We’ve been going about this all wrong. Churches double themselves up in knots trying to please the specific whims of how individual visitors like to be greeted. Most of the time they get it wrong. They over-greet people that would prefer to quietly observe and be left alone and accidentally leave alone people that need their hand held all the way to the 3rd hymn. In our town, a new local pastor tweeted that he’d be visiting Church X and Church Y on his first Sunday in the community, then blog-bashed them both a day later. Nice. If that’s how the pros do it, how are the laity expected to get by?
I’m on vacation the Sunday after Thanksgiving and had a rare chance to visit another church purely for the opportunity to not worship on the clock. While I was there, it occurred to me: visiting church is easy. How did we make it so hard?
Seriously. Name another place in life where if your needs aren’t met within minutes of walking in the door you aren’t on somebody’s elbow finding out what you need to know. Even in intimidating environments like hospitals or funeral homes we speak right up. In a restaurant we’ll even do it with an attitude.
So today I offer you 5 ways to visit a new church. Copy/paste it into the visitor page on your church website. Make it into a poster for your narthex. Take it to the Sign-O-Rama and use it to mark your Sunday AM reserved parking. Transform the way people come to your church.
1. Visit the church website before you go.
There will be problems with the website; their Internet people are volunteers. Get over yourself. But even if it’s in comic sans you should be able to discern when the services are and what kind of worship to anticipate. Even without a service description you can use little context clues. For instance, a rural church with a 9am contemporary service is a traditional church that’s trying out a contemporary service. The songs will be newish but there will be palpable tension when anyone approaches the drum kit and the pastor will already be dressed and employ uncomfortable phrases like, “this week I saw on the Facebook Internet…”
2. Know what you want from this experience before you go.
Are you there to just to worship and be in the presence of God in the company of likeminded community? Perfect. You can do that anywhere. If you need something else, do your best to find out before you get there. Need children’s programming? It may be listed on the website, but if it’s not, call ahead. If they don’t have office staff, ask the first person you see when you walk in the door. Don’t stand around waiting for someone to notice that you have kids and presume that you want them taken away from you. Own your experience. FIND OUT.
3. Don’t arrive 20 minutes early.
The regular attendees won’t arrive until about a minute and 20 seconds before the service starts. Anyone there before that is a greeting volunteer or a staff person, but even they aren’t visible until about 10 minutes before kickoff. If you get there before that, you might get to meet the person who unlocks all the doors and sets the thermostat. Get there about 10 minutes before the service you’re attending and there will be people there to direct you. 5 if you don’t have kids. If there’s nobody there to greet you, you’re looking for the big room with seating. If you just want to check out the building, you can do it after the service. Not because you’re intruding. Because there’s more time after, and somebody can probably even help you.
4. If you’d like to meet the staff, introduce yourself to the staff.
Don’t lurk in the background of one of the busiest hours of a staffer’s week like some bizarre secret-shopper test of whether they’ll a) notice you and/or b) overcome your awkward lurky body language to offer you an appropriate/canned greeting. Be a grownup human being and say hello. Yes, yes—hopefully the morning is going perfectly and they’ll notice that you’re a new face in the sea of 400 worshipers this morning. They’ll greet you and you’ll remember this morning as the inception of a life-changing, beautiful friendship. But just in case, maybe extend your hand and tell them you’re new.
5. Give them a second chance.
And a third. This church has problems. There are people in it. Somewhere there’s some poison. It could be in the staff or the committee power structure or in large financial contributors holding court or a youth minister that only buys products associated with the Left Behind series. Your first impression is wrong. Whether positive or negative. You simply can’t get to know a church in the space of a visit, or even a month of visits. And as a spirituality professor of mine once counseled a church-hopping classmate—if you find a genuinely perfect church, for the love of all that’s holy DON’T join it. In that case, you’re the problem.
So there ya go. You’ll be up and visiting well in no time. Heck, I’m even looking forward to meeting you.