(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.
Words 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.