Inside Out

How does your church present its face to the outside world? When passersby see your church building, for instance, what do they glean about the community that worships inside? Would anyone who is religiously unaffiliated, seeing your church, think “That’s a place where a lot is happening!” or “I need to find out more about this!”? How we appear in public can be inviting, or forbidding, or simply non-descript. What does your church “say” by how it appears on the outside?

Luther Place, a Lutheran parish in Washington DC, offers an interesting example of an urban faith community that has put some work into making a visible statement in its neighborhood. Situated on a busy street, the church had many passersby, but did not always get much notice. At least not until they started using their outdoor space in new and interesting ways. Their community—the people inside the church—has a commitment to justice. They do a lot of outreach and community service. And they are home to a number of artists. Yet people walked by thinking nothing much was happening there and even that the church was closed.

The people at Luther Place were willing to try a few “risky” things in order to change the public perception of their church. They adorned a large statue of Martin Luther with dorothy day doorrainbow colors on gay pride weekend. They painted three unused doors with folk art, making them into “saint doors” depicting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and St. Francis of Assisi. They also displayed in their garden some “hubcap sunflowers” made from brightly-colored recycled materials. What they added to their public space gave clues to the qualities of the community within, which is GLBT-friendly, has an ecumenical sensibility, and creatively re-uses things other people would throw away.

It has been working. Their “sacred commons”—the space out-of-doors—has  become a visible witness to the faith they live and bring to worship. Their community has gained notice and newcomers. Obviously, each church is different. Hubcap sunflowers won’t be the answer for everybody. But the question of how the Church presents itself, what it seems to be, is a timely one.

In the U.S, we are living in a time when the number of religiously unaffiliated young people is rising. These “outsiders” see Christian believers as, well, unChristian, as David Kinnemon and Gabe Lyons’ book of the same name has it. Kinnemon and Lyons’ research shows that young people (teens through early ‘30s) who are not already religious have a very negative view of Christianity. They see Christians as anti-homosexual (91%), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), sheltered (old-fashioned, out of touch with reality) (78%), too political (72%) and proselytizers (insensitive to others, not genuine) (70%). They don’t believe that Christians really care about them or accept them. Interest in God is high. The reputation of Christianity, however, is low.

Kinnemon writes:

Should we care what people think? Gabe and I began to realize that the more important question was What if young outsiders are right about us? What is missing in our portrayal of the Christian faith to new generations? If we have failed to represent the grace that Jesus offers — if we have been poor representatives of a holy and loving God — then, absolutely, what they think about us matters. If we have been unChristian, then we bear responsibility for the problem — and the solution.

Ultimately, perceptions change because of human encounters that break negative stereotypes. Communities of believers must be as they seem, or image-burnishing will do no good. My hunch, however, is that many communities are better on the inside than they look from the outside.

14 comments

  1. I would say that, at least in the Northeast, Catholic parishes generally don’t try to appeal to seekers by external gestures. If anything, there’s a sense of “why would we do that?” It’s almost like pretty churches with good liturgical ministries are shy of advertising, lest they attract wedding tourism, as it were. So many parishes have zero photos available online (even via Flickr) of their interiors, for example (or the photos that are available are small and/or poorly shot or chosen). Music ministries don’t publish their programs. Presiding assignments/rotations are not published. Homilies are not published. Et cetera ad nauseam. We’re not even talking streaming videos of Mass or paraliturgical events, folks. Part of the reason appears to be that parish staffs are either not web-savvy or, worse, web-phobic.

    1. Karl, you raise a good point. The web is so much a part of our “public presence” today, it’s frustrating to see churches fail to use it to advantage. The few parishes I know that do tend to have younger congregations. (Is this a chicken and the egg question?)

      I never thought about “wedding tourism” though. Hmm.

    2. Wedding tourism is a reality, except for the fact that it is moderated in the Catholic church by canonical requirements of residence that make it easier for it to be tamed.

      Where I live just north of Boston, church marriages have plummeted in the past decade (funeral also down; like so much else, the enduring legacy of the Scandal), so it’s like there’s a problem of demand….

      1. Karl;

        I used to serve at the (former) St. Colman of Cloyne down in Brockton a little ways south of you I suppose… a rather popular wedding church. At the time (1990’s) we were doing about 50 or so a year…pretty good for the size of the church and definitely an indication that we were attracting non-parishioners. In that case, it was mostly the interior decor looking great in photographs that attracted couples.

        A later post of mine (Marco Island, Florida) was a resort island parish, so we had a great deal of wedding tourism…nearly all of the weddings were held there because they “wanted to get married on the island”. Although there is no equivalent “funeral tourism”, my current parish only celebrates perhaps a half dozen or so weddings a year, while we have well over 100 funerals each year (72 this year so far.. 5 months left to go).

        Catholic Churches, when it comes down to it, have far less need to attract “seekers”… for the same reasons that Jewish Synagogues don’t make an effort to draw in non-Jewish peoples. While non-Catholics certainly come to “check out” the church from time to time, it is not a major part of how the church expands. That might be a good topic for a later post…”Should we be looking to attract non-Catholics on a large scale?”.

      2. Jeffrey,

        I would say times have changed. In my area, the Catholic church not only has to attract non-Catholic seekers, but formerly active Catholic seekers. And very badly. The Angora cat approach (you come to me, I don’t come to you) is utterly, definitively out of date here.

        Even if you wanted to encourage people to go to a territorial parish (which, of course, canon law since 1983 does not *require* them to attend any more), there’s no folk knowledge any more about parish boundaries. I’ve lived in my city north of Boston for 20 years (after 8 years in Cambridge, where I attend church), and it wasn’t until 3 years ago that someone told me of a salient boundary between the two main parishes, which boundary is utterly ignored even by active Catholics except the few with children in parochial school.

        The Church cannot rely on precept to retain, let alone attract, Catholics any more here.

      3. Around here the older parishes need to attract local people more than ever because of demographic shifts – formerly Catholic neighborhoods are no longer predominantly Catholic, and too many of them seem to be trying to survive on whatever elderly immigrants remain (and their children who are willing to commute in from the suburbs due to familial/ethnic ties). When I moved across town I sought to join what would probably have been my “territorial” parish (I live about four blocks away – it’s easily the closest church to me). I had attended it a number of times for Holy days and weekdays (due to convenient times) prior to moving, and thought it would be nice to support a parish in my neighborhood I could walk to. However, I was discouraged from officially joining and was told that I should just commute to my old parish.

  2. I have a photo of one of the doors of my church here. For the most part, there’s nothing really about the exterior of my church that seems especially inviting.

    I like what the Lutheran Church did 🙂

    1. Crystal, thanks for the photo and for your comment.
      Could you explain what is represented on the doors? Why, for example, is there a lion in the left hand frame? (I presume it has something to do with the church’s dedication?)

      1. Hi Rita,

        I think those two doors are representations of two of the four evangelists, Mark (lion) and John (eagle)? The other two doors have the other two. The church is actually dedicated to Jesus’ mother, Mary … Our Lady of the Assumption. There’s a statue of her out in front, which probably would have made a better photo 🙂

      1. Oh right. So are they both St. Mark do you think, left and right? I was trying to figure out a scene with a lion as a character in a story, rather than a symbol (like Daniel in the lion’s den, or something).

  3. BTW, I was startled by the banner saying, in the image of Dorothy Day, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” There’s truth in it. Rather parabolic of Dorothy.

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