Like it or not, every physical setting communicates a message.
Or, as Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960s, “The medium is the message.”
What McLuhan meant was that the message you are sending is significantly affected by the channels through which it is communicated.
If you communicate good news in stale ways, it’s perceived as tired, old, and irrelevant.
The setting in which you do your ministry communicates a message.
What is your student room saying?
In his book, Deep and Wide Andy Stanley recounts a time when he visited a friend’s church. The Bible study room where they were meeting had a weird odor and lots of clutter. Because the medium is the message, Stanley says that the messages the room sent were:
We aren’t expecting guests; what we’re doing here isn’t very important; and we don’t take pride in our space (p. 154).
Basically, “Whatever. We don’t care.”
And if they don’t care about the space they’re delivering the message in, then the logical conclusion is that they don’t care about the people they’re communicating to, or the message they’re communicating.
The Broken Windows Theory
In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell points out a social theory of crime called “The Broken Windows Theory.” According to this theory, “Crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is left broken and unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes” (p. 141).
There are 2 things that stand out to me in this description:
First, if disorder communicates that “no one cares,” then order communicates that we care.
Second, saying that the environment “sends a signal” is the same thing as saying that the physical environment sends a message.
Here’s the point:
How your student room looks sends a message to your students about how important you think they are, and how important you think your message is.
If you aren’t good at figuring what colors, shapes, designs, and decor will help people feel comfortable and welcome, then find someone who is.
This relates to audio/visual technologies as well. If you’re still using 4×3 Powerpoint slides, you need to recognize that we’re in a 16×9 widescreen world now. It’s time to replace your old projector and screen with flat screen televisions.
Taking the time to get these things right will make a world of difference in how students perceive the most important message you are trying to communicate.
This isn’t just about adding new things; it’s also about removing the outdated things. There is a difference between old and outdated. Some things are old and vintage; other things are just old and outdated. If you don’t know the difference, find someone who does.
Andy Stanley is right when he connects the medium with the message:
“If you create an appealing setting for my middle school student, I will have a much easier time believing that you will present content that is relevant to his stage of life” (Deep and Wide, 170).
It’s time to ask some hard questions:
What does an irresistible ministry environment for students look like?
How can I make our programs more inviting?
What can I do to make our student space more appealing?
The Broken Windows Theory suggests that cleaning things up and dusting things off would be a good first step.