The Life Cycle of Expectations

empty seats

The structures we build have a critical, but short-lived influence on the reputation of our ministries. Appearance, experience, and reputation share responsibility, in turn, for how we’re perceived. Though I first heard this said about a different kind of building, I’m satisfied that much of it applies to churches.

Earlier in my career, I worked with a number of communities designing concert halls, theatres and other cultural facilities. The marketing consultant for one of them offered this analysis:

  • In a building’s first year, people come to see the facility; curiosity prompts visitors to check out the new place, with relatively little regard to what’s happening inside.
  • In year two, people come to see the programs. When the place is no longer novel, a well-crafted season still draws newcomers.
  • In the third year, audiences come (or don’t come) because of their expectations. Without knowing what the place looks like or what’s on the agenda, the sense that “we should go, there’s got to be something good going on there” can sustain audiences over the long haul (even through seasons of disrepair or weak programming).

I don’t think for a minute that churches are about filling seats (though some might disagree) but I think of this whenever challenged to describe what constitutes a sacred space. Places become sacred to us when we have the expectation that here, perhaps, we will encounter the Most High God. And because our expectations are built on experiences and memories, nearly any space can take on this mantle. It’s also the reason why some of the spaces that longtime church-goers hold dear don’t always hold the same meaning for folks outside the door.