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Welcome visitors

Your church, chapel or meeting house is a symbol of your presence within the community.

It can be a valuable tool for mission, as well as working with your community and welcoming visitors.

Starting off small and working with what you already have is not only sensible and low cost; it also helps you to work out what will work in your building and community. It means that you can try a variety of things with relatively small outlay of time and money, and see which brings the most engagement, enjoyment, use or income.

Staring small can also help you allay any fears from members of your congregation or community. Using the church for other activities can cause tensions, and easing people into it and letting them see the benefits for themselves, and see that the church is still a living place of worship, can often change their minds.

Once you have decided on a general direction you may want to develop a mission statement or other guiding principle which will underpin all your work. You might even go so far as writing a project plan to share with others, in which you can develop ideas and clearly describe your plans.

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An open door

Opening your door to visitors is one of the easiest things you can do, with little or no effort. There are, of course, some considerations you should make: about your building, your community and your potential visitors. But there is a huge amount of information and support available, both before and after you open.

Churches, chapels and meeting houses are treasure houses of heritage, history and community. The potential for them to attract visitors and for visits to be enjoyable and worthwhile is huge. There are over 47,000 Christian places of worship in the UK, over 10,000 faith sites of medieval origin, all built for the same reason but with a unique story to tell and a unique experience to offer local people, visitors and tourists alike.

Every single one has some aspect of architectural, cultural or social heritage significance.

Your church, chapel or meeting house should be open for people to visit.


Welcome, come in

Opening your church and welcoming visitors is not difficult and can be very rewarding. Your church can attract visitors to your area which can boost your income from donations and sales and help the local economy by encouraging people to visit local establishments for lunch etc


Tell your story

All heritage sites need interpretation.

Telling the story of your building and your community in the context of local, regional and national heritage will not only engage visitors but it will inspire your congregation to explore these stories as well.


The personal touch

Guided tours are a brilliant way for volunteers to share their favourite passions about your building and community.

General tours will always be welcomed by most visitors, but those offering specialist knowledge, or access to normally closed areas will be prized by both visitors and local people.


Start them young

Encouraging children and young people to be interested is vital if we are to pass on the care and welfare of our wonderful church buildings to the next generation with confidence for its future.

Children often come along to events and activities as part of family groups. They may also visit as part of a school tour, or event held at the church such as an annual nativity or carol concert.

Welcoming children can be different from taking adults around the church and it is worth spending time to consider how to do this in a way which will make them feel at home, engage them, and encourage them to come back.

Thinking about who will visit and why will help you to make visits welcoming and enjoyable, and encourage visitors to come back!

Knowing your local area will help you promote local facilities and services to encourage longer stays, additional expenditure and repeat visits. Offering sites in every town and village, churches can add value and contribute to sustainable, authentic community tourism.


A special place

When welcoming people to your church, it is vital to remember that they are entering a special place, a living place and a place of prayer. There are many similarities between churches and other heritage attractions, but the spiritual significance of a faith site should not be ignored.

People who don’t go to church often find it difficult to open a closed church door and walk inside. You need to find a way of breaking down those barriers. Once inside, visitors usually expect a church to be something of a sanctuary and a place where they can find peace and tranquillity.

Times Educational Supplement : churches as a special place


Who will visit

Visitors to churches come from all backgrounds, all ages and all nationalities. Your church is a place where visitors can learn about architecture, arts and crafts, and historical events as well as social history. They are keepers of community heritage, traditions and rites that may have been practiced for generations.

People visit churches as part of a wide range of activities, but cultural and heritage activities always rank highly in surveys of visitors or visitors books. Churches can respond to many visitor interests, from casual curiosity, through family history, exploring local heritage, to more serious engagement.

Generally, your visitors will fall into one of the following groups:

  • Local members of the community, their family and friends
  • Casual visitors looking for a quiet place
  • Specialist groups or individual visitors (including church crawlers)
  • People carrying out research, looking for something specific (including those researching family history)
  • People attending an event (including life events)
  • Walkers and cyclists (including those on a pilgrimage)
  • School, college & university groups
  • Tourists; those who stay overnight and might come from across the country or abroad

Where to start

There are many things, large and small; simple or more complicated, which churches can do to attract more visitors, to give them a warm welcome, an enjoyable experience and to encourage them to return.

All churches are unique, with different and distinctive features and settings. What is appropriate and realistic in one church may not be the case in another. However, there are a few simple steps which can be undertaken by EVERY church, and you could start by considering the following:

  • Is your church already open outside worship, and are opening times advertised?
  • Are there welcomers / guides on duty who can greet visitors and answer questions?
  • If your church is closed, are there times when there are people in church (eg. flower ladies, the cleaning team) when the building could be opened, or do you have a key available? (for safety reasons it is best to ask a local shop or pub to be a key holder, not a local resident)
  • Is your church clean and tidy, bright and well lit with labelled light switches?
  • Is there any information available about your church and its interesting features, including services?

Put yourself in a visitors shoes - would you find your church welcoming?


Issues to consider

Two sensible arguments often mistakenly used to keep a church closed are security and cost:

  • Security: an issue of security can be tackled with good and clear advice from the experts
  • Cost: can be negated by increased visitors and grant funding may be available for specific projects. Most first steps into church tourism need not cost vast sums of money, if anything at all. In fact, those who argue should consider the cost of doing nothing; an empty building is vulnerable to burglary and a locked door does little to promote a positive image of the church to a potential visitor

Carefully plan for ease of access; physical, cultural and intellectual. There are nine million people with a disability in the UK and they should not be excluded, make sure that visitors aren't disabled by your attitude and that all possible improvements have been made. Also consider intellectual and cultural understanding of your building, and offering services appropriate to the needs of particular types of visitor.

Through the Roof : churches inclusion

Ecclesiastical Insurance : advice


Setting standards

The reputation of your church is based on the service you offer. Don’t afraid to set high standards for your welcome, guides, interpretation and more. Aspire to deliver excellence and exceed visitor expectations.


Next steps

Some churches offer refreshments, either at a café run by volunteers or by setting up a hospitality tray (with kettle, teabags and biscuits) for visitors to make their own.

Most churches have some secular activities which can be developed for visitors; perhaps flower festivals, patronal festival open days, brass rubbing, or concerts.

Think laterally; architectural significance alone does not guarantee visitors. Romance, legend, physical situation and downright quirkiness all count towards the potential for attracting visitor interest. Where an academic might marvel at the perpendicular Gothic he or she may also find pleasure in the idiosyncratic.

Interpreting your building for local people and visitors can be incredibly exciting. In the average church, chapel or meeting house there are a huge variety of stories to tell; architectural history, social history, monuments, works of art, your place in national history and much more.

Choosing what to include, and in which type of interpretation can take a lot of thought and planning. But, like in many things, start small, evaluate the response and then develop.

The content and type of interpretation you choose can vary widely, and it’s well worth having a look around some other heritage sites as well as the websites of interpretation suppliers to get some ideas. If you are planning a major interpretation project, and perhaps applying for funding to do so, then writing a fairly general brief for a number of companies to respond to will probably highlight some ideas you hadn’t thought of.

Association for Heritage Interpretation : homepage

Heritage Lottery Fund : interpretation guidance


The stories we tell

Big stories and tiny details are equally fascinating so tell them both.

Make sure that all research is thorough and accurate. Don’t just repeat what was in the previous guidebook, it may be wrong.


The written word

The most common form of church interpretation is a free leaflet or a guidebook.

We see a huge number, both through visiting churches and submitted with grant applications. Often written several years ago, and perhaps photocopied out of all recognition, they can be a great disappointment. But yours doesn’t have to be this way!

When writing text for an information sheet, guidebook or interpretative panel please bear in mind your audience. Too much text can discourage all but the most interested visitors, and a writer's over enthusiasm may put people off. Try and make text exciting and engaging, more like a guidebook than a history book.

In colour guidebooks include high quality, large, colourful images. Visitors may be unable to take these themselves, and may buy a guidebook as a souvenir as much as for a source of information.

Lastly, also bear in mind some of the problems that reading can present - poor eyesight, low lighting, dyslexia. Very few people are illiterate, but a surprising number have reading problems (eg long sight, bifocal glasses). The average reading age in the UK is 13.

Open University : How to write a church guide


Technology and all that

More and more churches are exploring the use of new technology to help visitors understand their building.

Using technology in an appropriate way for your church can be a very cost effective way of bringing an exciting new level of understanding, and can even help to attract visitors by reaching new people in new ways.

Before the visit:

  • a bespoke app, or being part of a group app, which gives visitors information about how to find and get to the church
  • a Google InsideView tour, which attaches an interior virtual tour of the church into the streetview platform

During the visit:

  • a touch screen or tablets for visitors, with in depth information about the church
  • QR codes on objects or interpretative panels, linking to a description or more detail
  • using specialist photo merge or augmented reality apps to blend the old and new, or even to make characters or objects speak
  • a bespoke app which visitors download to their own device and which guides them around the church, which might include audio, video, text and images

After the visit:

  • encourage visitors to continue to engage with the church via Facebook or Twitter, particularly using a hashtag you suggest

ChurchBuild : Aurasma video

Holy Trinity Micklegate : Micklegate Monks

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Our expert training

very year we run a range of training sessions and courses delivered online or in person. Our sessions cover a wide range of topics, from maintenance to tourism and from grants to marketing.

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Online tourism advice & training

We also work with partners who offer training, advice and support. Here we will try and list as many as we can that have online sessions and videos.

Telling your story

It’s hard to underestimate the current interest in local heritage. Most churches can tap into all aspects of this, and benefit from visitors and volunteers as a result. From family history and social heritage to architectural splendour and exploring ancient landscapes, your church probably has it all.

Understanding places of worship and heritage buildings are just steps on the road to understanding YOUR church, chapel or meeting house, which in turn helps you to care for and use it to meet the needs of your community whilst protecting and enjoying its rich social and architectural heritage.

Besides being fascinating, understanding your building will really help you to make the most of it whilst enjoying looking after it for generations to come.

Church of England : understand your church


Researching and recording your building

If you are just starting your research, there are obvious places to start for basic information.

It is important that you make a clear and detailed record of what you find out, to help those who will follow you in caring for your building. You could save them valuable time and even give them information which they might not be able to find for themselves.


Original documents and books

It’s worth reading all the original source material you can find, including the official listing if your church is listed. If your church is old enough, check your village or town’s entry in the Domesday Book. Looking at the original entry can really fire your enthusiasm for finding out more!  Another source of information are Pevsner’s Buildings of England books. You will be able to find your local volume in your local library or online.

Historic England : search the list

Historic Environment Scotland : search for a listed building

National Monuments Record of Wales (NMRW) : site search

Northern Ireland Department for Communities : buildings database

Domesday Book Online : contents


Surveys and studies

Over time your church will have undergone several surveys and studies, and should continue to do so.

There will definitely have been regular inspections by an architect, but there could also be specialist studies of particular aspects of the building or objects of particular interest. You will probably find these in the church safe or cupboards, or with clergy or churchwardens, although there may also be copies in your local archives of diocesan records office.

The National Monuments Record is the public archive of Historic England. It includes  historic photographs, architectural and archaeological reports, plans and other items related to the historic environment of England. You may be able to find records relating to your church or village / town there.

Over recent years your church may have had a church survey produced by volunteers from the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies. You can check which churches have been surveyed on their website.

The use of drones to assist with surveys of church buildings has increased in recent years. They can also be used to take brilliant images of your church, whilst up there doing a survey!


Contents register

Ask to see the church contents register, or terrier. The modern document will tell you a lot about the current building and its furnishings and fittings. You may also be able to find copies of historical registers in your local archives, or via diocesan records offices and perhaps even original and/or development plans, many Victorian and 20th century plans are online thanks to the Incorporated Church Building Society.

Lambeth Palace Library : collections online


Guidebooks and interpretation

If you are allowed, have a look through the church safe and cupboards. There might be hidden gems of old guidebooks and contents registers hidden in the back. You could also ask members of the community to loan you any old guidebooks or leaflets they have, or check at your local archives for copies.

Interpreting your building for local people and visitors can be incredibly exciting. In the average church, chapel or meeting house there are a huge variety of stories to tell; architectural history, social history, monuments, works of art, your place in national history and much more.

Choosing what to include, and in which type of interpretation can take a lot of thought and planning. But, like in many things, start small, evaluate the response and then develop.

The content and type of interpretation you choose can vary widely, and it’s well worth having a look around some other heritage sites as well as the websites of interpretation suppliers to get some ideas. If you are planning a major interpretation project, and perhaps applying for funding to do so, then writing a fairly general brief for a number of companies to respond to will probably highlight some ideas you hadn’t thought of.

Association for Heritage Interpretation : homepage

Heritage Lottery Fund : interpretation guidance


The stories we tell

Big stories and tiny details are equally fascinating so tell them both.

Make sure that all research is thorough and accurate. Don’t just repeat what was in the previous guidebook, it may be wrong.


The written word

The most common form of church interpretation is a free leaflet or a guidebook.

We see a huge number, both through visiting churches and submitted with grant applications. Often written several years ago, and perhaps photocopied out of all recognition, they can be a great disappointment. But yours doesn’t have to be this way!

When writing text for an information sheet, guidebook or interpretative panel please bear in mind your audience. Too much text can discourage all but the most interested visitors, and a writer's over enthusiasm may put people off. Try and make text exciting and engaging, more like a guidebook than a history book.

In colour guidebooks include high quality, large, colourful images. Visitors may be unable to take these themselves, and may buy a guidebook as a souvenir as much as for a source of information.

Lastly, also bear in mind some of the problems that reading can present - poor eyesight, low lighting, dyslexia. Very few people are illiterate, but a surprising number have reading problems (eg long sight, bifocal glasses). The average reading age in the UK is 13.

Open University : how to write a church guide


Technology and all that

More and more churches are exploring the use of new technology to help visitors understand their building.

Using technology in an appropriate way for your church can be a very cost effective way of bringing an exciting new level of understanding, and can even help to attract visitors by reaching new people in new ways.

Before the visit:

  • a bespoke app, or being part of a group app, which gives visitors information about how to find and get to the church
  • a Google InsideView tour, which attaches an interior virtual tour of the church into the streetview platform

During the visit:

  • a touch screen or tablets for visitors, with in depth information about the church
  • QR codes on objects or interpretative panels, linking to a description or more detail
  • using specialist photo merge or augmented reality apps to blend the old and new, or even to make characters or objects speak
  • a bespoke app which visitors download to their own device and which guides them around the church, which might include audio, video, text and images

After the visit:

  • encourage visitors to continue to engage with the church via Facebook or Twitter, particularly using a hashtag you suggest

ChurchBuild : Aurasma video

Holy Trinity Micklegate : Micklegate Monks

Informative and entertaining, guided tours can introduce your visitors to stories and details of your church in a very personal and engaging way. They give you chance to interact with visitors, and share much more than can be covered in a guidebook or display panel. They also give your volunteers chance to research and share the stories they love about your building, its people and its place in history.


Top tips for tour guides

  • When you are planning guided tours, consider who will be in the group ~ general visitors, children, special interest groups?
  • Use your experiences and think about tours you have been on. Did you enjoy them or not? Why? Learn from other peoples mistakes and try to avoid making the same errors.
  • Plan a route that shows off your church and its treasures, or even hides the bits you don’t want people to see!
  • Memorise your talk or use notes or an information file but try and save some information for questions. You can even mix it up, pointing out different things on different tours. You don’t have to be an expert, but you should know the basic facts/dates.
  • Try practising on a group of friends but have confidence in yourself, you will know more about your site than the average visitor. Do ask for feedback, and use it to hone your skills.
  • If there are any good stories linked with the site about somebody who lived in the past, or about something that happened in the past... tell them!

Nicole Deufel : what makes a good guided tour

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Take great photos

A picture is worth a thousand words. Watch our four short training films to help you take and edit amazing photographs of your church.

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Make great films

If a picture speaks 1000 words, imagine what a video is worth. Watch our four short training films to help you take and edit brilliant short films of your church.

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Trails of Discovery

Find out about working with The Arts Society to develop a trail of discovery. Free to you, they will work with your volunteers to develop children's, memory and / or town trails.

Events and activities

Exciting and engaging events are a great way of attracting and welcoming new people to visit, or of encouraging those who have been before to return for something new. They can be large or small, aimed at a particular group or more general, and be free to organise or considered an investment to encourage donations.

Organising your own

The most important thing to consider is your audience; who are they, where will they come from, what will they want to see and do?

It is also a good idea to have an end result in mind (eg. to welcome 500 people or to raise £500). Try and make sure that everything you do will help you meet your target.

  • Give yourself enough time to plan properly, build into your plan time for publicity, preparation and cleaning up.
  • If you spend enough time preparing for your event it will run smoothly, meaning that both your visitors and you can enjoy it more. If your church is open all the time consider closing whilst preparing.
  • There is no point in spending a great deal of time, effort and probably money to produce an event if no-one knows about it. Make sure that publicity is a key part of your planning and preparation and that you take advantage of the many ways to distribute publicity, eg press releases, posters to libraries, flyers with local papers etc.
  • On the day make sure that everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing and that you have someone who can cover for breaks so that volunteers get time to look around and enjoy themselves.
  • Always evaluate your event. Count visitor numbers and make a record of visitor comments. All this information will help you to plan future events.
  • Make sure that official records (eg service books, accounts sheets) record the fact that there was a special event on. This may help you to persuade those who were not keen that the event does have a measurable effect.

Ecclesiastical Insurance : planning church events

GOV.UK : organising a voluntary event


 

Taking part

There are several large national and regional events which your church could be a part of. These will give you a taste for something big, whilst being able to rely on some central organisation and publicity. However, don’t underestimate the number of local people these events will attract, and make sure you promote the event in your area and welcome them too.

Heritage Open Days : get involved

Ride+Stride : near you

Caring for God’s Acre : love your burial ground week


Being a venue

 

If you would like to offer your church or other space to other users then you should have a formal agreement with those users to protect you and your building.

The type of agreement you need will depend on the type and scale of use, ranging from another organisation using part of the building for long periods of time or installing a permanent structure, to singular or regular lettings and one off use for a more shared event (perhaps where a band holds a concert but the church sells tickets).

If you are entering into a long term agreement, or considering anything which will entail structural or decoration work to your building you should check with your relevant building advisers at Diocesan, District, Synod or national level at an early stage and certainly before you enter into any commitments.

Ecclesiastical Insurance : hiring church premises to organisations

You could find other ideas to use in our '50 things to do in a church' which celebrates the many and diverse uses of church buildings and asks the public to share their favourite things to do in a church or chapel.  As part of the campaign, Michael Palin explained why finding peace and quiet in a church is important for him.

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Create an Experience

Whether they are having a day out, on holiday or coming from further afield, today's visitors and tourists want something really special. We looking forward to working with you to help create memorable Experiences for visitors to take home, remember and share with friends and family.

Find out more
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