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Open churches toolkit: How to make visitors feel welcome

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Once you’ve made the decision to open have a think about the practical aspects and what message your church building sends out to visitors.

1. First impressions count!

Make sure all the signs and notice boards display clear, unambiguous information so visitors can tell at a glance when the church is open. If it’s not been open regularly before, people may carry on walking past, assuming that they won’t to be able to get in. Putting out an A-frame or prominent sign outside the church to announce that it’s open is an effective way of overcoming this. Is the entrance easy to find and clearly signposted?

Keep all your notice boards tidy and up to date, but also informative and attractive. Display eye-catching publicity to tease potential visitors, like photographs of star attractions such as a magnificent roof or colourful stained glass windows. Don’t underestimate the power of good signage: a notice saying ‘Please feel free to walk around’ will put visitors at their ease and ensure they don’t peer quickly through the door before walking away.

Look at the approach to the building. Do the front door, the steps, the path, the churchyard look well-maintained? Does the building look like it’s regularly used and cared for? If not, then it’s off-putting to potential visitors and many won’t even bother to find out whether they can get in.

People tend to congregate in the areas in front of some urban churches: this can be a benefit but it can also be a nuisance and intimidating to potential visitors in the case of, say, social drinking. If it’s a problem then talk to your local police and local authority: it might be possible to make it a controlled drinking zone.

Keep the door – or at the very least the outer door – physically open. This may get you thinking about installing glass doors so that passers-by can see into the building without causing a draught. If you decide to do this, then take a look at this guidance sheet on the subject. Does the interior look clean and cared for? Is there clutter that you could tidy away or dispose of?

Think about whether you need to have heating and lighting on – in autumn and winter this will encourage people to linger. There’s no need to waste money and energy having the whole building brightly lit, but think about lighting the entrance as it will feel more welcoming. Strategically placed lights with motion- or pressure-activated switches can aid security and draw visitors’ attention to notable features.

Is there an area set aside for quiet prayer and contemplation? Is it clearly identified as such?

2. Get the word out

Hold a launch event and invite along the local press. It’s a good ‘hook’ on which to hang the story that you’re opening your church. Could you organise some sort of publicity stunt such as getting your vicar to do something attention-grabbing? Make the most of the opportunity: journalists on local papers sometimes find it a struggle to fill their paper during slow news periods but there’s not much point in covering an event after it’s happened unless there’s something that continues afterwards to report. Put together a press release, have high quality digital images of the church to hand that you can provide for publication.

Produce a flyer or poster with information about opening times, the life of the church, its features of interest and facilities on offer. Tell your neighbours (e.g. local shops, restaurants, employers and schools but also prisons, hospitals and courts) and ask if they will display your poster.

See the Parish Communications toolkit for advice.

Make the most of the internet:

Have a look at your website: is information about opening hours clearly displayed on the front page and up to date? If you don’t have a website, it’s now easy to build one without specialist knowledge. See our parish websites advice for more information.

Has your church got a Facebook or Twitter account? These can be really good ways of reaching out to people, but think carefully about what you hope to achieve with them and how you’re going to run them. For instance, if you get a Facebook presence will it be a group for parish members and the local community or a page with information about the church and events that anyone can ‘like’? Social media is great for providing a steady feed of information about what’s happening at your church, but remember that that brings with it its own responsibility as you need to maintain that. If the account isn’t updated regularly then people will quickly lose interest and forget about it. See our social media advice for more information.

Do a Google search on your church and see what it throws up. You might find that there are sites where people have complained about your church being locked. If they have, it’s good to be able to respond – use e-mail or leave a post if it’s a page in a blog format -by saying that the building is now open and accessible.

Has your church got a Wikipedia page? If it hasn’t, create one. If it has, check that it’s informative, accurate, up to date and linked to other relevant Wikipedia pages. Take some good quality digital images and upload them to Wikipedia Commons. Upload photographs to other popular public resources such as Flickr and geograph and tag them so they show up on Google searches. If a search throw up lots of good quality photographs of the interior then this is a good indirect indication that the church is open regularly and accessible.

Think about producing a Google panorama for your church like this one for St Mary de Castro in Leicester. You could embed it on the front page of your website as St Wulfram’s in Grantham has done. Allowing potential visitors to explore your church virtually makes them feel more confident about taking foot inside the real thing.

The National Churches Trust has some additional guidance about promoting your church on-line.

Raise your profile within the arts, tourism and heritage sector. Talk to your local tourist information office, local or national bodies that promote tourism. VisitBritain promotes visitor attractions that have signed up to the National Code of Practice for Visitor Attractions. Join in with London-wide initiatives such as Open House and Ride and Stride. Are there any festivals or other arts events locally? Could your church be used as a venue? Are there local music ensembles who might be looking for a rehearsal or performance space?

How about organising tours of and talks about the history and architecture of the building? Are there local trails or walks for people looking to explore the area? Could your church be included and signposted? How about getting London Greeters to take visitors there?

What about using your church as an exhibition space for local artists or even as a location for a major new artwork like, for instance, the projects by Artangel? It gives a visit added value, it’s not dependent on extensive visitor facilities, it encourages repeat visits and it can also be a good way of attracting media coverage.

3. Target interested groups

Be pro-active and build bridges with people who might be interested in visiting or using your church building. These days there is no end to the different functions to which it can be put. Approach local community groups and charities, let them know your church is there for them to use. There are churches that happily take in their stride events and uses as diverse as concerts, theatrical performances, films, talks, keep-fit sessions and educational classes.

Think about who your target audience might be and cut your cloth accordingly: in central areas demand might well be highest during the working week at lunchtime and in the early evening; in suburban areas, parents at home with young children and retired people may be interested in activities during the whole day and at the weekends.

Are there freelancers working from home based locally who are looking for a change of surrounding? Install Wifi so that they can come and work in the church. If demand is sufficiently high you could organise a rota so that there is always someone present and that way provide passive surveillance.

Encouraging school visits and strengthening links with local schools is a one of the main strands of Capital Vision 2020. Churches provide a rich resource for teachers and visiting a place of worship is relevant to most Key Stages of the National Curriculum. There are educational resources to fire the imagination of churches and teachers alike at RE:ONLINE and Engaging Places.

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Open churches toolkit