by Eddie Pipkin

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

Flying around to unfamiliar cities in the past couple of weeks made me acutely aware of the amenities and atmosphere of airports.  Here is the revelation I had: Airports assume everyone is a visitor.  All the signage and all the processes are geared towards first-time users.  Obviously, most people are not first-timers at airports in general, but it’s not unusual for them to be first-timers at a particular airport.  The only exclusive “in-club” areas are branded airline VIP lounges and TSA pre-check lines.  For the rest of us, the experience (although famously variable in quality) is intended to be as helpful as possible from top to bottom as we navigate unfamiliar territory with confidence and, as much as possible, comfort.  Local churches could learn a lot from the airport mindset.

Airports environments are interesting to analyze.  Much of the airport experience is familiar from city to city, although each airport has its own idiosyncrasies and distinctive personality.  People who are frequent fliers have favorites, and some metropolitan areas have famous landmarks and quirky reputations, like the Denver demon horse sculpture and LaGuardia’s infamous inaccessibility.  There has been a concerted effort in the past couple of decades, however, to upgrade the flying experience – LaGuardia stands out as an example, having recently completed a multi-billion dollar terminal reimagining that has received raves.  Airports have expanded services, beefed up transportation connections, and encouraged local residents to use their facilities for more than getting on an occasional plane.  Many international locations have invested in huge, modern airport “cities” that have become hubs for civic engagement.

Here are some of the takeaways from airport design culture that churches can emulate:

Good Signage

Excellent signage is essential in the airport setting.  Since the airport rarely is a destination in and of itself (with the exception of those grand civic aeronautically-oriented complexes noted in the above article), people are transiting through them with speed, and the number one priority of those people is getting where they need to go.  This is often the case for folks who are arriving on your local church campus.  They’re not just doing a generalized tour; they’re trying to arrive at a destination or an event, whether it’s attending worship service or dropping the kids off at VBS.  Their priority is efficiently getting to the space where they’re supposed to be!  Unfamiliarity with a local church and its people is already a source of anxiety for many.  That feeling is compounded exponentially by not being able to find your way around.  Then, too, there are the common spaces everyone needs to access from time to time: for instance, bathrooms!  [I don’t know about you, but that is inevitably my highest priority when getting off a plane.  Less so, when attending church, but when it’s a priority, it’s a priority.]

Easily visible, succinct, clear signage is a basic necessity.  Keep it updated.  Keep it obvious.  Supplement it for special events.  Make it redundant.

Good signage (in airports and in churches) is one of those things that is most often noticed in its absence.  When it’s working well, you hardly even register it, but when it’s sub-par, it’s at the forefront of your mind, and it quickly sours your whole experience.

Someone to Help

Even with great signage, confusion is possible.  God bless those strategically placed employees (or volunteers) who are clearly there for the purpose of answering questions.  They communicate such a strong sense of reassurance that everything is going to be all right.  These people are most helpful when they are conspicuously serving in this role by what they are wearing or where they are standing (clearly marked for the purpose, as it were).  Churches have an additional challenge when using volunteers or staff to serve in this role, because the designated person is so familiar with all the regular attendees who are passing through.  Inevitably, they get caught up in conversations which then make them inaccessible to guests who may need their assistance.  Special training is required to help informational guides and greeters attentive to keeping interactions with friends and regular attendees brief and keeping their eyes open for those who are unfamiliar with their surroundings and may require some friendly assistance.

Maximum Information

I loved a moment in Canada (where we were switching planes) when I made use of pictographs to understand the nuanced differences of Canadian security screenings.  The pictures were clear and helpful (no removal of shoes required, eh?)

Local churches can make things easier, more accessible, and even fun with maximum communication.  They can use a variety of methods to let people know what’s expected, what’s not expected, and how to customize their experience to meet their needs.  There are a lot of assumptions in the worship services and programming of most local churches, and not only would more explicit explanation and communication make guests feel more connected, but it would be a great refresher for many long-time attendees, too.

Creative Use of Technology

Digital signage is ubiquitous at this point, as are the use of apps to engage people and help them know whatever they need to know to navigate a space and understand how things work.  If your local church is not utilizing technology in these ways, not only are you behind the cutting edge, you’re behind the ‘new normal’ that everyone expects from their day-to-day life experience.

A few years ago, it was time intensive and often expensive to offer such technology, but increasingly its use is just a few clicks away.  It continues to be an excellent example of a way to put someone else’s gifts and passions to work in service of the local church’s vision.

Architectural Statements

New airport construction features a design aesthetic that is distinctive, impressive, and inviting.  Unless you are planning a new wing or a major remodel at your local church, you are unlikely to be completely reinventing the facility in which you do ministry (and even if you are, it is improbable that you have access to the kind of budgetary resources that a major airport project would have).  But it is worth considering what the entry experience and beyond is like for those who come to be with you.  What does what they see say about who you are and how you feel about guests (and regular family)?  Is your physical campus friendly and inviting?  Accessible and high energy?  Does it seem like a place people would want to hang out and spend time?  It’s amazing what you can do with just some plants and fresh paint.

Comfortable Seating Areas

I’m sure some of you reading this will take issue with the idea of “comfortable” being a phrase used to describe airport seating areas, but there really has been an effort to make passenger waiting zones more accommodating.  Not only are the chairs themselves more welcoming than they once were, but increasingly there are provided work spaces, including mini-desk areas with plug-in options for recharging devices and freely accessible Wi-Fi connections.  (Publicly accessible high-speed Wi-Fi is still a rarity in local church settings.)

Churches should also provide ample comfortable gathering spaces and seating areas inside and outside of their buildings, and we’re not just talking about the presence of metal folding chairs as an option.  We really want to do everything in our power to promote gathering and hanging out in all of our spaces.  This is a big part of how community happens.

Food and Drink Options

While people are hanging out, it is the most natural thing in the world to have options for eating and drinking.  Many local churches put an emphasis on this form of hospitality during regularly scheduled worship sessions – some do this with higher quality and more pizzazz than others – it’s another great area to turn talented people loose to develop their unique vision for how such hospitality can be offered.  Consider the possibility of thinking beyond scheduled events for providing some food and drink.  From Keurig machines to hospitality baskets filled with complimentary goodies, there are ways we can make it possible for people to share a snack or a full meal together – nothing builds togetherness like eating and drinking together.

Public Art

One of the coolest things to happen in airport settings in the past twenty years is the embrace of public art, frequently employed to celebrate local talent and communicate the unique personality and vibe of the community the airport serves.  Sculptures and paintings are commissioned and placed on permanent display to create a sense of significance beyond the logistics of moving people from point A to point B.  They share the story and significance of the place where people have arrived.  Sometimes temporary exhibits are given space which delight not only visitors who are passing through, but also local citizens who make an excursion solely for the purpose of exploring them.

Churches historically provided a home for artists and their expressions of faith, a fact which I was also reminded of on my recent journeys as I toured church after church in small and large towns which displayed amazing examples of Renaissance masterpieces.  Local churches should once again be known in their communities as places of artistic expression, giving the faithful a platform for displaying work that glorifies God and celebrates the people of God.  Why would we ever decorate our offices and gathering spaces with generic prints when our communities are populated with photographers, painters, crafters, potters, sculptors, and woodworkers.  We should be a showplace for their efforts.  Artistic representations (via banners, prints, and media presentations) should be the way we communicate the vision for our ministry and our identity as a faith community.

These are a few of the ways airports have embraced their role as guardians of our transportation hopes and dreams.  The local church has guardianship of the spiritual hopes and dreams of those who pass through its doors, and we should take advantage of every opportunity to engage people’s natural urges to explore new territory and embrace new experiences.  And just like at the airport, everyone is carrying their own baggage, so we also have a special responsibility to help them sort the many things (joyful and sorrowful) they are carrying with them.

If your church was an airport, how would it be rated by the passengers who visit for a short trip or a long (and hopefully deeply fulfilling) layover?  Of the suggested improvements listed above, which ones would you say your team has perfected and which are “flying below the radar”?  Where do you see your best options for easily flying higher?  And which options seem like pie in the sky impossibilities?  Share your ideas and analysis in the comments section.