My family’s transition to Marion, Indiana last summer afforded me an unprecedented opportunity. You see, I’m a Nazarene pastor’s kid who’s married to a Wesleyan pastor’s kid, and because God apparently has a sense of humor, my three kids are all pastor’s kids too. But all of this means that I’ve never been able to participate in one of American Christianity’s favorite pastimes: church-hopping.
I love the church. I am both a teacher and a student of the church and her worship. Every time I visit a new church I learn something. So I relish every opportunity to experience the inside of a new church building, participate in a new worship service, sit under the preaching of a new pastor, and hopefully make some new friends. I’ve visited lots of churches throughout my life, but only occasionally – a Sunday here and a Sunday there – and I always had a home church to return to. So it was strange and exciting to wake up each Sunday morning this fall and say to my wife, “well…where should we go to church today?”
Some might call it “church-shopping.” I’d rather think of it as “visiting,” since we decided early on to settle in at the local Nazarene church (a predictable choice, I’m told) after we made the rounds. Besides, that’s what we usually call folks who show up at our churches for the first time: visitors. (Although “guests” seems to be trending now.) But I knew that once we got involved at a local church, our chances to visit other churches in the area would be limited, so we decided to just “visit around” for awhile.
From August to December, we worshipped in more than a dozen different churches ranging in size from 50 to 1200, representing several denominations (Wesleyan, Methodist and Nazarene), most of which we only visited the one time. In the process, here’s what I discovered:
1. First Impressions matter – Unless we vigilantly guard against it, it is easy for churches to begin to operate as if regular attenders are their only focus. Evidence of a church’s internal or external focus appears in everything from greeters to information centers to signage to building maintenance. For a visitor, it’s easy to sense when a church is clearly not prepared to receive guests. This can make an already-anxious and uncomfortable person feel even more out-of-place.
We have three young children, so kids check-in procedures were a big part of our visitor experiences. It was obvious that some of these had not been designed with first-time visitors in mind. In some cases, the greeters at the front doors didn’t know where to direct us, or the signage was poor or misleading. In all but a few cases, the whole process took entirely too long – in one case, we arrived 10 minutes early, but by the time we were seated in the sanctuary, we were 12 minutes late. And some of the largest churches we visited had the most glaring issues! (Some smaller churches didn’t have a check-in or security process whatsoever, which is another problem – whatever your size, please create some type of security procedure for dropping off and picking up kids.)
Think through your “hospitality process” (that’s what it should be) from the perspective of a first-time guest. Train your greeters with a laser focus on visitors. Make your kids check-in process as streamlined as possible. Your need to get a family’s information is not more important than their need to have a smooth and easy journey between their car and the sanctuary. Everything they experience prior to the worship service sends a message (Andy Stanley calls it “the message before the message”), and sometimes those messages can make it harder or even impossible to hear the Good News they came to hear.
2. Congregations matter – this one has to do with the whole culture of the church, so it can’t be easily addressed in a committee meeting; but in all our church-hopping, it was undeniable that the “vibe” we got from the congregation made a huge difference in our experience. Some congregations were enthusiastic in worship, while others seemed disengaged and half-hearted. Some congregations were friendly and welcoming (without being weird or “pouncing” on us) while others seemed oblivious to our presence. Some you could just tell were really authentic and passionate about their faith (and their church), while others kind of left you to wonder why they bothered showing up. Which would you guess made us think, these are people I want to be around?
One other thing: for us, overly homogenous churches were a turn-off. Yes, it’s important to be able to connect with people at church who are at a similar place in life, or share common interests, but I don’t want to go to church with a bunch of people who are just like me (what a terrifying thought!). We were blessed to visit a few generationally and/or racially diverse churches, although they were the exception. I understand that having a specific focus or “target” audience can be part of an outreach or church growth strategy, but diverse churches better reflect what I believe Heaven will be like. It’s neat to get a glimpse of that in the here-and-now.
3. Pastors matter – this one hurts, but I have to say it: in a few cases our experience was absolutely made or broken by the pastor. And not just by the quality of the preaching, although that was certainly in the mix. At one church, the lead pastor was standing at the door alongside the greeter; he welcomed us, led us back to the children’s area to check our kids in, and then back to the sanctuary. At another church, an associate pastor did the same thing. This speaks volumes to a first time guest about the values and priorities of the church. On the other hand, at one church, the senior pastor noticed us in the lobby after the service, but just walked right past us without so much as a smile. I understand how drained pastors can be after preaching multiple services, but Sunday morning is game time until you drive off the property. You may not be up for a lengthy conversation, but a brief introduction and “thanks for coming today” may be more than enough to make someone feel welcome.
Granted, we’re pretty “churchy” folks. Try as I might, it’s unrealistic to think I can truly experience church through the eyes of an unchurched person, so take all of this with a grain of salt. Now that I’ve shared three things I think really matter, let me mention two elements that struck me as being far less significant than I might have expected.
1. Buildings – we visited some fantastic, slick, shiny new buildings, and some little, cruddy, poorly maintained buildings. But I don’t think there was a single one that we wouldn’t have gone back to because of anything to do with the building, nor one that we would have returned to solely because the building was so cool. Spaces do matter; maintain your buildings; be clean, safe, and intentional in your environments. But it turns out the cliché is true: the church really isn’t the building, it’s the people!
2. Music / “Style” – we experienced congregational worship that ran the gamut from ancient hymns to the latest modern worship songs, accompanied by everything from large, professional-quality worship teams, to churches that sang along to CD tracks. My wife and I are musicians and worship leaders, so you’d think this would be a big deal to us. But it just wasn’t. Much more important was the energy of the congregation as they engaged in worship. Show me a congregation doing what they can do with all the excellence they can muster – who is “owning” their worship with authenticity and passion – and THAT’S something attractive to anyone, churched or unchurched.
Those involved in full-time ministry – like many of our Wesley Seminary students – aren’t given many chances to be a first-time visitor. I hope you can learn vicariously through my church-hopping experience. While it was enriching, I’m glad it’s over. My family and I are ready for the community, the relationships, the support and the opportunities to serve that accompany commitment to the local church.
In closing, let me encourage not just pastors but all Christians to take every opportunity you might have to experience church as a visitor. Maybe it’s venturing out when you’re away on vacation, or just making an intentional decision once or twice a year (any more than that and your pastor might get mad at me!) to visit another church in your city. If more pastors in the pulpits and parishioners in the pews knew what it feels like to be a visitor, and would be mindful of those who may darken our doors for the first time, I believe it would radically transform and revitalize our churches.