Creative Works: How to turn a dated church campus into a canvas for storytelling

Innovation is where the creative rubber meets the road. Often, our problem isn’t lack of ideas, but an inability to make them happen. Innovation is creativity that delivers, and all great innovations are applied creativity, which is frequently mischaracterized as the uncreative work of project development. Creative Works is a blog series devoted to ways to refine raw creative ore into complete projects. 


I love the people at my church, Peachtree. But my first impression of the church’s physical campus in the fall of 2011 was that it needed some updating. The main building on campus is a conglomerate of construction projects. There are two fourth floors. There is no obvious front door, and after three years there are rooms I am still discovering for the first time. It’s the Winchester House of churches.

The main hallway on the second floor is 1/8 of a mile long. The first day I arrived on campus, I wandered into one end of the hall and began walking, trying to find where to go. Along both side walls of the hallway hung a random collection of artifacts from decades of ministry. The most recent were a set of large photos in ornate gold frames that looked both old and stylistically conservative for whatever time they were originally hung. 6’x10’ purple tack boards with white edging housed a random collection of notices and flyers. Three or four “information kiosks” from perhaps 30 – 40 years ago still displayed an outdated slogan and stacks of flyers and cards.

 

Peachtree is like most churches or organizations with longtime facilities.

For the most part, we don’t spend much time thinking about the spaces we spend time in. Over time, they age. We forget what the space looks like to outsiders. But here’s the thing:

Every space tells a story. If you’re not intentional, the story your space tells about you may not be a good one. Tweet This

In the first two years of my tenure I didn’t do much about the hall. I had other “hills to climb,” so to speak, in worship, online in print, and in other arenas, and I also wasn’t sure what hornet’s nest I’d stir up by trying to address the hall. But it still bothered me.

One day last summer, our senior pastor Vic Pentz proposed to our exec pastor Marnie Crumpler and I that we hang some new images of the church around campus. We loved it. Like a running back who spots a hole in the mass of lineman ahead of him, Marnie and I ran toward daylight.

Here’s what happened next, and how we turned an outdated physical campus into a canvas for storytelling.

 

1. We found the right “who.”

One of my leadership principles is that every big project starts with a “who” – a person (in addition to the primary leader), usually a strategist or specialist, who will help champion the cause and make sure the result hits close to the vision. I began to meet with our “who”, a church member who takes beautiful photos. We discussed different strategic approaches to the images – what kind of looks we wanted, what we could find, what we could consistently capture ourselves, who would do the work, and so on. Our “who” and I have met one hour a week for most of the past year.

2. We scoured the photo archives for possibilities.

An archive search confirmed our hunch that we’d have to be intentional and set up some shots. As our photographer said, you occasionally get lucky when you just go capture an event, but it’s a 1 or 2 in a thousand chance. When you set stuff up, you control the outcome.

3. We decided to start fresh with an “editorial” look.

Editorial photography refers to the images in a magazine that aren’t ads. They tell a story – the story of the articles in the magazine. They’re characterized by a strong focal point, compelling human faces, and action. Editorial photos, we decided, would capture the variety of Peachtree’s ministries well.

4. We put a prototype together quickly.

Innovations need quick prototypes. It’s important to strike while the interest is new and high. We identified a variety of ministries and venues to photograph, and set up a quick schedule. We pulled a few from the archives, and within a few weeks had a meeting with our senior pastor and executive pastor to show samples and talk options.

5. We consulted with a sign vendor.

The vendor had previously done two projects for the church, and advised us on different approaches – a wooden frame with peel-off prints, mounted on long cleats flush against the wall, and an acrylic frame with metal stand-offs. He made physical samples of each.

6. We consulted a facility expert.

Of the many ways we could mount the images, we wanted to hear from the church’s regular architect, a man who’d worked on the facility for years on how to present them in the hallway and other campus spaces. These meetings gave us a vision for 4’x4’ square prints, and vertical and horizontal ones with the same 4’ maximum size,  hung in heights to match the door frames.

7. We got buy-in from key stakeholders.

With a set of images everyone liked and two impressive, 4’ tall square prints in hand, we paraded the options around campus and got feedback from key pastors, staff and lay stakeholders. When it comes to major projects, such as this physical change to the facility, avoid unilateral decision-making. It’s good to have your ducks lined up before you take off across the pond. With everyone’s input, we settled on the wooden option, which fit the culture and style of Peachtree better.

8. We divided the work into phases and began production.

We identified 10 favorite photos, most of which highlight long standing and beloved ministries, and sent them into production. We targeted post-Thanksgiving for the initial roll out, so among the 10 we included a few seasonal Christmas shots of campus activities.

9. We got rid of the old and rolled out the new.

Finally, after 4 months, the facilities team got to work on the old walls, removing the purple tack boards and old kiosks, and repurposing the ornate picture frames. We timed the new prints to be hung on Fridays, so we’d capture first impressions on Sunday morning. The first photos were a hit, so we set up timelines for additional phases of 10 prints. From January – March, we rolled out 10 at a time until we reached our target of 50 images.


  • Peachtree Campus Photos 1
  • Peachtree Campus Photos 2
  • Peachtree Campus Photos 3
  • Peachtree Campus Photos 4
  • Peachtree Campus Photos 5
  • Peachtree Campus Photos 6

I wish I could walk with you down the hall. It’s really impressive. The result is that now, when people walk down the main halls of our campus for the first time, they’re greeted with a uniform collection of images that tell stories of the life of the church – worship, student ministries and camps, children’s gatherings, mission work, and much more. What had been an eyesore is now a feature way to communicate the values of Peachtree.

 

A few final tips:

  • While we elected to work with a vendor’s production plan, with sticky prints on wooden frames that we could peel off and replace, a standard large format printer could handle single prints at a much less expensive rate.
  • We considered portrait or landscape options, and ended with some of each, but at the suggestion of our exec pastor Marnie Crumpler, created many of the images with a square 4’x4’ aspect ratio. The squares ones are most dramatic.
  • Don’t hang them behind standard picture frame glass or plastic covers, which dull the image and dampen the impact.

 

What are your thoughts? Ask additional questions about the project below, and I’ll reply as soon as I can.

 

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).