THE BLOG
01/18/2013 12:10 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2013

Removing Walls and Opening the Church to the World

Impact Church in Atlanta is a multicultural Methodist congregation led by Olu Brown, a dynamic African-American pastor. Although currently meeting in a middle school, the congregation is building a facility that will have a sanctuary with a unique feature: walls that open to allow worship to move into an open-air amphitheater!

Since many people are reluctant to walk through the doors of an unfamiliar church, Impact's indoor/outdoor sanctuary will no doubt make it easier for visitors to experience the worship of the church. Congregations that want to welcome people need to find creative ways to remove their walls and open the church to the world, especially as the percentage of adults with no religious affiliation now stands at one-fifth of the U.S. public.

Congregations need to establish hospitable "threshold places" that link the church with the world around it, including adequate parking, excellent signage and welcome centers at the entrance to the church building. At Saddleback Church in California, trams are available to transport roughly 20,000 worshipers from parking lots to the various buildings on the campus each weekend, and a sign directs first-time visitors to a special shuttle area equipped with coffee and donuts. The landscaping and architecture are reminiscent of a theme park, with waterfalls and large tents, making me understand why some people refer to the church as "Six Flags Over Jesus."

But congregations do not have to be megachurches to practice Christian hospitality through the creation of welcoming sites. Churches of any size can adopt some of the "best practices" employed at Saddleback. Staff member Erik Rees understands the role of physical sites in hospitality, and knows the importance of threshold places that build an accessible bridge between the church and the world around it. At Saddleback, these sites include large parking lots, pathways with good signage, a gathering place called The Refinery, and a Welcome Center on the patio outside the main worship venue -- nice to be in Southern California, where you can plant your Welcome Center on a sun-drenched patio!

Erik tells me that he tries to look at the campus through the eyes of a visitor, making sure that a first-timer feels relaxed and comfortable. He pays attention to landscaping and signage, so that people have a good first impression and don't experience frustration while searching for buildings or events. Across the campus, colorful banners contain important information about the life of the church, as do flat-screen televisions flashing a steady stream of messages.

Erik wants all guests to have a quality experience, whether they use the play areas surrounding the Children's Ministry Center and Nursery Building or go into the building called The Refinery, which contains snack bars and lounge areas, and is surrounded by a skate park, waterfall and volleyball court, as well as numerous patios. In a fast-paced world, says Erik, all of this "gives people permission to slow down." At each of these sites, the barriers to entry by a first-time guest are very low.

Of course, such physical sites will have limited effectiveness unless they are staffed with hospitable volunteers. The people Erik recruits for his guest services team are men and women who project personal warmth and smile easily, because he knows that they are the most important people to visitors, making contact in the crucial first 10 minutes. When he trains his traffic attendants, he teaches them to guide people with an open hand instead of pointing, since pointing can be experienced as a harsh and stabbing gesture. He plants the path to worship with greeters, and sometimes moves them if they become impediments or act in ways that make guests uncomfortable.

These qualities have been at the core of Christian hospitality for centuries; in fact, the preacher John Chrysostom said in a fourth-century sermon on First Timothy, "the hospitality here spoken of is not merely a friendly reception, but one given with zeal and full of life, with readiness, and going about it as if one were receiving Christ himself."

Saddleback's guest services team tries to be proactive in its welcoming of people on the path from parking lot to worship venue, with warm greetings from parking lot attendants, greeters and ushers. But once guests have entered worship, the team becomes reactive -- only answering questions and providing particular information that is requested by the guests. After the service, guests can visit the Welcome Center on the patio outside the main worship venue, ask questions and learn more about the life of the church.

By adopting some of these approaches, churches can knock down the walls -- both physical and psychological -- that tend to keep people out of church. By creating welcoming threshold places and training members to practice good Christian hospitality, congregations can help people to feel comfortable as they move from the outside world to the inside of the church for the very first time.