By Eddie Pipkin
I have some friends who get together to do an annual excursion to haunted-house-themed attractions. If you live in Central Florida, this is a big deal. People travel from across the country to visit Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights, Disney World’s Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, and Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream. Each has a different personality and is directed at different target audiences. Each has its own unique cultural context. My pals and I are Howl-O-Scream aficionados (and not only because it’s the best bang for the buck)—they’ve recently added a sister event at SeaWorld Orlando, and it’s been great to watch the way they have creatively repurposed sights and sounds to fit the character of the added location. The right vibe for the right place and time is a beautiful thing . . . in spooky spectaculars AND in ministry.
The themed event in Tampa has been going on for more than 20 years, and the similar event in Orlando held its inaugural outing just last year, so there was a lot of experience on hand to inform the new iteration. Herein lies the first lesson for ministries looking to start something new.
- Use existing expertise to launch your new thing. If you are contemplating a “new thing” at your local church, it is highly unlikely that it’s a uniquely fresh concept (Ecclesiastes reminds us that “there is nothing new under the sun.”) We love to reinvent the wheel, getting all excited about how we have thought up something that’s never been thought up before, but somebody out there has most likely done a version of what we are imagining, so it makes sense to start with gathering all the expertise and insight we can as we do our planning. This is a great way to leverage the wise and experienced among us, the people who, although they have slowed their pace and handed over the reigns to the younger ministry enthusiasts, will be delighted to be consulted over a cup of coffee. Many times, if we are clever enough and humble enough to reach out to other local ministries, we can even borrow physical props and infrastructure to facilitate our event. It’s a beautiful thing when set pieces are shared for VBS or when games and decorations are borrowed for fall festivals and the like. Why create everything from scratch when there are good folks who would gladly lend you what they have already worked so hard to produce?
The practitioners of scary Hallow-O-Scream events had a keen eye for repurposing props and set dressings. What stood out was the way that some of the existing décor from the older event lent itself to a fresh repurposing at the newer event. A pirate-themed haunted house had been featured for several years at the Tampa location (which makes sense because Tampa, itself, has a robust history of pirate-themed happenings), but even better was the way that they used lots of the old theming to create a pirate zone at SeaWorld, which worked wonderfully, the whole park having an overall nautical vibe. And that’s really the theme for this blog: putting the right touches on the right space and hosting the right event in a way that resonates with the right people. That’s what a successful vibe orientation is all about. Thus, lesson two:
- Do the thing that works for your context. Every institution has a context: geographic, demographic, and personality wise. When we are making decisions on programming options, event hosting, and ministry direction, we should do so with a firm appreciation of what works with our people, our space, our history and personality, our economic reality, and our community needs. When we are confident (and honest) about our perception of these elements, we greatly enhance our chances for success. When we ignore the reality of those elements as they apply to our situation, we are setting ourselves up for failure.
We can consciously and conspicuously ignore lesson two, but we had better do so with a provocative intent in mind:
- Intentional counterprogramming is realistically understanding our context but then willfully seeking to change it. If you have a church demographic that features lots of families with children, an embrace of lesson two would be leaning into family and child-oriented events. That’s basic ministry. Counterprogramming, however, would mean that, having honestly assessed that you don’t have a lot of families with children as part of your local church, but desperately desiring to change that reality, you intentionally seek to create an event that appeals to that demographic.
However you work the process to decide what kind of programming you are going to promote or event you are going to host, be sure and leverage your resources to maximum effect. Know the talent you have on hand and set those folks up to do the things for which they are best gifted (and conversely, don’t try to have them doing a lot of things for which they are not gifted). If you have singers on hand, let them sing! Bakers, let them bake! Artists, give them an opportunity to share their art! This idea of leveraging your resources is equally important in thinking about your physical spaces and what you have to offer. I am always fascinated to see the way that the theme parks use space. They move people effectively though decorated and dramatically lighted zones—an effect that is enhanced by the ways they use those set pieces, special lighting, and stylized effects, including fog machines, to transform walkways that a few hours earlier provided a completely different experience during the daylight hours. Also, they’ve done a great job with taking some old, abandoned spaces for retired attractions and turning them into impressive haunted houses. That’s a winning repurposing of space—it would be great if churches got so inventive.
That’s a third lesson:
- Use every available space, each space to its best possible effect and purpose. Is there anything sadder on any church campus than space that is not being used? Empty rooms make for mournful ministry. If we have space (inside or outside), somebody should be using it. If there is not a group that is directly a part of your local church who could do something lively with that space by making it their own in creative ways, there is unquestionably some group in your community that would be desperate to have access to it. This is one of the most profound opportunities for direct community connection that any church ever has—”welcome to our campus: use our resources to facilitate the good work that you are doing in the neighborhood.”
Don’t try to cram a large-scale event into an intimate space. If you have an intimate space, use it for an intimate event. Likewise, a person-to-person event in a very large room doesn’t feel intimate: it feels like nobody showed up! Match the room with the vibe (and the vibe with the room).
Just to explore this “vibe” concept more fully, consider its definition and some of the synonyms of that word used in that way (borrowed from the complete list offered at the awesome WordHippo website).
Vibe (n): An atmosphere or aura felt to belong to a person, place or thing.
Atmosphere (the pervading mood of a place)
Energy (the aura felt to belong to a place or thing—what is the source of its life force?)
Feel (the mood in a given environment)
Mood (the pervading tone of a place)
Ambiance (a distinct impression or quality associated with something)
Spirit (the prevailing attitude of a group)
Character (a quality that appeals in someone or something)
Tenor (a distinct impression associated with something)
Attitude (the customs and conventions of a society or a community)
It is a worthwhile exercise to imagine ourselves as people who are entering our spaces for the first time and what impression they might come away with as to the vibe they experience (or atmosphere, mood, attitude, etc.). What is the current experience for those encountering us in our spaces? What would we like that experience to be for future programming, activities, or events? For the aspects of which we are proud, we should take every opportunity to reinforce those. For the aspects that distract or work against our vision for who we dream of being, we should discard those if we can.
Do you feel like you have a clear understanding of the vibe of your ministry space? Keep in mind this can be different for different sub-spaces, and it can even be different for different events hosted in the same space. Would the people who are entering those spaces benefit from your ministries describe the vibe in the same way you would? How do you know? One of the great beginnings to vibe management is doing some research to find out the answers to those questions. A wonderful answer to the vibe query is always, “I really feel like the people in this place care about what I think—they see me and know me for who I am, and that matters to them.”