So, You Say You’re a Friendly Church…

(Note: I officially wrote this post for StayPCUSA, but thought I’d cross-pollinate here, if for no other reason to show you I haven’t completely left the blogosphere.)

I hate church shopping. With a passion.

greenwelcometochurchWords cannot express the loathing that threatens to overwhelm me at the mere consideration of skulking into a foreign building full of people I’ve never met and trying to decrypt their unwritten social code. I feel like I’ve  entered into a round of ecclesiastical speed-dating — I have one hour to figure out if their theological views, worship preferences, political structure, ministry trajectory, weekly schedule, and overall corporate personality are compatible enough with mine for me to invest with them the forthcoming years of my life. But seeing as a five-hour commute (each way) to my former church is rather unrealistic, a’courting I must go.

These past few weeks, as I’ve been sampling potential church homes in my new neck of the woods, I’ve come to realize that we as American churches (pretty much regardless of denomination) like to say that we’re friendly.  We tout that we have a “family atmosphere” that folks’ll just love if they walk through the doors. And, in many cases, it’s true — so long as you’ve been born or adopted as an infant into that family. You’ve been raised in that culture, and you know what to expect and when to expect it. You recognize the people to approach and the people to avoid. You know which activities are important, and which can be sloughed off. You have an innate sense of where and when to spend your time, talents, and treasures.  We foster kids, however, are another story entirely. If we were raised in a “church family” at all (which in itself is becoming rarer and rarer these days), it most likely had different house rules. When we darken the door of your establishment, we’re shooting from the hip on everything from what to wear to where to sit to when to show up, not to mention how we should occupy ourselves before and after the service. And so, with that in mind, I’d like to provide a few suggestions for how that process might be more smoothly facilitated. By no means is this an exhaustive list, and I’m writing them down as they come to me. If you have any other ideas, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.

1. Create and maintain a useful and user-friendly online presence.

Social media is the lingua franca of the 21st century. By March of this year, Facebook had 1.15 billion registered users… and if you think that it’s just those “young whipper-snappers” getting online, realize that the fastest-growing demographic on Twitter is the 55-64 age bracket. Print newspapers and magazines are quickly going the way of the dodo, and all it takes is one well-timed YouTube video to turn a nobody into an internet sensation (for better or for worse) virtually overnight. So, what does that mean for churches? Well, put it this way — when Wycliffe goes into a new area, they don’t teach the locals English so they can hand out pre-translated Bibles. They know that if you want to reach people, you not only have to speak their language, but you have to do so in the manner in which they choose to speak it.

In 2013, the manner in which America chooses to speak is electronic. So, then, if your church doesn’t have a website, invest the time and the money in putting one together. Honestly, it really doesn’t even take that much of those two aforementioned resources — with sites like WordPress (which I just happen to be using right now) you can build a basic page for free in a matter of minutes. And website-building tutorials abound online; a quick Google search will produce ample results. Now, for those churches who already have a site… how do I put this nicely? Make it look like it was constructed within the last decade. With all the hours we in the 21st century are logging online, we’ve become pretty picky media connoisseurs. To hearken back to my courtship illustration: if you show up for a blind date wearing tattered, hand-me-down clothing, odds are you’re not going to get a second round. A website is the first impression you make to potential new members — some sources say as many as 90% of visitors navigate their browsers your way before they navigate their cars — so make it count. In the same vein, make sure the site has substance. Folks are Googling you so that they can learn about what makes your church your church — help them do so. Trevin Wax with the Gospel Coalition blogged about the 5 Essentials for a Church Website — he puts it better than I ever could, and since I have more ground left to cover before I wrap up this post, I’ll let you check it out for yourself.

2. Approach people who don’t look familiar.

In my previous church, our deacons gave out “goody bags” to newcomers. I must say, they were pretty nice giveaways; the silk-screened canvas totes were filled with stuff that was actually useful. We only had one problem, though: they weren’t getting handed out. When our pastor asked the visitors if they liked their bags, they’d flash the “deer in the headlights” look and respond that they didn’t know what he was talking about. We had a pow-wow with the deacons, and found out that many of them weren’t approaching newcomers because they were afraid that they’d make fools of themselves if these unfamiliar folks had been coming for a while and they didn’t realize it.

Yes, it’s going to take some intestinal fortitude to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t recognize — but think about it like this: how much more intestinal fortitude are these people exhibiting by inserting themselves into a completely new context? You’re encountering one new person; they’re encountering an entire battalion. The very least you can do is meet them halfway. I can’t tell you how invisible I’ve felt over the past couple of weeks; if people haven’t been avoiding my eyes, they’ve been looking right through me. If your advertising tells people you want them around, but your expression and mannerisms tell them you can’t be bothered, which one do you think they’re going to listen to?

3. Help newcomers navigate the social context.

Like I said in my introduction, every cultural group — and in that designation I’m including local congregations — has its own (usually tacit) code of conduct, which in the case of churches governs everything from when folks show up on Sunday morning to how they clothe themselves to where they sit in the sanctuary. Case in point: two churches ago, my congregation gathered half an hour before Sunday school to mill around and fellowship with one another. My first Sunday at this past church, I showed up a half hour early only to find the parking lot completely deserted (they did their congregating after the service). Every Sunday that I visit a new church, I raid my closet for an outfit that can be dressed up or down at a moment’s notice according to the formality I see when I walk through the (hopefully correct) doors, and on more than one occasion I’ve wanted to crawl under the pew when my now-reflexive “Thanks Be to God” is the only voice resounding through the silent sanctuary after the liturgist says, “This is the Word of the Lord.”

Having as many clergy friends as I do, I’ve done my fair share of church visits. And hands down, I have had the most enjoyable times when a member of the church has decided to take it upon him- or herself to accompany me into (and even at times through) the service. Again, to pull the family metaphor back in: you don’t invite a guest into your house only to ignore them for the entire visit. You meet them at the door, show them around, and make them feel comfortable. You engage them in conversation, and ensure that they know what’s going on so that they can make the most of the experience. Basically, you’re showing them from the very start that they’re not flying solo on this journey — they’re not going to have to navigate on their own through what, to them, is uncharted territory. So introduce yourself before worship starts. Invite them to sit with you during the service. And if your church has fellowship time after the service, ask them to join you. Be the kind of friend that you’d like to have if you were in their place.

4. Follow up during the forthcoming week.

A lot of churches send out form letters to newbies who provide their names and addresses — but even though that’s generally considered to be par for the course these days, you might be surprised to see how many don’t. Last week I visited a moderately large church and ticked the “new visitor” box on the pew pad. I was really interested in learning more about the church’s theological position, because there was a technical glitch on the “Our Beliefs” section of their website. All week I waited… and nobody called. Nobody sent a card. Nada. (And the ironic part of it? In that Sunday’s sermon, the senior pastor congratulated his congregation for how welcoming they were to newcomers.) Not surprisingly, I tried a new church this week — me, the one who detests church shopping; the one who yearns to settle in and start planting roots. I know I keep flip-flopping between the family metaphor and the dating analogy, but bear with me for just a little longer. Here goes: don’t be the ecclesiastical equivalent of the guy who says he’s going to call and never does. And if I’m really going to meddle, let me take it a step further: what single person do you know of who has their parent make the follow-up call to a potential love interest?  If you really want to make an impression with newcomers, don’t just let the paid staff be the ones to take care of visitor follow-up. Prove to them by your deeds as well as your words that the entire congregation has a vested interest in them. Be friendly; be attentive; and, most of all, be (and I know it’s going to make people cringe when I use this word) authentic. Show them that real people go to this church, and that they can be real people when they come to this church, too.

There’s so much more that I could write on this topic… but this post is way too long as it is. Hopefully it’ll serve as a conversation starter, getting other folks into the dialogue of how we can make the friendliness of our churches be perceptible both from outside and in.

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The Power of the Pause

pauseT-minus four days until my first class. And, not surprisingly, I find myself overwhelmed once again. If you’ve ever taught before, you know that putting together a class the first time around involves a tremendous amount of pre-work. New business require startup capital; new courses require startup studying. So, in essence, I’m trying to cram a semester’s worth of learning into a week and a half. And seeing as one of the books I’ll be teaching from didn’t arrive until today, I definitely have my work cut out for me. I’d love to have my course website fully populated with data and all my instructional handouts created before the semester begins, but there’s simply no way that I can have all my “I”s dotted and “T”s crossed before Wednesday.

Two days ago, my “house-mom” Marie* (owner of the basement where I’m currently living, as well as the rest of the residence on top of it) alerted me to the fact that she would be cooking dinner for me this evening, in order to welcome me to the house. Yesterday, she pulled a 15-pound turkey out of the deep freeze. She had about 20 little yellow spuds scrubbed clean and laid out to make mashed potatoes, as well. As the afternoon ticked by today, I found myself inexorably pulled (a’la Hanna Barbera’s “Snuffles“) toward the mouth-watering poultry aroma wafting down from upstairs. As I made my way up from the depths and started talking with Marie, she invited me to accompany her and older daughter Leah* to Macy’s; she had a 25% off pass that was only good today, and it would nicely fill the time between then and the golden moment when the turkey thermometer couldn’t stand the pressure any more.

I was faced with a choice: I could politely decline, descend back into the depths, and continue hoeing my little scholastic row; or I could take a few hours respite and engage in an activity that was completely “unproductive.” I opted for the latter, and I can’t say that I’m sorry. We raided the clearance racks; we scoured the sales floor; we tried on enough outfits to keep the sales associates reshopping for hours. And, although I promised my mother I wouldn’t buy anything, I must admit that this Thanksgiving Day I’ll have a (small, mind you) personal stake in the festivities that weave their way through lower Manhattan.

We arrived home, finished the final preparations, and sat down to a delicious dinner; afterwards, we sat around the table and swapped stories. I helped clean up and was back in my little grotto by about 8:00, mentally and spiritually refreshed. I hadn’t realized just how starved I had become for human interaction — moving to a new area and trying to set up housekeeping has a marked tendency to isolate one if s/he isn’t careful. Having a prolonged face-to-face conversation was like a breath of fresh air for me.

I also realized (yet again) the importance of taking a pause. It’s not easy — especially when deadlines loom, the temptation to “keep pushing through” approaches at juggernaut strength. But as a good friend has reminded me on many occasions, that’s not God’s plan for us. Constantly “pushing through” not only strip-mines us of all our physical, emotional, and spiritual resources, but it also lures us into thinking that our worth lies in what we can produce. There’s a reason that God declared the Sabbath Day holy; yes, it gives us a chance to retreat and recharge, but it also reminds us — forcibly, at times — that our worth comes from the God who created us rather than the projects we ourselves create.

Have I fully learned this lesson yet? Um, no. Not even close. Resisting the urge to rely on the Power of Caffeine to get me through all-nighters is going to be a herculean task over these next four years, and I have the distinct feeling that it’s one at which I will inevitably (and, if I’m honest, repeatedly) fail. But if I’m going to make the most of this opportunity to stretch my mind and fill my soul, I need to be a good steward of the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual resources that God has given me — and a big part of that is the wisdom to know when those resources are being stretched too thinly. And I guess that’ll start now: I have nine hours until church starts, so I’m headed off to bed.

*I’ll be using pseudonyms for my “house-family,” to protect the innocent. 🙂

Geographic and Paradigm Shifts

ImageWelcome to my latest thought experiment. You know, since as a doctoral student I don’t have quite ENOUGH to write, I figured I’d add a new blog. Seriously, though, I embark on this project in the hopes that it will both give me a place to work through my crazy, jumbled up ideas and provide me with a record of where God has taken me.

So, what’s my story? Yesterday, I moved to a northern suburb of Chicago to start my PhD in Education at Trinity International University, a private Christian school based out of the Evangelical Free Church. I earned my MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 2010, and will be graduating with an MA in Comparative Religion (as long as I can somehow write and defend a thesis in the next three months) and an MEd in Educational Psychology from Miami University this December. I’ll also be working as an adjunct with Trinity in their Preparation for College Studies program, helping “borderline” freshmen gain the skills and perspective necessary for success in higher ed.

And it is my preparations for this last role that will provide the fodder for my first digest. This evening, I joined about 10 other new adjuncts in our faculty orientation session. While most of it was typical paperwork and procedure, one offhanded comment the Associate Dean made tonight threw me for a loop: in discussing the format of our classes, she quipped, “Not only do we encourage you to weave a Christian worldview into your subject matter, but we expect it.”

Now, if you’ve read the tagline on my blog, you should be thoroughly confused right now. I call myself a “budding Christian academic,” for Pete’s sake. I eventually want to teach ministry leaders how to teach. Why, then, should the idea of saturating my classes with the faith that I cherish seem like such an odd request? Simple: I’ve never really been able to do it before.

My undergraduate degree is in secondary English and communication. I taught (public) high school lit for two years, and my next time behind the desk in a paid capacity was teaching comparative religion to state university students. In both of these situations, I was admonished in no uncertain terms to check my beliefs at the door. At the high school level, I could only talk about my faith if a student brought it up; at the university, I wasn’t supposed to mention it at all. Now, I’m being told to broadcast it at full volume.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s a wonderful opportunity, and I plan to make the most of it. At the same time, though, I can’t help but feel a bit like Plato’s cave dweller who just experienced his first rays of sunlight.  I have this amazing new freedom! I can experience education like I never have before! But on the other hand, I don’t quite know what to do with this “amazing new freedom” that I’ve just discovered.

My toes dangle over the rim of this yawning chasm of new educational opportunity, and to be honest, it frightens me a little. Incorporating my faith into my teaching means that I’ll be uncovering a whole new layer of personal and professional vulnerability. Three times a week, I’ll be laying bare the core of my identity and standing up as a spiritual model to two separate herds of impressionable 18-year-olds. No wonder the apostle James tells his readers, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (3:1)

Yes, I have a sizable task ahead of me. But I can’t let that distract me from the the understanding that God has put me in this place at this time for a specific reason and to accomplish a specific purpose. And furthermore, I need to realize that it isn’t about me. It’s about God doing His own work through (and in) me. My task is to be a wise and prudent steward of the resources and individuals that God has entrusted to me — and hopefully at the end of the semester, I’ll hear a resounding “Well done, good and faithful servant!”