Just as secret shoppers help retailers know what real customers are experiencing in their stores, John (or Jane) Q. Visitor offers the real view from the pew in congregations large and small, raising the questions all first-time visitors ask: How will I be welcomed? Will I know where to go and what to do? Could I feel at home here?
How do first time visitors experience your church? Could this be your church?
A historic, tall-steeple, downtown church in a mainline denomination.
Before I went:
Like many people in the community, I was aware of the church already due to its prominent downtown location and beautiful building. I also spotted its listing in the phone book, where it had a slightly-expanded listing under its denominational subheading. While the larger ads on the page drew more attention, if a visitor were looking for a church in a specific denomination, this would clearly be the listing that jumped out, with service times and web address listed in addition to the address and phone number all churches have listed.
I went to the church’s website for more information, and my eye was first drawn to a promotion on the home page for the children’s musical program, which looks quite appealing, though the performance is still several months away and the info was mainly directed at parents whose children might be interested in participating.
The “visitors” tab was not very prominently placed, so I actually looked in several places on the site for directions and other info before finding it. When I did, I found service times and a map, and a link to learn more about the denomination. I looked at the children’s ministry page in hopes of finding nursery information, but found only a link reading “schedule childcare,” which worried me that I would need a reservation for my child to come, but clicking the word “childcare,” I found that the two links were just unfortunately placed too closely together. The childcare link led to the website of a church in another state, so I felt confused but still reasonably hopeful there would be a nursery, simply due to the size of the church.
Driving anywhere in a downtown area makes me nervous, especially when I know I’ll need parking. Approaching the church, I hoped I would see a sign directing me to an appropriate parking lot, but did not. The lot of a business across the street seemed to be filling up despite the fact that the business was closed on Sundays and signs indicated the lot was for that business only. “Violators will be towed.” I parked there, hoping not to be towed, and seeing nicely-dressed people parking nearby increased my hope.
A man held the door for my daughter and I to enter, but only greeted me after I said “good morning” to him. We passed numerous others as we made our way inside, but no one spoke to me or offered directions. I saw no signs pointing me to a nursery, but using intuition gained only through many experiences with church, I headed down to a lower level and indeed found the nursery there.
The ladies working the nursery were very friendly and directed me on signing in and taking a wristband that matched one they put on my daughter. My daughter was clingy and didn’t want me to leave her, but the nursery workers urged me to go on, as good child care workers do, knowing that children settle down once the parents are out of sight. “She’ll be fine,” the woman said comfortingly. “And if not, we’ll come get you.” How would they find me in a sanctuary of 300 people, I wondered? I suddenly gained a new appreciation for the beepers and child-identification codes that can sometimes seem impersonal at other churches. I sat near the back of the beautiful old sanctuary and on a side aisle, but still worried about my child for the first half of the service in way I would not have if I’d felt more confident the nursery could reach me if needed.
What things built bridges helping the visitor connect to the church? In a very traditional setting such as this, it is largely prior experience in church that helps a visitor know what to expect. The pews, organ, pulpit, hymns, clergy robes, etc., would all feel familiar to most anyone who grew up in church, or even if the visitor had only seen church as represented in television shows and movies! So long as those prior experiences were relatively positive, those traditional elements will be a bridge for the visitor to feel comfortable in this church.
The bulletin provided a clear guide to what would be going on in the service, including the full text of prayers (minus the pastoral prayer, of course) and responsive readings. This made it easy to participate without having to find correct pages in a book, only needing the hymnal for the hymns.
The church also made a clear effort to explain liturgical elements that might be unfamiliar to some. The pastor offered a brief explanation before the Prayer of Confession, indicating that these are both individual and community-wide sins we are confessing, perhaps alleviating concerns of those who associate “confession” with the Roman Catholic sacrament. Also printed in the bulletin was a brief background to the historical context of the Affirmation of Faith that was read. This would be somewhat of a “fun fact” even to those familiar with the Affirmation, but especially interesting to a newcomer who wondered “why are we saying this?”
This church seemed to have a clear sense of its identity, which is a great thing for those visitors who mesh well with that identity. This church is very appealing for people who enjoy classical, high-church music, and who are fed by intellectual discussion of spiritual matters. The sermon, while fairly long, contained very eloquent exposition of the Scripture, and the church’s Sunday school classes appear to emphasize serious Bible study and application of biblical themes to modern cultural issues. The bulletin lists a great array of opportunities for fellowship, education, and ministry.
Barriers to visitors’ connection with and integration into this church might be summed up in one word: assumptions. They assume you know where to park. They assume you know where the nursery is. They assume you know the tune to the musical responses they sing every week. While the church showed some awareness of the potential for these assumptions in the way it explained the confession and affirmation, there are many other assumptions the church should reexamine from the perspective of a visitor.
This is a trap many older, well-established churches fall into, as they consider visitors a nice bonus, but are not actively seeking to bring new people into the fold. This can result in a dichotomized insider/outsider mentality that—while happy to accept outsiders who wish to become insiders—ignores the sensitivity and fluidity of the process by which outsiders gradually become insiders.
For example, a bulletin blurb announcing an upcoming area-wide conference on young adult ministry asks the question, “What are we doing to include young adults in our church?” A great question for pastors and middle-aged and older adults, but what about for the young adults themselves who might read that in the bulletin? The implication is that it is “our” church, and young adults are simply guests in “our” home.
This church knows what it is all about, and does it well. I imagine the insiders of this church experience an extremely rich community life, fed by great class discussions and family activities. Some changes are in order, however, if the church wishes to truly welcome visitors, starting with a reevaluation of their website and signage in and around the building.