run with weeds, you cannot blame a visitor for concluding that these people don't care too much for what they are about. If you add in guttering which is falling off the roof line, or down pipes which have worked loose, or badly peeling paint then you have a church with a serious self esteem problem.

The Hurdles Which Lie in Wait for the New Player

Now, let's imagine that our visitor (blessed with remarkable fortitude) has actually made it to the foyer. Their chances of getting inside are still marginal. They will need to scramble over a mountain of notices about conferences which are now past, various papers which no one has bothered to distribute (but which are effectively hiding the visitors' book) and semi-historic letters from "full-time" workers in para-church outfits or far flung places. Unclaimed offering envelope packs sit idly by a sea of old weekly bulletins.

Somewhere not too far away there will be a map of the world with coloured, fraying ribbons - some connected to the map by drawing pins, others hanging loosely. The latter used to connect photographs of missionary heroes with their supposed global location. But don't do too much research here. You may be hard put to find anybody who is really sure where those ribbons should attach to the map. Some of those missionaries have either switched to other endeavours or retired but no one got around to removing their photos. The Missionary Committee will be fixing this up before too long we're told.

If you are really hospitable, you will point out to your keen visitor to take care as they walk down the aisle. The carpet was laid about the time Noah tied up at Mount Ararat. It is a bit of a joke for the locals except when the unsuspecting go head over turkey. It is a mystery why the carpet was not pensioned off a while back. But it is one of those perennial chest nuts: do we fix up the carpet or threaten our outreach budget? Tough call this one.

Well, they made it to a pew but they won't be sleeping. Those pews have been keeping the neighbourhood chiropractor in the latest Volvo for many a day. Perfectly designed to ruin a good morning. Fortunately no one has seen fit to provide cushions. It would be such a shame and, besides, it would spoil the ambience of the building. Out of place. A concession to the flesh.

Take a good look at the pulpit. Now there's a fortress for you. Sure, we hold the preached word central to our tradition but this is really something else: genuine all round protection for the preacher. An earthquake nudging ten on the Richter scale would not damage this one. If the Titanic had been built this way, the iceberg would have bounced. Instead of bringing the Word close to the people and their needs, this pulpit places it in a cold and distant world altogether.

Old Churches and New Churches

It's true that older churches generally face more problems with maintenance and find it harder to send good body talk to visitors and passers by. But more recent buildings may have problems too. Some architectural styles date faster than others and today's modern structure may be tired in a decade or two and in need of serious surgery. While the newer churches have mostly done much better with their notice boards, their gardens and overall layout, many lack adequate signage within the facilities.

Oddly, your average visitor will navigate happily around the car park at the local shopping centre and go to water in a strange church car park (a special blessing for larger churches) or in nearby streets. People seem to be on edge in getting to a church for the first time: they look for signs which are often not there. It is an unspoken invitation to confusion. Is there a special park for visitors? Where is the entrance to the foyer in relation to this spot in the park? What are the unwritten rules, the parking do's and don'ts? Whose spot am I taking? What's the culture here? The locals don't think twice. Not so for the new arrival.

And it is just as easy to be disoriented in a new church as in an older one but for the opposite reason. Where the older foyers tend to produce claustrophobia, the new ones offer a reasonable opportunity for losing your bearings. Add in a few extra passage ways, doors and smaller halls and you could easily end up in the rest room simply through following the wrong crowd. A worrying possibility unless the bladder is making its present felt.

With all those seats (in the sanctuary, not the church loo), where do you sit? Whose seat might this be? Will the sound be acceptable, the view satisfactory? The seats appear comfortable so that's a plus. They're using a screen so at least there is no need to fumble with a hymn book. Ah, an usher. I have found a safe place after all that driving around the car park, after the unexpected detour to the toilet, after finding the right door. Let the service begin. Out of confusion, order comes.

Meet the Environmental Enhancement Team
 
How do we get the church building and surrounds to tell the right story? Who is going to fine tune the pitch?

It takes a dedicated group to pull it off: the really special people in the congregation are the hedge clippers, the lawn mowers, the gardeners, the sign writers, the rubbish removers, the cleaners, the fix-it people who can tackle anything and everything with minimum drama and little prompting. They may not be the up front identities but their contribution is just as strategic.

This crowd of behind-the-scenes workers merit a lot more attention and affirmation than they normally receive. The working bee to tidy up the church environs complements the worship leader, the service planner and the preacher. When a church appoints an Evangelism Committee, they also need an active, committed Environmental Enhancement Team as well. You can't have one without the other. 

Are You Running a Funeral Parlour?

So what is the message your church building is sending out quietly every day? Have you been for a walk around your property lately to look at it through a visitors' eyes? Have you driven past it in the traffic? What conclusions might people be reaching about your identity, your mission and the way you value it? Let's hope they are positive. If there is a chance that they are otherwise, it is time to act.

Just one more consideration. Do those who drive by every day actually know you are there? Some churches which have bothered to research their neighbourhood regarding the visibility of their building are often dismayed to discover that their building is seen as just another....building. Not even a church. In one case, a neighbour thought the church was actually a funeral parlour. Now there's a non verbal message for you.

Listen carefully to your church's body talk. Many others are. You may be in for a surprise or two!

Rev. John Simpson

This article is reprinted by permission of the author. It originally appeared in Ministry Perspectives,
a publication of the Baptist Union of Victoria, Australia.

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:52 PM