By Eddie Pipkin
I love reading the Houzz website for the latest in home decorating trends and landscaping. Anybody reading this who knows me will find this revelation hysterical, because I know absolutely nothing about home decorating, have zero sense of style, and practice a strict laissez-faire attitude in the yard (weeds are people too). But there is something compelling about the inspirational, optimistic way that Houzz website links home design with hospitality, and I was drawn to a recent article about the value of front porches. It got me thinking about church entryways and what they say about who we are as a congregation.
The article that provoked this line of thought was entitled “10 Essentials for a Welcoming Front Porch,” and it laid out ideas for not only presenting an appealing face for the neighborhood, but also for creating space to comfortably interact with that neighborhood – a place to relax, socialize, and be a visible part of the community. Not all of the suggestions for residential front porches carry over to application in an institutional church setting, but a surprising number of them do.
- Before they even start listing their 10 things, the authors suggest beginning with a good cleaning: “Dust off cobwebs, sweep the floor and assess your furniture and accessories.” This is a great reminder that the first step in welcoming folks is to be sure that your entrance area is clean, clear of debris, and operational – no busted benches or broken sidewalks, half-dead potted plants, tattered signage, or worn-out welcome mats. If you can’t do anything else, at least be sure your entrance areas are clean and safe. Have a regular schedule for inspecting and sprucing these areas. And, with all such items, this will only get done efficiently if it is one person’s specific, assigned responsibility. Otherwise, everyone can assume somebody else is taking care of it, and come Sunday morning, that trip hazard’s still a trip hazard.
- Plants. Somebody in your congregation has a green thumb. They understand the power of flowers and other ornamental plants to create a soothing atmosphere. Plants make any space more beautiful, more vibrant and alive. Find the person with this gift, give them an adequate budget and work with them to develop a plan specific to your entrance context. This applies both to the entrance of your property and the entrance to your building. Nice plants show that people care about the facility.
- Doormats. They are both practical and decorative and even a way to enhance your vision statement. Consider moving beyond the utilitarian function of the classic black industrial mat to something that gives an immediate clue as to who you are. Either a generic message like “welcome” or “love” can clue people in, or you can invest in a custom mat that features your logo or mission statement or a key Bible verse.
- Some place to sit and visit. If you have space, provide an opportunity for people to sit a spell and conversate. There is a natural entrance and exit pattern to worship services and other gatherings that finds people milling about – encourage this natural tendency. It’s a great way to promote connections and build community. Whether benches, picnic tables, chairs and bistro tables, or even high-top tables with no chairs (designed for people to stand at with refreshments, etc.), create a social space and in doing so, communicate to people that you want them to linger. Many newer churches create these spaces in large lobbies adjacent to their main worship areas, and all of these ideas apply to big lobbies as well, but even so, outside entrances are their own unique opportunities (and for older or smaller churches, sometimes the only or best alternative.) These spaces are also separate from “fellowship halls” which are set apart and often not part of the natural flow of ingress and egress. Create social-hanging out spaces where people naturally travel.
- Maybe even a swing or some other fun centerpiece or sidepiece. Do something fun and distinctive that stands out if you can. I have not been to many churches that feature swings as part of their “front porch” areas, but where they have been included, they are immensely popular. Rockers are more prevalent (and also always full!). If you have an interesting landscape at your church entrance, build in a landscape feature that catches the eye, communicates the mission, or gives people a unique sitting opportunity. Surprise people with an ice cream stand or a popcorn wagon or a photo booth.
- Other enhancements that communicate subtle (and not so subtle) hints about your personality as a congregation. If you have a bicycle rack, you show you are friendly to cyclists and in favor of exercise. If you feature a dog-watering station, you show you care about pets! If you build a “little free library,” and fill it with spiritual books, you show that spiritual growth is a value.
- Color coordination. We spend a lot of time decorating our inside spaces. Have your gifted decorators take a look at your entrance space as well, offering their expertise on paint colors, furniture placement, and coordinating design elements. Have an overall plan, not just a smattering of ad-hoc anything goes.
- Atmospheric Enhancement. If you live in a hot climate, see if there is a way to provide shade structure or include fans. If you live in a colder climate, is it feasible to make use of some of those great propane-powered patio heaters? How about an entrance patio with a fire pit?
- Adequate lighting. Be sure there is lots of light for entering and exiting, first and foremost, so that people feel safe in your space. Also, you want to encourage them to socialize at night as well as during daylight hours, so lots of lumens will help. Be sure that light is aimed in the right places, of course, and that it comes on and goes off automatically or that it is very intuitive to figure out how to add light with well-placed and well-marked switches.
- Signs, banners, and art. The entryway is generally a focused funnel through which people on your campus travel regularly. It is an awesome spot to put promotional banners for ministry, grand vision statements to remind people what your values are, and informational reminders so your announcements are reinforced. It is also a great place to feature art, including sculptures, even temporary “sidewalk drawings” to help people think and interact in a totally new way with your weekly message or yearly focus.
All of these ideas will extend your physical community out of the building and into good places for people to catch up with each and make a good friend. Outdoor spaces are different than indoor spaces because they are highly visible. This means that – unlike indoor spots which tend to isolate people and have more of an “in club” feel, like “do I have permission to be in this room?” – outdoor spaces feel public and fluid and accessible to all. Also, people out in the neighborhood can see the vibrant fellowship that’s taking place. They’ll want to be a part of that.