Looking in from the outside — a pastor visits another church

As most of my Facebook friends know by now, I’m currently in Los Angeles having helped my eldest drive from Nashville to establish a new home. Needing to recover from the drive and needing some time off, I chose to stay over a few extra days to enjoy the sunshine, connect with some old friends, and generally relax. That is how I found myself this morning going through the task that many do each week — trying to find a church to attend, and walking into a new place of worship unannounced.

I do have pastor friends here in the area, and I gave serious thought to visiting their churches. But it as I thought about it, I decided it would be interesting to not lean on my previous relationships but to go somewhere cold — just like most of the visitors to our churches. For most of us in ministry, it’s been so long since we’ve had to go through the motions of researching area churches, walking in the door alone, and experiencing worship as a participant rather than a professional that we can’t really get our heads around what a radical step of faith and risk is required to visit a church for the first time. It’s not easy, for one is trying to find a community which will help to connect them to God through a variety of means which may or may not be truly reflective of the reality of that community. And if one is an introvert (which is my normal mode of being) it’s doubly hard because we are putting ourselves in a place where we may be forced to meet new people.

So, based on my experience from this morning, here are a few random notes. Most of these notes will not be new or surprising, and I fully recognize that the church that I serve suffers from many of the same faults. While I am speaking of my experience with one congregation, I’ve been around enough to know that this church isn’t unusual, that it’s filled with wonderful people, and in many ways i poised on the edge of growth. There is great potential, but there are all sorts of little things that would (if I weren’t an insider) make me question about whether I would return.

1) Seriously, we United Methodist need to do a better job with our websites and social media!

As someone new to the community without much context and no personal invitation, the first place I went to look to find a church was the Internet. The starting point was to search in Google Maps for United Methodist Churches in the LA area to see if there were churches close to where I was staying, and then to click on them in maps to see what information was available. In the course of that looking, I made sure to click on the church website links to see if I could get a sense of what the church was about and whether I’d be interested in going.

Honestly, I have to say I was disheartened. While most of the churches had some sort of web page, more often than not they were poorly designed and poorly maintained. There was information about the church, but what the layout and design suggested was that these were churches running about 10 years behind the curve in regards to technology, and in many cases there wasn’t anything that we particularly inviting. More often than not, there was little on the front page to help me know about the character or make-up of the congregation.

I hate to say it, but very frankly I ended up choosing between 2 or 3 churches simply because of their websites. They weren’t the closest to me, but they were the ones who seemed to be interested enough in welcoming newcomers that they took the time to invest in a modern website. They recognized that providing a good, well designed, functional website is a matter of hospitality. Words are cheap. Offering a website that gives a better sense of who you are goes a long way to being new folks on board.

2) We’ve said it before, but outdoor signage is important.

One of the things that I’m having to get used to in Southern California churches is that most are oriented around an outdoor plaza, courtyard, commons, etc. The church this morning was the second that I’ve attended where all of the rooms open directly to the outdoors — which is way cool in my opinion, but can be difficult to navigate without good signage. There was some signage this morning — but it was sporadic and somewhat out of date. Signage is something that doesn’t really cost that much and is a good investment in welcoming visitors (again, a demonstration of hospitality).

3) Update the bulletin format to reflect modern design principles. 

The trend these days is to denigrate bulletins and orders of worship in favor of projected media, and more “spontaneous” worship experiences. However, I believe that there is still room in American Christendom for traditional, non-projected worship and that worship bulletins can be a helpful resource for all involved. The problem is not the bulletin itself, but the fact that many of our bulletins utilize a print format that goes back to the days of typewriters and mimeograph machines (for anyone under 40, you likely have no clue what those things are) rather than adapting to the joys of modern technology and making these things more user friendly and appealing to the eye.

This morning’s bulletin included a pet peeve of mine — the use of ALL CAPS throughout. Friends, in an Internet world, ALL CAPS is the modern equivalent of an old man shouting because he can’t hear very well. We have all sorts of cool ways of setting off text without all caps — bold, large type sizes, even color for the few that can afford it. All caps just doesn’t get it.

I’m also a believer in not using the worship bulletin for announcements, but including a separate announcement sheet. Yes, it’s a separate piece of paper, but it allows for larger type sizes (important for aging congregations), and it avoids the problem of trying to stuff too much into the worship bulletin.

4) Understand that the greeting/passing of the peace time that we all love can be terrifying and disheartening for visitors. 

I recently read an article suggesting that we do away with these greeting times because of their impact on visitors, but I didn’t get what they authors were saying and thought they were crazy because they offered an opportunity for hospitality. Today, I began to understand. Certainly, there were folks that said hello, but most of the time was spent connecting with church friends rather than trying to welcome or get to know the new people. What was striking to me is that only one person of the 10 or so I greeted asked my name . . . and she was hard of hearing and struggled to understand me. No one asked if this was my first-time, and as I watched quietly folks greet one another I had that sense the authors mentioned of feeling left out. Certainly, that wasn’t the intention of the congregation, and I imagine that many didn’t try to connect more because they were worried that I had visited before and would think that they should know my name. Standing in the midst of a group of people warmly greeting one another and carrying on conversations can be a lonely experience if you are on the outside, so be aware of the dynamics involved and think of creative ways to address these issues. This is certainly something that I will be taking home to my own church.

5) Make sure the practices are clear and consistent.

At the end of the service, the organist began to play the postlude. Everyone in front of me (I was about 3/4’s of the way back) sat down to listen to the postlude.Everyone in back of my began to to talk about started exiting the building. Frankly, I didn’t know what to do, and the bulletin wasn’t as clear as it could have been. Inconsistent practices leave the visitor in turmoil for they certainly don’t want to do something wrong, but they don’t really know WHAT to do. Help them out by training the congregation to be on the same page about these practices.

6) Position greeters at the END of the service at all the exits. 

During the welcome and announcements (and in the bulletin) it was announced that there was a coffee and conversation time in an area of the church following worship. However, as a first-time visitor, that seemed too intimidating to take on the first Sunday, and so at the end of worship I opted to sneak out one of the main doors in the back (while the pastor had already proceeded to the fellowship hall). This meant that I spoke to no one on the way out, received no affirmation of my attendance, a word of welcome, nor an invitation to return. Certainly we need ushers and greeters at the beginning of worship to help welcome and orient people to the space and our worship practices. However, the true pitch for getting folks to return is on the way OUT the door. That’s why retail outlets training their staff to thank people as they are leaving the store — so that they will leave with a positive experience. What I experienced as folks headed to the fellowship time was that there really wasn’t an interesting in my joining that time, nor for that matter my returning. Now I know that they would all say that wasn’t the case, and they would be speaking the truth, but perceptually it reinforced the outsider status and didn’t give me a reason to return.

I’m glad I went to worship this morning, and I wish this congregation well in their ministry. There are many cool things that they are doing, and I with some tweaks I can see mighty things happening in this place.

6 thoughts on “Looking in from the outside — a pastor visits another church

  1. Interestingly I, too, attended a new church today. As part of my work duties I took four teen girls to a local non-denominational (outwardly) church. Upon entering, a mass of people were standing around drinking coffee. Several snack stations with pastries announced that they were made of contributed by the women’s ministry. After meandering all the way across to another set of exit doors, I found a registration area that was apparently for children; which I only surmised when reading the sign behind the woman working the table that said to let them know if your child would be staying for more than one service. No one shook my hand when I asked if it was okay to enter and be seated (because the milling outside continued after the auditorium doors were opened, and people remained inside, too). I noticed a lack of teens in the people waiting for service, and I asked the family behind me if there was a separate service. To the credit of the mother, she did not know, but she got up, asked someone, and told us that yes, once a month a separate service was held, and it was today. No one asked if we wanted to go. No one offered directions in the maze of a building. And during “fellowship” (the evangelical equivalent of sharing the peace), our experience was pretty much the same as yours. This church has the technology and social media in high gear complete with its own downloadable app. Finally as I left the parking lot, one of the girls was concerned because the only sign she saw said “Enter Only.” I think I was supposed to drive around the entire building due to construction, but who can say. I was not impressed.

  2. Hi Jay! Very jealous of your trip to LA!! Hope Grace likes it. But about your visit to the church…. Did the music speak to you? Did the scripture and sermon bring any insight into the Christian journey? Did the pastor admit to being human and wrestling with an unpredictable God? Were you encouraged to “listen to your life” in order to hear God’s call? (Stolen from Frederick Buechner). Just being curious about what came out of the service for you.

  3. Jay,
    Just out of curiosity, does the pastor of this church now know that you visited?

    Also, your comments about the web site reflect some of what I wrote last August (“Can You Find Your Church?” at http://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/can-you-find-your-church/. I think there is a mentality in many churches that says that all is needed is a web site and everything will take care of itself. Unfortunately, like all ministries, the web site requires a lot of care and attention if it is to do what it is meant to do.

    Also, the comments about the bulletin – I find a lot of churches that prepare the bulletin as if they were using a typewriter and not a word processor. With the capabilities of the word processor, there is a lot more that can be done but isn’t. (As soon as I can figure out how to automatically add certain files into the main file, I will have my basic bulletin outline automated.)

    And, it will be interesting to see how the church you visited reacts to the next visitor that comes.

    In peace and with Christ,

  4. Reblogged this on Thoughts From The Heart On The Left and commented:
    I am doing like several others on the Methoblog have done and reblogging this piece by Jay Voorhees. It is worth reading and, more importantly, the basis for examining how your church reacts to visitors. I would also point out that I mentioned some of the problems with web pages in my own piece last August, “Can You Find Your Church?” – http://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/can-you-find-your-church/

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