October 26, 2023

A Door Set Open

I’m intentionally borrowing one of Peter Steinke’s titles, even though this is just a blog post and not Steinke’s really solid book. Actually, I’m only thinking about the cover image on his book, A Door Set Open. There’s this absolutely captivating picture, taken from inside a church, down near the floor level, looking out through the ‘west’ doors. The doors in this case are set wide open, and we can see outside from the perspective of the floor and the pews the blurred images of trees and a landscape.

This may be the most rudimentary blog post on hospitality ever written, as it’s so simple. Here’s the point: Open the doors of your church. Open them wide. Leave them open whenever you’re inside. Leave them open the entire time. And figure out the dynamics of heating and cooling and securing the space otherwise.

See, I told you this is the most rudimentary blog post ever. Perhaps it shouldn’t even be written. Perhaps we’ve figured out that doors need to be open. And left open. And, oh, by the way, shouldn’t most of our fortress-like church doors be turned to glass, if not full glass? (Perhaps we should leave the glass-doors issue to another post and debate.)

But if it was that easy it’d be done all over the place. Every church would have their doors flung wide open, and left open throughout the entire time the People of God are gathering inside.

I remember the first time I visited a congregation I was supposed to check out as a potential field education site during seminary. I found the church. Found the parking lot. I was running late because I visited another congregation’s 8am worship, and had to really book it to get to this church’s 10am service, but I was there only a few minutes late. Turns out there was a side door that most of the members seemed to use. (Isn’t there always another door that most of our members seem to use?!) So I walked around to the front of the church, up to the large fortress-like red doors and opened them … only to be greeted on the other side with another set of doors, clad in leather with beautiful copper nails. Once inside the vestibule, between the red doors and the leather doors, I could tell that the entrance processional was taking place – large-sounding organ and choir and some movement inside. When I opened the leather doors, I was met by the back of an usher who, I presume, was faithfully participating in the worship and opening hymn, her face turned toward the altar and her back to the door. When she felt the wind upon her back, she turned toward me and, surmising in an instant that she didn’t know who I was, gave me a look that – well – didn’t exactly say: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.

I didn’t choose to do my field education at that church.

Now there was a lot going on that day, I’m sure, and it wasn’t only the lack of a greeting I received that told me that this was not a hospitable, welcoming or, frankly, very happy congregation. In fact, I learned that year, during my internship in another local church, that that congregation was in the midst of a big church fight. Granted, happiness and a genuine welcome has nearly everything to do with how well our people are fed with the Word of God and filled up with God’s grace.

But there are some simple things we can do, perhaps should do. A few simple tweaks of architecture and door choices could be a rudimentary step toward putting ourselves and our people in a position where they might learn to be more welcoming, even meet a stranger with openness and – oh let’s just say it – joy.

Most of our churches have vestibules. It’s just how buildings are built – a wind-block or air-buffer between the conditions outside and those inside. Even our really old 17[1] century churches had vestibules added later on, oftentimes part of the addition of a belltower. (Granted, one of my churches does not have a vestibule; its door open or door closed. And so, because our main west doors are in desperate need of replacement, we’re talking about replacing them with a beautiful new set of doors in which there are large, full-glass panels.)

Most of our churches, especially those with vestibules, don’t have to spend much money whatsoever. Instead, they could just open the outer west doors, and open them wide. Open both of them and prop them open. A kick-stand doorstop costs something like $5, and if you feel the burning need to purchase proper brass kick-stands, that’s only around $20.

Leave the doors open during the entire worship. At our other church – the church that has red west doors and a vestibule with an additional set of entryway doors – our ushers open wide both outer doors at least 20 minutes before worship begins. And they leave them open the entire time – from 20 minutes before worship, through the entirety of worship itself, all the way to the end of worship and after the last person leaves the space.

How do we keep traffic and street noise out of the worship space? In the hot summer, how do we keep cool air inside, and vice-versa with warm air in the winter? Purchase and install full-glass exterior doors inside the vestibule, between the vestibule and the worship space. Now this will cost some money, but it’s not a budget-buster. Make sure they’re glass exterior doors, not wimpy interior French doors. Exterior doors will keep the noise out and the cool / heat in. Make sure they’re full glass, like exterior patio doors. Not a glass panel or a partial window, but full glass, top to bottom, inside a metal or wood frame. And – pro-tip – if you’d like to get a grid pattern in the window, such as we chose in our faux-colonial 1950s church, make sure the grid is inside the glass. That way, your cleaning team can quickly clean the finger smudges off the glass without having to Windex 15 different glass squares.

And another thing: when those ushers open the doors 20 minutes before worship, ask them to stand outside on the main steps. Not inside the church. (Certainly not with their backs to the outside, faithfully blocking the entryway!) Not inside the main doors and outside the vestibule doors. But outside on the sidewalk or lane leading up to church. And if you’re a clergyperson, get vested at least 30 minutes before worship, say your prayers, do whatever you need to do inside the worship space to know that it is ready and join your ushers and welcome team outside on the sidewalk – fully vested, a welcoming presence.

Have you ever noticed that architects, when drawing a final design and presentation, invariably show the outside of some building with a tree here, and a shrub there, and people milling about, walking by, standing and talking? Why? For starters, it’s so the viewer can get a visual sense of the height and perspective of the building, comparing it to an average person, drawn in the presentation. And yet, for another reason, it’s so that we get the sense that this building is for people, that gathering people and providing a space for people are the main point of this building.

I thought, while offering this, that this may be such a simple post about hospitality that it doesn’t need to be said. And I hope what I’ve suggested seems straightforward enough, even simple enough and practical. There’s still a lot of work beyond all this toward genuine Christian hospitality and welcome, but it’d be a nice practice to spend a season training your ushers and welcome team and clergy and lay leaders to, first, open the doors and leave them open; second, go outside and say “Good morning!”

  • 1. th