My past church experiences have made me EXTREMELY aware of the importance of placing “speed bumps” between visitors/new members and the parking lot.
Other than worship, the “friendliness” of the congregation is a major factor visitors, frequent visitors**, and new members are looking for. They want it, but paradoxically, most also want to get in and get out. “Speed Bumps” are those opportunities to slow down the exit of visitors who want to feel “friendliness” but also want a degree of anonymity.
Coffee and Donuts are Speed Bumps for Visitors
(but not if they’re in a bad location)
Most people will stop for a drink and something to eat if you place it in their path, or have someone inviting them to stop. This makes it the perfect opportunity for your welcomers to approach visitors and new-er members.
Nothing new here, right? Wrong. Many churches put this important “speed bump” in the WRONG PLACE. In our current church where we’ve been attending for six months, we have to walk across to a separate building to find this “speed bump.” (See more about that below.) And in the church where we attended for several years, the “speed bump” was in the opposite direction of the main exit. In a previous church that we “shopped” several times, the coffee was by the entrance-exit, but we physically couldn’t get to it because the space was so small the members crowded around it.
**Many churches have “frequent visitors” who don’t join but come with some regularity. This has become more typical in larger churches. We want them to engage, but the church often makes it easy for them to slip in and out. In some cases, these “frequent attenders” are coming from a bad previous experience, and don’t want to get “sucked in” again. Yet they want to make friends and find a reason to get involved, –which is harder in a larger church, especially when the church makes it easy for them to slip in and out relatively unnoticed.
The bane of separated buildings
Next to the worship center at the church where we have landed is a very nice fellowship building where the classrooms and coffee are served. The main sanctuary exit takes people right out to the parking lot which sits between the worship and fellowship building. Every Sunday they invite people to “coffee and class” and every Sunday the vast majority of people walk straight out the main door and straight to their cars. When you see everyone else heading to their cars, it’s easy to join that crowd.
Putting the fellowship tables outside the sanctuary under the ample covered entrance would be an easy solution. But that would require carrying coffee and donuts from the new fellowship building 150 ft away which is “a lot of effort.” Funny thing is, they have two golf carts to ferry people to and from their cars. And they wonder why many people don’t get involved or feel like they know many people.
The problem of what we define as “growth”
Why didn’t they move the “fellowship speed bump” under that entryway? We live in Florida where it wouldn’t be a problem. They had built a beautiful separate building and felt like they needed to use it. I also suspect they were confusing numerical growth with visitor and member assimilation.
In other words, they didn’t think “welcome” was that big of an issue. Worship attendance and giving was strong due to the church being in the middle of a growing area. It created the illusion of things going great. Yet, had they re-defined “growth” as “attendance in adult classes” and “people actually getting to know one another” they might realize the huge opportunity they were missing by sequestering food, coffee, fellowship and classes in that separate building.
The problem of poor building layout
For three years I was part of a church which saw an increase in worship attendance, but flat-lined in adult class attendance. Why? Their offerings were good, but their building worked against them in two ways:
(1) They moved to a new building where the classrooms were towards the back of the building. Most people continued to enter and exit by the front door where the “lobby” space was so small it filled up quickly and there was nothing to stop them (no coffee, no donut holes, no room for conversation).
(2) Before moving to the new building, they were in a rented space where the worship space doubled as the adult ed space. Food and coffee was served immediately outside in the lobby. It was a huge speed bump that forced visitors like us to walk past a lot of smiling people inviting us to have something to east. And you could visibly see people walking back into the worship space 20 minutes later which had been converted into 3 classrooms. Literally, teachers and pastors were standing at the door beckoning people back in -and it seemed to work.
Whereas, in their new building, you had to wind your way down narrow halls to find the classroom, and coffee was the opposite direction from the main entrance as well. Logistically and psychologically speaking, the new building hurt assimilation, and it was one of the frequent complaints I heard there. People were feeling like they didn’t know each other.
Unfortunately, that same congregation is now poised to build a new sanctuary next to the old building. The old building will still house the fellowship space. This will make it even easier to get to your car.
Worship will flourish, but as the congregation grows, so will the number of people who don’t feel connected, and eventually and perhaps prophetically, don’t feel fellowship and reaching out to others is all that important.
I wish people didn’t act like this, but they do.
When it comes to visitors and new-er member assimilation, we simply have to be more pro-active. And that means making the most of our opportunities, and minimizing the effect bad architecture has on people getting to know one another.
If I was designing a church building:
I would put adult classroom space on either side of a broad entryway that leads to the sanctuary entrance, and put fellowship tables (coffee/tea/juice/food) in the middle of that space. In other words: speed bumps.
I would make that central entry space visually engaging and comfortable. I would avoid creating hallways. I would put the nursery and toddler rooms by the sanctuary entrance, and an info center right by the main door. I would have large walls on which to display large vibrant photos of past and upcoming events (in other words, not sterile). And I would place clumps of comfortable seating around that space where people could pause. The space would have lots of natural light, and feature “warm up” music in the sanctuary for people to enjoy as they came in (contemporary, of course).
See the following post for more ideas about attracting and retaining members. It includes a description of a growing church that saw increases in adult ed, in part, due to “speed bumps.”