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'Please feel free to explore our beautiful historic church’

This is the sign that greets visitors at one church door. A good start: it conveys immediately a sense that visitors were expected, it is OK to go in, indeed please do come in. So what is the value of opening up our churches to visitors, and what benefits can this bring? And what if your church is not a historic listed building – are visitors going to be interested in it? The good news is that people enjoy visiting churches, across the whole spectrum of large and small, spectacular and ‘ordinary’ churches.  In fact it represents a very big slice of the leisure visitor market. According to Visit England data, visits to cathedrals, abbeys and churches are as popular as visits to castles or historic houses - for UK and overseas visitors alike. More than half of people surveyed visit at least one church a year, and one in four do so three or four times in a year.

Our churches thus contribute much to the visitor experience, and indeed to the local economy, simply by being there, being open and being welcoming.  Our churches are arguably the ‘hidden giant’ of our national heritage, with a presence in nearly every town and village; the most freely accessible heritage assets – if, that is, they are among the roughly 50% of churches that are unlocked on a daily basis.

Over the past few weeks I have been out and about in Northumberland, attending events or delivering materials to a variety of churches. Each time I have encountered visitors pottering about in the church yard or exploring the church building.  I like to take the opportunity to have a chat and find out what they think. Some have been cyclists, well-equipped with route maps and the latest in Lycra etc., others have been enjoying a short break in a local B&B and spending time exploring local sites and history – and taking photos. Some were taking an interest in the architecture, working out which bits of the building were medieval, and how the building has evolved. But the most common response I received was about the simple pleasure of spending time in a peaceful place of spiritual sanctuary – the sense of welcome and holiness, the sense that this was a placed used and loved by the community.

A survey carried out a little while ago found that a sense of welcome and holiness were the two most important factors affecting visitors impressions of a church. Conversely, ‘architecture’ came well down the list. The point being: your church may be small and of modest architectural merit, but it can still be a place of welcome, a place which conveys spiritual atmosphere, reveals stories particular to locality in which it stands, encourages prayerful reflection, and so on. 

Some examples of visitor welcome actions suitable for small churches

Many churches appear closed, even if unlocked. Visitors may be shy about trying the door in case they interrupt a service or meeting. A ‘church open’ sign outside - when the church is indeed open – is one of the simplest and most effective ways to enhance your welcome and attract more visitors.

Embleton Church went a stage further and opened a small café and art gallery run by volunteers. They named it after a former vicar, bishop and notable historian who is commemorated in the church. This is a neat way of conveying something distinctive about this place, and the roadside sign offers an immediate friendly appeal to passing traffic!

Many churches have simple leaflets available for visitors, highlighting the main features and stories of interest in the church and churchyard. These are best kept short and simple, printed cheaply and offered free of charge. Visitors seem more inclined to drop some coins in the offering box when they feel welcomed and offered an engaging experience.

The next level of interpretation is to consider a display of some kind. A number of churches in our area have done this in the form of a pop-up banner. These are quite cheap to produce, and enable a story to be presented in a high quality graphic form, yet easily moved out of the way for services if necessary. These need high resolution images and the help of someone with some design skills, but they are a great way of sharing a ‘snapshot’ of your story with visitors.

It is possible for a number of churches to work together over a larger area, to develop visitor trails, activities, festivals and materials for visitors. There are good examples in many parts of the country. They offer a way of offering a wider story or narrative linking several churches and effectively providing additional reasons to visit more than one, as part of an interesting walk, cycle ride or excursion.

But what benefit does all this bring to the church? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Mission – around 40% of people rarely, if ever, attend any sort of worship in church, and many more have scant knowledge of Christianity.  Being open and welcoming, sharing our space and our story with others is an opportunity to be hospitable, share God’s love and hopefully convey something of our ‘big story’.

  • Fund-raising – if visitors enjoy and value the church then it is reasonable to invite them to contribute something towards the care and maintenance of the ‘heritage asset’.  The results may be relatively modest but helpful. More significantly, being open to visitors helps to strengthen the case for funding of repairs or new facilities.

  •  A church that is clearly open, used and visited is likely to be more secure than a closed building that may seem unloved.

Some points to ponder:

  • What do visitors like about your church?

  • Is there an obvious sign of welcome?

  • What kinds of activity could you share with visitors on days other than Sundays? 

  • Could you take part in Heritage Open Days, Ride and Stride and other events?

  • How might you offer an inclusive welcome to people with physical or sensory limitations? 

  • Does your church feel like a sacred space? Could you set aside a quiet area for prayer or quiet meditation, create a prayer walk around the church or offer a prayer tree or other creative option?

  • How might you respond to the spiritual needs of people from other cultures?

by Andrew Duff, Inspired North East

Further reading: ‘Encouraging visitors on a spiritual journey’ by the Revd Eileen McLean, available via the website of the Churches Visitor and Tourism Association,  

Inspired North East is working with local congregations to help achieve a sustainable future for church buildings as living places of worship, used and enjoyed by local communities, welcoming to visitors, and unique heritage assets.   

Inspired north East’s Spirit in Stone project is working with over 40 churches grouped in a series of ‘clusters’ to develop trails and share in a number of activities including workshops for volunteers and creative events for children (thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund). This is helping churches to share their story and engage people of all ages directly in the rich 1,300 year Christian heritage of the North East.

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