It’s exciting and challenging to move to a new community but leaving the familiar and established behind means loss whether its friends or knowing who to trust with your car repair or more important relationships in the local church. Since I have been a pastor for many years, in the past moving to a new location and congregation meant having somewhat of an “automatic community.” This time has been different since I am not pastoring. I never thought finding a church would be so hard! Over the last 7 months we have been visiting area churches. So here’s some feedback and ideas from an “official outsider” about what it may be like to visit your church & what you might consider doing when a visitor stops by – at least if you want them to come back.
We have visited at least 15 different congregations from Baptist to Presbyterian to Independent of various stripes. Of the 15 only 5 had web pages that told the basics of who, what, when & why of their existence. For some, even finding a working phone number has been hard as well as a real human to talk to. One church had a prominent sign but no phone number and another had times for worship posted but were not up to date. I had to visit on a Sunday morning to find out when they worshiped. I have to conclude that these churches are really not interested in having visitors or reaching out to the public – they make it extremely difficult to know what’s going on!
Visiting a church as a stranger is not easy – it can be even scary and intimidating. It helps to know ahead of time what my family and I might walk into – do I have to dress up or dress down? Speak in tongues or handle snakes? Carry a KJV Bible? Do I need to limber up for the Pentecostal 2 step or bring ear plugs & sunglasses for the worship time? A web site is an easy, inexpensive way to inform people about who you are – I am still amazed that most churches don’t have one. A web site or internet presence is neither hard to create or expensive. There’s no excuse in this day for a congregation not to have one when most people still breathing are connected on-line – unless, you subscribe to an extreme theology of the “invisible church” and really don’t want people to find you!
The next challenge for the visitor is walking in the door. Honestly, I don’t want to be ignored (which has happened) but I also don’t want to be interrogated such as being asked “what are you doing here” or play 20 questions about my job. The answer should be obvious – checking out whether you are an authentic community of believers in Christ and whether I want to stay or come back! It’s a fine balance between being smothered with inquiries and being given the cold shoulder. How we have been greeted (or not) may be due to living in an area whose population is less mobile & more established than say in a metro area but if a person looks like they are new, chances they are & it’s an opportunity to welcome a stranger who (although perhaps not an angel, i.e. Hebrews 13: 2) may bring gifts that could bless your congregation. Do I really need to mention that I don’t want to be asked “to stand up and introduce myself” – I guess I better – it still happens & I cringe when it does. And please respect my teen age daughters’ boundaries – they don’t like to be hugged, grilled about school or told to smile. Try the Golden Rule – it works!
I also find it helpful to know what you believe – something written that introduces me to your theology, worship, leadership and activities is very helpful. Who are you? What do you believe? What makes you different? Where are you going? If you cannot summarize that then I may conclude you don’t know. It may not matter to you but it does matter to me and the spiritual health of my family.
While I value worship & preaching and what’s happening “up front,” I am also looking at who I am worshiping with – are the other congregants present and active or bored and checking their cell phones? Is there opportunity for me to know people better and develop relationships or am I expected to show up, stare at the back of someone’s neck and just pay & watch the Sunday morning show?
Maybe this is all too much for a busy pastor on a Sunday morning to consider. Most churches are not busting at the seams with people. There can be many reasons why that is so – it might be it’s because you’re invisible to the community or what does or does not happen when the rare visitor shows up.
We are still looking for a place to belong. Maybe, our family expectations are too high and we are being too picky as “church shoppers.” I try to extend mercy, grace and benefit of the doubt to where we have visited & the people we have met. I want my family to be part of a living, worshiping community of faith. You never know – we may be that strange family at your place next week. That is if we can find you!