The building is not the church. The church is the people who meet in a particular place as. Theologically, we know that “the church” is really an identified community of faith who meet in a particular location. But by common understanding, that meeting house is a building that represents the church. In a sense, the church building is an integral part of the congregation. It is the first thing the visitor sees, and the visitor will usually have a number of first impressions before they see very many people in the congregation.

In many parts of the world, the religious facilities are clearly identifiable. In central Europe, a quick look across the valley will show two spires rising above the single-story cottages, one with a cross and the other with a rooster, meaning the Catholic and the Protestant churches. In the southern Europe, the recognizable symbol is a tower next to a 3-story building, the bell tower of the parish church. (The most notable are the one that leans in Pisa and the one in San Marco’s Square in Venice, Italy.)

In the USA, churches built before 1970 are usually peaked-roof auditoriums with blocky classroom buildings, many looking like the illustration on the cover. Some are minimalist white buildings with wooden benches. Others have stained glass & some have padded pews. Most have a steeple with a cross on top.

The larger modern church buildings resemble concert halls or convention centers. Some meet in store fronts, in homes – even in emptied garages. In one undisclosed location in the Middle East, we worshipped in a racquetball court. (The host nation guards wondered what kind of “meeting” those Americans were having on the weekend.)

Some congregation will rent the space in schools, hotel meeting rooms or apartment complex club houses. One church is best known for its moving truck that holds the chairs and staging equipment for moving in and out every week. Other another rents the sports arena once a month for all of the home groups to convene in corporate worship.

For convenience, churches in Western cultures tend to own buildings. And those facilities have costs associated with them. Heating and cooling bills, lights, plumbing and repairs. Some are built with available materials and some with large mortgages. And every one needs to be maintained. The quantity and quality of maintenance is what makes the first impression, and often will determine if the visitor comes back, or even stops in the first time.

Start with the parking lot and the landscaping. The parking lot must be in good shape, without holes or excessive cracks. Just as in real estate, curb appeal (outside appearance) matters. There should be appropriate foundation plantings and the grass should be trimmed. People will often overlook the grounds if they are well-kept, and would only notice if they are not. Fortunately, you don’t need to spend a lot of money improving the plantings. Flowers make a world of difference. After a local charity event, I was able to obtain a dozen potted mums that had been used as centerpieces, and used them to spruce up the front flower bed of a small church. An hour of labor turned an eyesore into a beauty spot.

Does the building need painting? I was leading a long-range planning committee one Sunday afternoon when a local contractor stopped by to see if we wanted him to paint our “shed” – the educational building we were meeting in! Peeling paint and hanging gutters are not only unhealthy for the structural integrity of the building, they are fairly easy to repair, especially if you are able to find a mission work team to do the work for you.

Remember that the entrance begins in the parking lot and continues up the sidewalk. The first time I went to a leading church in the community, there was no place to park. There was a parking crew, but they waited until I went all the way through the full parking lot to tell me that the rain had washed out the road to the overflow lot, and to get there I would need to do a u-turn, go back to the street, turn right and then around the corner, and finally enter at the other entrance three blocks away. I’m sure it was probably a good worship service, but I kept driving and found another church to attend that morning.

I encourage you to follow the model of a former pastor – and park away from the building during services and give the best spots to visitors. It’s OK for the pastor to park next to the building on Monday morning, but on Sunday all key staff and lay leaders that can should park in the back side of the parking lot and leave all the close spots for the family that finally got dad to agree to go to church that morning.

Wednesday evenings are problematic. Wherever I’m out of town midweek, I try to find a church holding services. In one city, I called ahead to find out when the activities were being held, and was told not only the time but also how to navigate the short-cut through the housing addition. But when I got there, thirteen of the fifteen “guest” slots were filled, but it looked like I was the only visitor there – I couldn’t find anyone to talk to, so they must not expect visitors on Wednesday.

My current church used to have welcome signs that instruct the first-timers to turn on their parking flashers, and the crew helps those especially find a close spot. But the signs are permanent, and one visitor came on Wednesday evening to pick up her daughter at an event. I saw her drive slowly all the way through the parking lot, lights flashing, and then turn around, quite obviously confused. She complied with the instruction, but there was no one there to receive her until I flagged her down and helped her find the right door to go in.

Consider your church entrance. Which entrance is closest to the parking lot? What about to the overflow lot? One church in my past put the front door near the street, but all of the parking was in the back. Someone coming in late walked in at the front of the sanctuary, right beside the pulpit. Or they could walk down the driveway to get to the real front door, while the whole congregation watched out the side windows. When we built an addition, we moved the front of the new auditorium away from the lot, so that the entrances from every parking lot fed you easily to the children’s area and the back of the auditorium. Much better.

Another church wasn’t so intentional in its parking. When the lot was repaired and sealed, they painted the mandatory 10 handicapped slots, out back, on the farthest corner, a full city block from the auditorium. Its visitor slots are in the other parking lot that’s not close to the auditorium.

A third church has the 3 visitor parking spaces and one handicapped space up front. Every other slot takes you through a low spot that puddles every time it rains, to a door that’s locked half the time, and down a dark hallway when it’s open.


The entry itself is another important space, where you and I can both keep one foot in the old reality while we decide if we want to interact with one another. It is a social space, where we say our pleasantries before launching into the meat of what’s on our mind. Or (like the foyer or narthex) it is a spiritual space, where we transform our attitude from our worldly personality to one we associate with worship.

In Why We Buy, Paco Underhill relates that the first few feet of a retail store are a transition zone, and anything put there is more likely to be ignored if it doesn’t contribute to helping us find what we came in looking for.[i] I tried this in a small church, whose most used entrance was cluttered with metal folding chairs and 5-year-old literature on an outdated metal rack; the chairs were on the right hand side as you came in, sticking into the traffic pattern. The literature was on the opposite side of the hallway, in a corner behind the seldom-opened half of the double door.

I took away the metal chairs and brought in a loveseat, an end-table and a table lamp, and put them on the left side (as you came in). The 4” wide metal literature rack was restocked with current periodicals and notices and moved to the wall beside the door everyone used.

I noticed an immediate change. People began to linger there. At the beginning of the morning, someone was usually sitting on the couch. And again at the end of the service, the elderly lady waiting for her ride could relax beside the door. And the literature started to be used. Open spaces appeared as people took home literature on their way out the door.

The other thing a shopping mall (or a well-designed foyer) gives is a space for informal social interaction with new people. Our task is to be ever fresh, to keep our edges and transition points permeable, to let new people into our friendship networks. As they feel accepted, they will be able to then introduce us to their network outside the church, giving us the opportunity to not only expand our influence, but also to honor the wholeness of the new person and find places for them to “enter into” our fellowship.

In his second book, The Call of the Mall, Underhill says that the reason malls became popular just as the suburbs were booming was that we no longer had a place to walk in close proximity to one another. These new additions often did not have sidewalks or “sitting porches.” Malls provided a venue for social interaction. Underhill equated the modern shopping mall to the old-style town center, a place to see and interact with friends and other members of the community [ii] The modern church has a mall space – an over-wide central hallway, often with chairs arranged as conversation spaces. The intent is to create spaces for social interaction, or a place for a quick pastoral conversation out of the flow of congregants.

The Nursery

The lifeblood of a healthy church is its children. And the first stop for many families is the nursery. But when the nursery is dim and dirty, when there are no parental controls on who gets in, who’s going to leave their kids? When the kids scream and cry, the parents will worry about leaving them.

For security, you will need at least 2 unrelated adults in each room, and a way to check system that will help match the child to the parent at the end of the service. Paired badges, arm bands or sticky name tags all work well.

Look closely at the child care facilities. Are the floors padded or tiled concrete? Is there a bathroom attached to the preschool room, so the one teacher won’t have to leave the other alone help one of the children. Are there physical barriers at open doors and windows? Are there security choke points in the building? Are there places for kids to hide from view? Are there handwashing and first aid instructions posted on the wall? Is there an emergency telephone in the room?

Young families are active in their children’s lives, and if the children enjoy church, the parents will keep coming. Showing visitors you are prepared to take care of their children safely and give them the care a diligent parent would expect will help hesitant first-timers feel comfortable to worship unhindered, focused on the Gospel, rather than squirming preschoolers. When the kids don’t want to leave at the end of the morning, the parents are excited about bringing them back.

The Restrooms

Restrooms are also important: I went once to help a congregation prepare for a community tent revival. I saw a lady in her 60s on her hands and knees scrubbing out the rented portable toilet to make sure it was clean for those who came to the meeting, that they could easily do their business and quickly move back to their seats. She didn’t want the condition of the toilet to interfere with the presentation of the Gospel.

In some older buildings, the restrooms are small, windowless rooms. (I cleaned out a church storage closet once and found an abandoned toilet there.) Instead, there needs to be enough room for a parent to take a child in and then wash up before they leave. Airports and malls have “family restrooms” – can you find a place for one in you building?

In some older churches, the restroom was added after the building was built. In these, it’s a room with a standard-sized window at the far end. The remodeling committee painted the window or put that funky translucent contact paper on it so light gets through but you can’t look in. And they secured it to open not more than a few inches, if at all.

Other Key Factors

Chapter 3 asked you to evaluate your facilities, using Appendix 2 as a sample guide. Older congregations with older buildings tend to have let modernization slip, especially if you’re focused on paying the bills month to month. Some see new carpet as a waste God’s money. Often, it takes an outsider to notice, or someone who takes time to look with fresh eyes.

Many small churches have lighting left over from the 60s.  Churches today need to be able to brighten up. You probably need it already: as we age, our eyes lose the ability to quickly adjust to lighting changes, or to see as well in dimly lit rooms. An older or aging congregation may need more light just to fully participate in the service you have, to read the words in their large-print Bibles.

If your light fixtures are older, and can’t handle the wattage of brighter bulbs, consider moving to compact fluorescent bulbs. One congregation was trying to save money by using two 60-watt bulbs instead of the recommended three 150-watts, decreasing the lumen output tremendously. I wanted them to put in 200-watt equivalent CFs, but even the cheaper (standard) 100-watt equivalent bulbs only consumed 105 watts total and brightened the place up quite a bit. The auditorium went from dull and dreary to cheery.

Multi-purpose lighting is also desirable. The ability to dim down sanctuary lights to present a video presentation helps, as well as special lighting for drama, either as a full-length presentation or a vignette during the service. Christmas Eve may be candle-lit, but Easter Sunday needs as much light as you can find!

Lighting is needed in other areas of the building. Restrooms are notoriously dim. Dim bathrooms can be scary for some people, especially ladies not familiar with the facilities. You need bright lights in the area of the sink, without skimping in the toilet area (some people use the time to read, even in church!)

Entrances and anywhere with steps also need plenty of lighting, as well as any kitchen areas. One building had dim hallways until we replaced the two 60-watt bulbs with three 100 watters. It made a dramatic improvement for not much money.

Outside lighting should also be evaluated, not just for security, but also to support recreation as dusk approaches. Look especially at the parking lot, both to not stumble and to help members and visitors feel safe. Also look at how lighting the front of the building or the steeple could add a dramatic look from the street.

Another likely area to notice is tidiness. Some people are fastidious, but many churches will hesitate to throw out old Bible study materials, VBS props or drama costumes, even after they have outlived their usefulness. It’s fine to keep them, if there’s a place. One church I know has a large electrical closet that doubles as a costume shop, where dozens of Easter play costumes are maintained and stored on hangers or in plastic tubs from production to production. But for every church that has an organized costume shop, there are probably dozens of buildings with tattered baby angel costumes stuck in a storage shed, waiting for when they have a children’s choir again “someday.”

I’m one of those who hates to throw stuff out. You should see how many books and magazines and clippings I have gathered in writing this book! But someday, I should go through and throw out half of it. Same with the church. For one church, it only took a summer missions team and a temporary dumpster one week to clear out a dozen years’ worth of outdated materials. (They also threw out the current quarter’s Sunday School books, so watch out!)

Just as paint on the outside improves curb appeal, some walls on the inside need updating as well. That same missions team painted the hallway walls and scrubbed the floors, and made a dramatic difference in appearance. It helped lighten and brighten the appearance, and because they used donated paint, it didn’t cost us anything.

Heating, ventilation and air condition is another hidden area that’s only noticed when it’s not right. Ventilation is always important. Most building codes require exhaust fans, even in restrooms with windows. I’d recommend adding both ventilation and air fresheners. Not so much that it pulls out all the heat, but enough to keep unwanted smells out of the way. (Place a tissue next to the vent inlet – if it can’t hold the tissue in place, it’s not strong enough. If it can hold a paper towel, it might be too strong.)

Many building codes require mechanical exhaust ventilation in large public spaces. I was in a building dedication once, and wish we had been told if the ventilation system had been tested, because a room built for 200 had 220 in it, on an August Sunday afternoon, and the room temperature was approaching the point where staying awake was becoming a chore. I almost did an impromptu test of the system to exhaust that hot air faster than the barely-sized air conditioner could keep up with, but then the pastor decided to cut the service a little short instead, and we didn’t have to risk mechanical failure with the mayor and building inspector in the facility.

Most of us say we want our homes set to 72 degrees, but we’d rather sleep at 68, and can actually handle a couple degrees lower. Churches, as gathering places for a large number of heat-generating congregants, need to be able to cool down almost below what is comfortable, even to the low 60s, so that the room remains below 72 when it’s time for the altar call. This especially true if the facility is using theatrical lighting and video projectors, which generate a tremendous amount of heat. Likewise, heating is important in all but the most temperate climates. The rooms need to be comfortable enough to turn the pages of the study Bible without fearing to take off our mittens and parkas. You may want special zones or supplemental systems for areas with small children or restrooms. (Make sure restrooms are warm in winter and comfortable in summer, even when the person has their pants off sitting on a cold porcelain toilet.

Look also to the size of rooms used for the various kinds of meetings. It’s a common understanding that “a room is full when 80% of the seats are taken.” The thought is that first-time visitors don’t want to be crowded Common wisdom says that when you create space, people will come. In one Sunday School class, we lined the edge of the wall, all the way around, leaving room only to open the door. We were stuck at 23, because there was never a seat for anyone else. The leadership found improvised space and – after combining with another class stuck at 12 – divided us into 4 new classes. Within a couple of weeks, each class was averaging 8-12, almost 50 where we had never had space for more than 35.

But too big is also a problem. Many churches with dwindling membership will continue to meet in large auditoriums. I’ve been in a church where 30 people were scattered around an auditorium designed for 300: 3 up front, 2 here, 5 there, a couple on the back row. In this respect, the Catholic church has an advantage. A friend tells the story of his old priest, looking out over a small congregation, announcing, “Not many people here, follow me over to the chapel!” and they would all go to the side chapel. It was at times a little small, but it was a more intimate setting in which to worship. In one fledgling congregation, I would sometimes worship from the sanctuary to a classroom to avoid having the sermon echo to the six that showed up


There is nothing inherently spiritual about clean toilets, carpeted hallways, bright lights or padded chairs. These are infrastructure to the organization, whether you have enough chairs in the classroom, or parking spaces, or beds in the nursery. They are the background items that can help or hinder a visitor (seeker, new believer, future active worker), in their decision to join your congregation.

[i] Underhill, Paco, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (NY: Touchstone Books, 1999) p??

[ii] Underhill, Paco, The Call of the Mall (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004) Page 127

copyright 2008 Harwin House Publishing, Hampton, VA