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Creating Spaces for Connection and Community
By Kim Miller
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
God in the Details
The fact that we're bastions of boredom rather than bursting with creativity and the release of the arts is such an embarrassment. We should be the place that is known for creativity as we have a direct connection to the Creator.
Did you know that twelve of the forty chapters of Exodus are devoted to aesthetics, that is, to precise details about altars and oils and offerings and everything in between? God had a wildly creative and multisensory image of how it was to be there in the holy of holies, and—let's be clear—the details mattered:
Have them make an acacia-wood chest. It should be forty-five inches long, twenty-seven inches wide, and twenty-seven inches high. Cover it with pure gold, inside and out, and make a gold molding all around it. Cast four gold rings for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Make acacia-wood poles and cover them with gold. Then put the poles into the rings on the chest's sides and use them to carry the chest. The poles should stay in the chest's rings. They shouldn't be taken out of them. Put the covenant document that I will give you into the chest. (Exodus 25:10-16)
Some say that 1 percent of what we do makes 99 percent of the difference. Attention to detail is not a new thought. Artists of all disciplines have discovered the difference between mediocre and amazing:
To create something exceptional, your mind-set must be relentlessly focused on the smallest detail. (Giorgio Armani, Italian-born fashion designer)
The difference between something good and something great is attention to detail. (Charles R. Swindoll, educator and radio pastor)
God is in the details. (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, German-born American architect)
And although attention to the details in design, architecture, and basic housekeeping is extremely important, it's really about the potential of what can happen within the walls of these intentionally crafted spaces. Great design—and our subsequent calling—is not to impress our guests with all our dazzling efforts but to prepare places where people can experience connection to God and community with others in the best way possible.
I'm happy that the church was expanded by its use of gymnasiums in the 1980s and '90s, but we lost something profound. We lost the sensuality of spirituality and replaced it with song after song in the key of C, metaphorically speaking. I love music, but we've underestimated the power of physical design. Environment is how we exist on the earth! Not my idea, but God's. You may not feel that you are "into design," but because we are humans created in God's image, design is wired into us.
Addressing engaging environments, Andy Stanley encourages church leaders to ask, "Is the setting appealing?" and challenges us not to discount the importance of paying close attention to aesthetics:
It could be argued that the very first thing God did in time was to create an appealing environment tailored for his prize creation, that portion of creation that would be fashioned in his image, the image of the one who created an irresistible environment. Essentially, that's the story of creation. (Deep & Wide [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012], pp. 164–65)
Even as I write this, the absurdity of attempting to convince readers of God's creativity gene is beyond humorous: "In the beginning, God created." Bam. Forming the land, sky, plant and animal life, and subsequently human beings was the first recorded act of love that God chose to extend. Our call as humans and Christians—as "little Christs"—is to carry on the legacy, to not allow our busy, linear, routine-driven little lives to edge out the open, expansive, imaginative, and soul-tending nature of God, and to share that beautiful, authentic, holy "spirit" with a weary world.CHAPTER 2
Jesus on Hospitality
My Father's house has room to spare. If that weren't the case, would I have told you that I'm going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too.
Isn't it true that we measure our lives not in terms of numbers of days but in treasured, memorable experiences? During his time on earth, Jesus understood that it cost nearly nothing to take an everyday event and turn it into an incredible experience. This uncanny knack for engaging people in everyday settings demonstrated various themes on a wide variety of occasions. Consider these hosted galas:
Jesus Christ Wedding Crasher: when Jesus made that humble-but-flashy first appearance, coming up with the finest wine of all at the wedding in Cana
Jesus Catering Co.: when Jesus provided fish and chips to spare on the Galilean hillside
Jesus the Upper Room Event Planner: even in his moments of greatest stress, Jesus outlined the menu, served the wine, and initiated the conversation
Heaven's Kitchen on the Beach, starring Jesus as Master Chef: Jesus served fish tacos for the hungriest of disbelievers
On any of these occasions Jesus could have simply arranged a boardroom-style meeting room, requesting three tables to be arranged in a U-shape in a room boasting only blank whiteboards and outlets for laptops. Strangely, we see the God of all creation insisting that food and drink be the central magnetic force, pulling in the guests, providing the perfect natural resources to generate open, honest communication. People aren't looking for meetings. People are longing for meaning, and the care for physical bodies coupled with the nourishment of spiritual hope is a winning combination any day of the week.
Ginghamsburg is so committed to offering "radical hospitality" that—despite our mission-minded budget—we've allowed for a full-time staff director of hospitality and events. This person passionately recruits servants to greet, usher, direct parking lot traffic, staff our Welcome Center, and serve as medics and security personnel. Whatever needs your current church community might have, assuring that each guest feels welcomed and accommodated is imperative to a healthy, growing faith community.
It's important to assign someone who's fairly observant to periodically enter your campus and buildings with "fresh eyes," eyes that haven't traveled those parts a hundred times before. You'll want to assure that the spaces are clean, accommodating, and free of that "church garage sale" style, smell, and atmosphere. Although friendly greeters and clean pews are important, there may be some details of guest experience that we've not yet considered: new guest and single-parent parking, outside greeters, strategically posted signage, and a clearly marked entrance are all extremely important to new seekers.
Inside the building, details such as a comfortable temperature setting, accessible water and refreshments, engaging children's spaces, and clearly identified directions will create the kind of experience most likely to keep guests returning. Of course, the ability to share a spirit of Christlike love is the most profound welcoming tool we possess.
As passionate as I am about the physical aspect of space design, I understand that the tastefully arranged spaces simply support the overriding goal of offering an impressionable, personable experience. Servant teams invested and empowered to carry out this "process of experience" will ensure that you've made a profound impression from the very first visit.
A spirit of hospitality ran deep in Jesus' veins. We see it in his actions toward children, in his habit of sitting down to eat with his friends as a form of connection and community, and in the promise he made to the disciples as they worried over the possibility of their future without him: "I'm going to prepare a place for you" (John 14:3). Jesus knew that we function best in spaces prepared for hospitality.
Church work is a lot about preparation. We plan and prepare; God shows up and orchestrates the outcomes. Careful preparation is a godly act. I believe Jesus is still in the business of preparing places for people on earth, but it's through servants who understand the importance of hospitality—the art and theology of sacred space. Historically, the church has gathered in homes, cathedrals, church buildings, community centers, and school gymnasiums. There is no space that is more "spiritually correct" than others. Further inside this book we'll explore great possibilities for redesigning the buildings God has given us, transforming them into welcoming oases for seekers to experience God and to connect to a community.
Thankfully, worshiping communities inhabiting even the most traditional-looking churches are discovering new ways to use "old" space. Whether it's removing some fixtures from the platform area, placing media screens in tasteful locations, or casting a glow in just the right location with the strategic placement of candles or the soft glow of ambient light, there truly is always a way to work around the challenges.
Getting out of our collective, boundary-edged box, we can take a worship space built in the 1800s and transform it into a media-friendly conference room in which the furniture is arranged to suit the occasion. We can turn a worn-out 1960s "parlor" from an inner-city United Methodist church into a trendy Welcome Center that offers coffee and corners for conversations. We can upcycle a windowless, pinkish-purple room in the storefront property of an economically challenged community—add ambient light, simple stage design, and affordable seating—and discover a "makes-me-wannaworship" kind of sanctuary. These are new ways to use old space for the purpose of welcoming people.
Our Master Designer empowers us to risk creating welcoming spaces in entryways, worship settings, classrooms, offices, and fellowship halls. As I gather and organize my ideas and materials for an event or room design, I instinctively ask myself these questions with a fairly simple, whole-to-part kind of approach:
What is the overall theme or metaphor we've decided upon?
What must the designated space feel like (casual, friendly, traditional, urban, industrial, techno, country, natural, or modern)? There are dozens of "vibes" we could use as templates for our designs.
What are the colors included in this series, season, or event? Sometimes the color scheme begins in a related sign or graphic advertising the event. Using related colors can create a sense of branding, which strengthens the outcome.
What are the large objects, textures, metals, and styles we will use? Simplifying the options will unify the outcome. More on this later.
While I often work alone in the initial ideation/design process, I'm comfortable welcoming others into this step. When designing a space on one of our own Ginghamsburg campuses, I collaborate with the ministry leader who will most often use the space. I find great joy in asking what specific needs, hopes, and dreams are desired for the space and then pressing forward to fulfill those criteria in the best way possible. When our Tipp City lobby needed to be updated, I collaborated with our hospitality director as well as with some of our key leadership staff for this extremely important "main gate" space. We've undergone several transformations in fifteen years of building use; and for the first five years, we were convinced that we had no space for a real Welcome Center, but we were wrong. By pushing back a few walls, we literally transformed a coat closet into a full-blown Welcome Center. Modern furnishings and seasonally refreshed décor have created an engaging space for guests to receive a hearty welcome, a beautiful gift bag, and all the information one person could possibly desire. This "safe space connection zone" serves as a community hub during busy campus events.
Recently we added warm pendant lighting along with tall bistro tables and stools to our main lobby. We realized that great community interaction could thrive only if we allowed space and time for it. We don't have the kind of large community entry space that many megachurches have, so we increased the time between worship celebrations to ease the crowding. Sometimes time and space can be interchangeable.
Mother's Day weekend is typically a big deal at Ginghamsburg. We see a surge in attendance because of infant dedications/baptisms, the children's choirs singing, and our annual Mother's Day flower sale hosted by one of our life groups (with all proceeds going to our Haiti mission). Our Ohio weather seldom cooperates in the early weeks of May, so we began staging this event in the main lobby. Each year I ask several of my "salvage sisters" to bring in some vintage garden pieces that will serve as staging platforms for hundreds of plants. We set up two cash-and-carry stations, and—voilà—we have a beautiful, chaotic celebration of gifts for the moms we love.
Telling Your Story
People become what they see. New life pictures are vitally important to the discipleship process. That's why we at Ginghamsburg are careful not simply to say we want to be a multicultural community; we model racial diversity, age diversity, and gender diversity on our worship platforms and in our staff choices. In the same way, what we feature on our most visible wall spaces helps form who we are and shares the DNA of our church community with everyone who walks the hallways, from delivery persons to parents of preschoolers.
We created a wall to showcase our "Bring—Grow—Serve" mission statement using three photographs. We've designed several versions of the wall over the years, but our current look includes a solid, dark-colored wall paint, three framed photos carefully chosen and printed at an office supply store (for a higher quality than our in-house poster printer), a balanced layout using die-cut text letters, and a touch of added decals from a local home improvement store.
When consulting with churches who are ready to redesign their entry spaces, I've often suggested that they center their entryway walls around the one vision or mission they want to be about. Photographs speak volumes, and very few words are actually needed. For several years we designed entryway installations featuring large photographs of our mission in Sudan. We refreshed these displays yearly with beautiful colorful photos that richly depicted those positively affected by our investments in that war-torn country.
Recently I felt it was time for a change, so down came the photographs and up went the prayers. We connected this "prayer wall" to our Advent scripture and theme of good news from Isaiah 61:1:
The Lord God's spirit is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me
to bring good news to the poor,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release for captives,
and liberation for prisoners.
Reluctant to remove the backdrop drywall and wood installation, we treated the painted drywall with a stamped-paint application and lightly stained the large raw wood squares. Servants installed hundreds of screws, and we decoupaged printed scripture and the words rebuild, restore, and renew onto the drywall.
Manila tags were inserted into each worship bulletin on the first weekend of Advent, and we invited worshipers to write their own prayer and drop it in the basket provided as they walked up to receive Communion. Following this, servants knotted and hung the tags, finishing out the wall. It's a beautiful, tactile, earthy kind of display of humans trusting God in expectation of our Christmas hope.
Whatever else is going on to attract and disciple the people of our world, offering the hospitality Jesus modeled must be at the top of the list. Time spent faithfully preparing spaces can seem costly, inconvenient, and downright difficult, but as the servants on our makeover team tell one another, "It's worth it!" It won't be long before you see signs of new life springing up out of old, tired places.CHAPTER 3
A Ministry of Mud 'n Spit
Creativity can solve most any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality overrides everything.
What does it take to make a miracle happen?
In our own limited perspectives, we fancy God with sparkling magic potions carefully arranged in a glittering heavenly toolbox and maybe a few wands thrown in for the really tough jobs.
God's best work, however, has always been done with amazingly ordinary stuff—water, mud, spit, a piece of stale bread, a barn, a teenage girl, or twelve dysfunctional disciples—ordinary objects in regular places with everyday people. The good news for every single person on the planet is that miracles happen when the divine intersects with the ordinary.
I am but one woman with a very alternative education. I think way too many thoughts and have a passion for Jesus and the church. I'm not a very big person, and I still get knots in my stomach every time we embark on a new makeover project; but look out when I set my mind to something.
The metaphor I've named for my life is "mud 'n spit." I'm fascinated with the four Gospels and the earthiness of everything Jesus did. I'm not sure how Jesus would've healed the blind man in the Gospel of John in chapter 9 if the miracle had occurred in this millennium. Maybe he would've used some thick espresso or some aromatic candle wax. On that particular day, however, Jesus spit in the dust, making a clay paste with his saliva, and he rubbed that paste onto the blind guy's eyes and then told the guy to go wash in a certain pool. That's creativity. That's using what you have, where you have it, and whom you have it with—I love that! Stories like that give me hope that I can do this, too. I'm an everyday person. I've been touched by heaven, empowered by God. I can use what God has already put in me and around me—just ordinary stuff—and begin to change the world one space at a time.
Excerpted from Redesigning Churches by Kim Miller. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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