Smelly Church

by Peggy Hahn, LEAD Executive Director

What is that smell?

Walking into churches across the country, I am struck by three things:

  • hospitality of the people
  • hospitality of the building
  • hospitality of the experience

Oddly enough, all three are impacted by what I can only call: The Church Smell.

You are probably used to or may even like the smell of your church. Most people don’t realize how the smell of their own home gives them the “I belong here” feeling. It’s that feeling that can make us immune to the smell of places we love, like our church buildings.

This is not true if you are new to the place. Smells hit me like a shock wave when I enter these sacred spaces.

Friends, the smells in our church are often, well, let me just say it: stinky.

But the good news is that we can detox our churches. Let’s not wait; I say act now and act fast!

Do the Sniff Test:

  1. Ask 5 people of different ages who have never been in your church before how it smells.
  • Like nothing at all
  • Like a place you can relax and want to stay
  • Like yesterday’s meal
  • Like mold and way overdue for deep cleaning
  • Like you just want to leave

Do this test in the sanctuary, fellowship hall and education spaces.

  1. Talk about smells: Ask them what they expected the buildings to smell like, what they wish they smelled like and what bothered them the most.
  2. Take care of business. Make a detox plan to rid your building of stink. Is it the carpet? The ancient banners? The pews (no pun intended)? Or is it something harder to manage like mold or rot?

You may be smiling right now, as I am while writing this, but that is only because we both know…

This is true. And it matters.

6 replies
    • karen Wilhelm
      karen Wilhelm says:

      Karen Wilhelm.
      It is not only the smell but the look as well. Lots of people don’t smell things but they can see. Both can be offensive.

  1. Dee
    Dee says:

    It would be a loving and priceless gift of health to both visitors and church members who have lung disease if church leadership would politely ask church members (and remind the congregation each month in the newsletter) to stop dousing themselves in essential oils, perfumes, colognes, body sprays, hair products, or scented deodorants/antiperspirants before they come to worship. And also, install exhaust vents and remove the air fresheners/deodorizers/oil diffusers from the bathrooms and anywhere else they’re installed. They, like the scented products mentioned in the previous sentence, are powerful airway irritants – and can be even more irritating to our airways than the chemicals from tobacco smoke coming off of people’s clothes. They can make some people so sick it requires an emergency room visit to save their lives. People with severe asthma and/or COPD or other lung diseases are often debilitated for the rest of the day – or even for a week or more – after being exposed to such chemicals. No amount of rescue inhaler can reverse the inflammatory process once it starts, and treatment is very costly and time-consuming. 1 in 7 middle-aged and older adults in the US has some form of lung disease. 5-15% of children have asthma. No one is truly allergic to bad body odors, but many people, even some who do not have lung disease, are severely allergic to the scented products we use in an effort to cover up body odors and bathroom odors. If I’m having trouble breathing before I’ve even left home, it’s too dangerous to participate in worship because of the airway irritants coming off of the clothes and bodies of worshipers. I’ve tried moving to different parts of the sanctuary, but invariably there’s another person sending off waves of chemicals at whatever new place I find to sit. So I simply do not attend worship if my lungs are already inflamed. It is very distressing to have to miss worship because of people’s desire to smell “sexy” or their fear that others might be offended by their perceived body odor.

  2. Heidi B Good
    Heidi B Good says:

    I agree with Dee. When my asthma kick in, there are certain people I have to sit far far away from. I have had to leave
    in the middle of a service when the fumes become overwhelming. When my asthma is not an issue, I don’t smell a thing in our sanctuary. It is usually the people that are the issue.


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