In 2010, I wrote an article titled, “We are a Friendly Chuch.” That was the oft-repeated response from churches in which I was speaking when I asked what was their identifying mark as a church. The gist of that article was that a church may be a friendly church if one visits them, but they may not be so friendly to those that do not seek them out. I took them at their word that they were indeed a friendly church. Events over the past 18 months indicate I may have been a little too trusting in their perception of themselves.
Eighteen months ago my wife and I moved from the community we were part of for 20 years. Given the distance we moved, we needed to find a new church home. As we thought about that prospect, I asked my wife to indulge me for a year—which we extended another six months. During that time I wanted to visit a number of churches before deciding the one that would become our home. This tact was driven by my work with local churches throughout the U. S. and my desire to see just how friendly churches were.
Before beginning our visits, we established criteria that would guide us. Specifically, we would:
- visit churches within a 15-minute drive. Our thinking here is that would be close enough that someone from the church would have no trouble visiting our home as a follow-up. Also, if we eventually associated with that church, it would be close enough to feel as though we were part of the community.
- include any church even though we lean Wesleyan/Arminian. This allowed me to get a broader perspective of how churches in our area respond to visitors.
- attend in full introvert mode. By that, I mean we would engage people only after they engaged us, provide only information to questions we were asked, and not seek to join a class or other activity unless specifically invited. Our rationale was that 50% of the population are introverts and when it comes to church even extroverts become somewhat introverted. So, most visitors come as introverts.
It is an understatement to say that we were shocked and disappointed by what we experienced. It also serves as an indictment of me for my lack of awareness and attentiveness to visitors coming to my previous churches.
We visited churches that struggled to have 40 in their primary worship service to mega-churches and everything in between. Here are some of the things we found.
- Churches generally do not seek people out. Immediately after our move, we were contacted by all sorts of companies indicating their gratefulness for our move into their community and expressing their desire to serve us. They mailed, e-mailed, called, and even dropped by. It seemed like everyone knew we had moved into the area. Everyone, that is, except the churches. We did not hear from a single church even though our names, address, and even what we paid for the house was printed in the county newspaper.
- There is a paucity of good preaching out there. The bulk of the services we visited had what I judge to be weak preaching. Sermons often lacked flow and it was difficult to stay on track. Many seemed to lack intent and I was left with a feeling of “so what.” We also heard what I considered to be the worst sermon I have ever heard. Following the service, my wife and walked to the car in silence, got in the car, looked at each other and in unison said, “What was that!” Thinking he may have just had a bad day, we returned a few weeks later and discovered that he probably did not have many good days.
- Most churches have little or no plan to engage visitors. This was plain with most of the churches we visited. Mostly we saw ushers nodding and handing out a bulletin, no one approaching as we wait for the service to start, and no one speaks as we leave. During the designated time of greeting, often referred to as “passing the peace,” only those within arm’s reach shook our hand and immediately turned away without engaging in conversation. In short, we saw scant intentionality in dealing with visitors.
- Follow-up is largely tepid or non-existent. Several churches we visited did not have the customary pew cards or pew pad where we could provide our address, email, or telephone number, so a follow-up contact was not expected from them. For those that did have one or the other, the follow-up was varied. Some didn’t follow-up at all. One followed up by adding me to their general e-mail broadcast. Interestingly, that first e-mail was recruiting workers for a tent that would be at the monthly farmer’s market downtown. Some sent out form letters or cards expressing how grateful they were for our visit (even though no one spoke to us while we were there).Out of all the churches we visited, only one reached out in a manner that was relational. The pastor e-mailed thanking us for the visit and invited us to have coffee with him and his wife. We accepted and had a delightful time. In fact, we went back to this church more than any other over the 18-month span. The pastor was biblically sound, his messages had purpose, and they were challenging. Unfortunately, his congregants did not share his relational bent and we did not establish a single relationship with anyone in this church other than the pastor.
A quote I read this week speaks of the gap between what a church thinks regarding their friendliness and what they practice. It sums up our experience well.
“The perception chasm existed because the members were indeed friendly . . . to one another. The guests felt like they had crashed a private party.”
Thom S. Rainer, Becoming a Welcoming Church
Why is it important to offer visitors a warm, sincere, meaningful welcome? Aside from the fact that you need them for the work God has called you to, what you can learn from them, the gifts and resources they bring, and the fellowship you can enjoy, you actually may be able to help them. They could be suffering toxic church syndrome and they are coming to you after being away from the church for a long time. They could be on the verge of suicide and you are their last hope for making sense in a world that seems so out of kilter. They could be on the edge of divorce, or seeking to do harm to others, or lonely, or experiencing a host of problems and are looking for some salve to ease their pain. Do not let these people slip away. I say again, do not let these people slip away without offering them love and relationship.
Note: For us, all is not lost. We have found a wonderful church home, albeit just a tad outside our 15-minute circle. I will write about that next.