If Walls Could Talk

By Carol Howard Merritt

Originally appeared in the March/April 2008 issue of NetResults Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

Slowing down for a stoplight on a main street in Bethesda, Maryland, I immediately see the new signs for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church where David Wacaster serves as the Assistant Rector. While driving into the parking lot, I hear the loud buzzing of renovation. The smell of sawdust lingers in the brisk air as I greet my friend.

I am visiting David because of my interest in what our church buildings say to our communities and particularly to adults under the age of forty. Our congregations teach and preach explicit messages when we gather for worship and Christian education, but we also communicate implicitly with our physical spaces. In other words, our walls talk.

Since becoming a pastor, I have visited many churches. I love small parish sanctuaries. They each have their own character and style. Sometimes they reflect the warm hospitality of the congregation, with their wide front doors and rows of rosy glass. The buildings often take on the personality of the membership. In one church, I could see the impressions in the pews where the most faithful members wore down the wood in a comfortable indentation. Other times, the space seems much more formal for the people who are gathered, or not quite ornate enough. Then there are the times when the church building sighs in longing for decades gone by, or it seems surprised by my visit, as if I’ve intruded on someone who does not expect anyone from outside the family to enter.

We communicate with our hanging art, faded silk flowers, fresh paint, and stacked storage boxes. Our Sunday school rooms can exude the anxiety and fear of dying, which our obsessive hoarding conveys. Our hallways can be crowded with items that desperately cling to the past.

And so, one of the most important, and often the most painful, things that we can do as we seek to revitalize our small churches is to carefully prepare our spaces for a new generation. One starting point for church vitality is to begin to ask what our walls say and what we want them to say.

Revitalization in a small congregation is about the Holy Spirit moving in new ways among us; oddly enough, the Spirit’s movement often goes hand-in-hand with throwing out the dry markers in the Sunday school closet and planting fresh flowers around the sign. Vitality grows as we carefully prepare our spaces for worship and for the arrival of “outsiders.”

As small churches think about welcoming young adults, we can keep in mind that a full 18 percent of college students have never stepped into a church before in their lives. Out of adults from the age of twenty-one through forty-five, 45 percent report that they have attended a religious service only once or less in the last year. When it comes to churches, adults under the age of forty are largely “outsiders.” Yet, when they do attend, they are drawn to small to medium, traditional congregations.

So when a person decides to make that first giant step to clear the threshold that leads into our sanctuary, we need to prepare a place for them.

Leading a New Generation to What They’re Looking For

Looking among the drywall dust and upended furniture, David points out each detail of the small church’s renovation. It’s extensive and thoughtful. What began as a repair in a leaky sanctuary roof, became much more than that. The minor restoration evolved into a meaningful act of hospitality.

“When we began the capital campaign, we became intentional about also making it a spiritual renovation,” David explained. The congregation imagined what it would take to welcome a new generation. St. Luke’s Episcopal didn’t want to be known as a place that would be caught off-guard for visitors, so when they began to evaluate their space, they started at the front door.

The entry was strangely hidden, like the inside of a bent elbow. While the church is placed beautifully on the corner of an intersection where many neighbors have to stop, no one resting in traffic could see the entrance. And since the parking lot spreads out at the rear of the church, the main access couldn’t be detected from the lot either. The concealed doors whispered a clear message to the community: for someone to enter the church, the person had to be an “insider.”

So the congregation pushed the front doors out of the hidden corner so that everyone could see exactly where the threshold was. Instead of expecting the people in their community to negotiate a maze of hallways or sidewalks in order to find sanctuary, the church decided to make sure the doors were front and center, which also provided additional space to greet visitors. They included a ramp and an elevator in the plans in order to make the church as accessible as possible—common needs in older buildings with many steps.

But the congregation did not stop there. As we walked through the church building, David pointed out a number of changes that enhance the intergenerational connection:

  • They removed a wall of fifteen- foot bushes that lined the property. The shrubbery made the congregation a veritable fortress against anyone seeing what was happening there. As they opened up the space, they added new signs to attract the flow of traffic.
  • They exchanged the white carpeting with hard wood floors. Any mother can tell you that there are two things that don’t go together: children and white carpeting. When white carpeting adorns a church (no matter how beautiful it looks), there’s an implicit message that the church doesn’t expect traffic, especially from little feet.
  • They replaced the windows. The previous windows were small, with framed grids. They were difficult to see through and to open. The new windows are large, which encourages guests to feel more comfortable when entering. In addition, since they are double-paned glass, they will be more efficient at insulating. The church can rely more on natural lighting, and since they are easy to open, they will allow for fresh air during Maryland’s many temperate days. The windows say something significant about how the church cares for the environment.
  • They added a baptismal font in the center of the sanctuary. As St. Luke’s redesigned the roof and the ceiling, they reconfigured the pews so that the font could stand in the midst of the worshiping community. They also added an octagon copula that will provide a flood of natural light onto the baptismal font on the inside, and will make the building more recognizable as a church from the outside.

As a pastor in his thirties, David saw the installation of the new doors as a significant moment. He thought of an anthem of our generation, U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” And he saw the doors as an important step in welcoming people who are searching.

“We are the ones gathered together on the other side of the door. We are the ones on the inside.” David preached one Sunday morning, “There are so many who haven’t found what they are looking for. Outside this place, there are so many who are still searching for meaning. Outside this place, there are so many longing to find the answers to life’s questions. Outside this place, there are so many who are seeking something that will resonate with their souls. For many who still haven’t found what they are looking for, what they’re looking for is right here, and now it falls to us to help them find it.”

As I walk along the hallways, I’m impressed by what the congregation is doing. Yet, I also know that for most  small churches, we don’t need to invest in a major construction program. We just need a couple of brushes, a bucket of paint, and a box of extra-large trash bags.

What Are Young Adults Looking For?

Young adults are looking for connection with God, a community, and the world. Our congregations provide the perfect space for those bonds to flourish, but the first step to nurturing these deeper relationships is to make sure that they feel welcome when they enter our buildings.

If your church leadership is interested in what your walls are saying to the next generation, walk through the church with an adult under forty and encourage him or her to honestly assess the space—better still, invite an under forty “outsider” to do so!

On my blog, Tribal Church, I asked what people look for when they enter a church. I wondered, “What signals to you that the church is living in the past instead of in the present? What can churches do to their spaces to prepare for a new generation?” Here are some of the things that were important:

  • Display symbols of the sacraments in you sanctuary. While it was a trend for Baby Boomers to take all of the religious symbolism out of the church, a new generation is responding quite differently. In particular, a baptismal font, with fresh water, is important to young adults.
  • Update bulletin boards and photographs. They need to be refreshed every three months with current pictures of people and ministry. Though black-and-white historical photos are important and should have a significant place, the most prominent wall space should be taken up with fresh pictures. Avoid pictures of buildings or twenty-year-old photos.
  • Use new hymnals and Bibles. When the songbooks become frayed along the corners and the Bibles speak with antiquated  language, then it is time to invest in some new books. It is difficult to give them up, especially when the choruses are well loved and the Scriptures are so important, but it is necessary when thinking about welcoming a new generation.
  • Keep uncluttered rooms and clean furniture. If the children’s Sunday school room looks more like a storage closet, a layer of fine dirt covers the sanctuary window ledges, and dust bunnies hide in the corners, then it is time for some significant cleaning. Often, we do not even see the random boxes peeking out from under the pews any more. We become so used to the untidiness that it no longer registers in our minds. But for someone entering from the outside, it is the very first thing they see.
  • Provide a nurturing, safe environment for children. As a young parent, there are many things that I look for when I walk into a church building. Upon entering a nursery, it is important that the toys are fairly new and large enough so that they cannot be swallowed. In the rest of the church, I’m aware of old cracked paint that could be a lead hazard (even if the paint’s lead free, the fear looms in my mind). In addition, asbestos tiles should be safely sealed or covered with another flooring. Often the tiles can signal that more dangerous asbestos is lurking in the vents.
  • Refresh the artwork. Our images of Jesus, though they are precious for one generation, may feel terribly outdated to an outsider. If you’re looking for a resource for current religious art, you can thumb through the beautiful Imaging the Word books to find an artist who appeals to your congregation. I also love to see the vivid and diverse artwork that members buy on mission trips.

Preparing our spaces for a new generation does not mean that we need to make all of our décor trendy and hip, but it does mean that we realize our walls can talk. And when a young adult steps over our threshold for the very first time, we can ensure our walls communicate a warm and vital welcome to the outsider.

Carol Howard Merritt

Carol Howard Merritt is a pastor of Western Presbyterian Church, an intergenerational congregation in Washington, D.C.  and the author of Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation (Alban, 2010) and  Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation (Alban, 2007). Carol is the co-host of God Complex Radio with Landon Whitsitt. She also blogs for the Huffington Post and on her own Web site, Tribal Church.