You might have felt discouraged from opening your church because you think that the only way of doing it is to be open seven days week from dawn to dusk. Don’t be – there are lots of ways of doing it. If you’re just getting started, the most important thing is to think about what’s easiest for you and your parish to handle and what is going to be most effective. Raise the matter with the PCC and congregation, develop a vision for your hospitality.
Here are some suggestions:
1. Have the church open and unattended during daylight or business hours, with a team of appointed keyholders who open it and lock up.
Have a rota and morning and evening checklists (putting out signs, turning on lights, checking for lost property and making sure no one’s left in the building) for them to follow. Encourage members of the congregation to pop in from time to time during opening hours to keep an eye on things.
2. Open during daylight or business hours with someone in attendance to welcome visitors and provide a discreet security presence.
This could be a volunteer welcomer – you can find advice about that elsewhere in this guide. Alternatively, you could provide passive surveillance by, for example, having the parish office inside the church or else in an adjacent space with clear sightlines to the interior.
3. Open at limited, but clearly advertised times to coincide with when your neighbourhood is active.
If you’re in a business area with lots of office workers but not many residents then think about opening during the lunch breaks – employees of locally based businesses will be keen to get out of the office for a breath of fresh air and glad to have a complete change of scene. If there’s a school nearby, have your opening times coincide with the beginning and end of the school day so that parents can call in when dropping off and collecting children. Even if your church building is used regularly by community groups or a nursery, is there not a gap in the schedule when you could have it open to all visitors?
4. Open just part of the building that you can easily control, such as an entrance lobby, side chapel or transept.
This can work well if your church building is well frequented during the day but you still want to be able to provide a quiet space open to everybody at all times. It’s good if you can choose a part of the building from which the rest of the interior can be clearly viewed.
Think carefully about what you can realistically commit to do. It’s better not to be too ambitious when you’re starting out. Start by opening gradually – perhaps for a few hours on a regular basis or during a time like school holidays when you know people will be around – to see what happens. If the initiative is a success, then it’ll quickly build up its own momentum. You can start by holding special open days and use them as an opportunity to get feedback and ideas on what would encourage people to come in. Participating in the annual London Open House event can be a good way of doing this.
Will you provide refreshments and toilet facilities? There’s no doubt that visitors appreciate these facilities, especially if you’re holding events in the church that bring them in for longer periods than casual visitors, but be aware of the commitment of time and resources. Don’t try to beat high street outlets at their own game; instead, think about what your church can offer that they can’t. You can read about how one church in the City of London managed to carve out a successful niche for itself as a coffee shop despite being in an area saturated with them. Have a visitors’ book on display with a column asking people who sign it to say briefly what brought them into the church. Invite comments, find out what they would like to see in the building.
Think about whether you are going to establish any ground rules for behaviour, such as asking visitors not to use mobiles, bring dogs with them or consume food and drink. Signal these clearly by displaying a sign near the entrance. But keep it brief and polite – people who aren’t regular churchgoers are often reticent about stepping foot inside a church because they feel as though they may be inadvertently transgressing rules of behaviour understood only by worshippers.
A sign that states bluntly ‘No using your mobile phone’ is off-putting; a sign that says, ‘Please go outside if you wish to use your mobile – this is a place of tranquillity where people come for quiet prayer and contemplation’ is better. Will you allow people to take photographs inside? Will you be happy if these are uploaded to social media? If you put up a notice asking visitors to obtain permission before taking photographs then make sure that there’s someone around to ask!
You might have come across churches which are kept locked but advertise near the entrance contact details for a keyholder. Ecclesiastical Insurance Group (EIG) advises against this: guaranteeing the safety of keyholders can be difficult, especially if they are put in a position where they have to refuse access. For this reason, it’s better to make the key available from a commercial organisation – say, a nearby café. But wherever you choose, make sure that it’s only a short walk away and that the contact information is prominently displayed and easy to follow. Make sure the door can easily be used and doesn’t need a special knack to open.