The facility issue may be more important than we expected. In my years of church planting, here are some of the places we’ve met for church:
A Day Care Center
A Junior Achievement Building
The YMCA (It’s fun to meet at the…)
A School Performing Arts Theater
A Community Center
Several Movie Theaters
The Town Hall
Rented Church Buildings
A High School and a Middle School
Outside (Under a canopy)
I’ve been surprised at how important facilities are in our culture. People associate stability, permanence, credibility and even a sense of peace (or a lack thereof) with a church’s facility.
SEVEN QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT A FACILITY:
1. Is it appropriate?
Is it appropriate emotionally?
When we arrived in Elk Grove to start a new church we were approached with an offer to use a beautiful, comfortable , brand new 300-seat auditorium - for free! We turned it down, because the offer was from a local funeral home. The building wouldn’t work emotionally for us.
Schools can be a nice meeting place, but don’t expect an elementary school to attract middle-school or high-school students--most will see it as an emotional step backward.
Is it appropriate geographically?
This was a huge issue with our church plant in the San Francisco Bay Area. The town we were planting in, Benicia, was situated with a great view of the Bay. But the water also served as a giant natural barrier - the majority of folks would simply not cross a bridge any more often than they had to. Geography was huge.
Is it appropriate visually?
A friend of mine once admitted, “You can always tell a church is with the denomination I grew up in - look for the largest eyesore of a building in town - that will be ours.”
People like to go into attractive buildings. I heard a radio announcer recently talking about the difference in attendance between the San Francisco Giants (strong) and the Oakland A’s (weak). He said it was as simple as the ballparks: “Switch the stadiums and you’ll switch the attendance. The Giant’s Park is a work of art, the A’s stadium is a pit.”
Perhaps a little paint, a little Round-Up and a little elbow grease can make a big difference here, but looks do matter when it comes to buildings.
2. Is it visible?
When someone giving me directions uses that dreaded phrase, “You can’t miss it.” I immediately respond. “Yes, I can!” Believe me, I can miss it. I can drive around it three times and not see it. If you’ve been in the car with me, you’ve missed it too. I can print out the MapQuest directions, have a Garman in one hand and my cellphone Google Map lady talking from the other hand and I can still miss it. It’s a gift!
When we were meeting at a hotel, a friend stopped in town on a Saturday night and decided to try to find our church. He said he couldn’t find it - he looked all over. I asked him where he stayed that night - he stayed at the same hotel where we met! He walked right past the ballrooms, the suites, and the boardrooms where our church was meeting.
If the place where your church is meeting is not on a main drag, then move it to a main drag!
If that isn’t possible, advertising can help. Here’s a follow-up question: Can our lack of visibility be overcome with marketing?
3. Is it accessible?
A friend of mine had started a church that met at (or is it “on”?) the Queen Mary in Long Beach, CA. Yes it is a visible structure! I tried attending there once. I couldn’t do it. I pulled up, got the parking ticket, saw the vast parking lot, looked at the time and…drove away. It was way too intimidating for me - and I’m a pastor, planter, church leader. Getting to church was like battling through an obstacle course.
All sorts of obstacles hinder people--going against natural traffic patterns (like going the opposite direction across a bridge), stretching typical trip times (this obviously varies for different areas) and poor signage.
The best meeting places are easy to find and have a clear sense of openness - the building is an invitation to come in.
4. Is it comfortable?
Comfort-ability was not an issue in church facilities before the Reformation, but longer sermons and services brought the need for pews (what’s with that name?) and kneelers. They were actually attempts at helping people on their spiritual journey. Comfort is even more important in our culture today.
But not just physical comfort. Emotional comfort is incredibly significant--the feel of the room can be a major factor.
I’ve been to the Staples Center twice:
Once for a Los Angeles Clippers basketball game. It was mostly empty, had a dungeon feel, and I didn’t make eye-contact with any of the ushers because I thought they might ask me to help clean up.
My other visit was for an NBA Finals game between the Lakers and the Celtics.
It was wall-to-wall people, and when the Celtics won it seemed that half of New England showed up to rub it in. Both experiences were quite extreme and very uncomfortable.
Crowd experts suggest we shoot for an in-between feel: comfortably empty, or even better: comfortably full.
80% capacity is uncomfortable and will hinder growth. I’m not sure of the percentages on uncomfortably empty, but you will know too empty when you feel it, so dress down the room, bring in curtains and PVC pipe, have ushers add chairs as the room fills up. Make it feel comfortable.
5. Is it affordable?
Can we afford this facility?
When it comes to church facilities I always look for one thing: a miracle. In our first plant the YMCA had never allowed a church to meet there (doesn’t the “C” stand for “Christian”?) When they relented, it was a miracle. Then a rich lady bought us a building. In our second plant I was looking for a miracle. One of our launch team members said that if we met in a school he would pay for the entire first year - a miracle! Our third church plant is now buying a building and our contract has a confidentially clause. The bank we’re purchasing from does not want us to tell anyone the great deal we got on it. That’s what I’m looking for - a miracle.
6. How is the parking?
Is it insufficient? Then maybe it won’t work. We have limited parking on our new property but have worked our reciprocal parking agreements with the shopping center next door and the library up the street.
Is it adequate? Adequate means “not enough!”
Is it ample? That’s what to shoot for.
Is there surplus parking for big days?
Is there too much parking?
We once met at a high school that had over a ton of parking spaces in front of our church entrance--the school built surplus parking for the football stadium. It was a downer. People would have to drive by hundreds and hundreds of empty spaces to come to church--the parking lot was uncomfortably empty--even though our meeting room was full. That parking factor was big in our decision to move.
7. Is it available?
Maybe your ideal meeting facility isn’t available right now. Keep asking! It took many asks, a steak dinner and lots of prayer to get the YMCA to allow us to meet there. It took a large donation to the Math department to get the Vice Principle (also a Math teacher) to let us meet at a local high school. It took repeated work to get the theaters to open up. And it took four giving campaigns to get into a position to buy a building.
And keep up the relationship! The number one reason I’ve seen for good facilities not open for churches: a bad experience with a church meeting there in the past. If we are renting, let’s work hard to keep landlords happy.