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 young, nondenominational church meeting in a school auditorium. Located in a suburban area, this church seeks to attract young families who may have drifted away from church or never cared much for church to begin with.
Before I went:
I became aware of this church via its prominent, monthly ad in a local parents’ magazine that is distributed free-of-charge at grocery stores, children’s stores, and pediatricians’ offices. If you’re aiming to attract young families, it’s hard to imagine a better place to advertise.
As so many first time visitors (or potential visitors) do, I checked out the church’s website to find details about service times, location, etc. The website had a clear “new?” tab where new people could find the pertinent information, and sure enough, location and time were the first two items there, followed by a link to see the location in Google Maps.
Through the website, I was able to learn a bit about the church’s theology and the fact that guests should feel free to wear jeans. I also noticed a “guest survey” link through which I can go back and leave anonymous feedback. Great idea!
Knowing I would be taking my child with me, I looked for and easily found the section (actually, a link to its own website) about their children’s ministry. As on the main church homepage, there was a prominent button for “first time visitors.”
The people at the front door and the children’s sign-in table were all very friendly, and the woman leading child care sign-in gave me an excellent introduction to the facility and procedures, including the fact that all child care workers have had background checks. I was given the “stub” from my child’s name sticker, with the code that would appear on screen in worship should my child need me. Every effort was made to ensure I feel comfortable leaving my child during worship.
I was early for the early service and while the auditorium—the back portion, at least—filled up over time, I felt a little “out in the open,” with no one sitting within an eight foot radius of me. The church might consider roping off some of the far sides of the wide space, to give the central area more of a critical mass, but to their credit, no one commented on the sparseness from the stage or asked people to move forward or together. While such a request is sometimes necessary if the space is filling up and latecomers need aisle seats, people tend to sit where they are comfortable and do not like to be asked to move.
What things built bridges helping the visitor connect to the church? I’m rarely this early for a church service, but being in my seat and actually waiting for the service to begin, I appreciated the use of a countdown clock on the screen. Despite the many empty seats at starting time, the band still had plenty of energy and drew me into a spirit of worship. (It should be noted that loud and energetic praise music is only a bridge for those who enjoy that type of worship music, but ear plugs were available in the lobby for anyone who wanted to soften the volume a little.)
The church appeared to make interactivity a goal, which is especially nice in a contemporary setting where use of screens and stage lighting can sometimes seem to separate leaders and congregants. The worship leader stepped back from the microphone for at least several lines of each song, letting the congregation hear itself sing. Likewise, the preacher (likely called a teaching pastor in this context, but no title was given) asked questions occasionally, allowing the congregation to shout out responses. A notice occasionally appeared on the screen telling people they could text questions to a certain number.
The message (about making significant changes through a series of smaller steps) closed with several very practical suggestions for taking steps to grow closer to God—a Bible-reading program, a class the church offered for learning more about Christianity, baptism, and more personal steps like forgiving someone you have held a grudge against.
Barriers that might keep visitors from connecting to the church are often in the eye of the beholder, as something that one person finds appealing and inviting could be a turn-off for another person. This church very clearly aims to help people with no knowledge of the Bible or religion feel comfortable. Even prominent biblical figures were referred to as “this guy named Abraham.” However, the danger of aiming at the “lowest common denominator” (for lack of a less-pejorative term) is that others can feel talked-down to. Giving simplistic summaries of biblical stories and theological concepts can imply that information is being given on a “need to know” basis, and can shut down future reflection on or engagement with the text or concept.
The preacher’s first reference to Scripture (approximately one-third of the way into the message) included a simplistic—and not actually scriptural—comment explaining away something unusual in the passage. The moment inadvertently turned a brief reference to a minor Old Testament figure into a defense for literal interpretation of an odd passage. To a visitor predisposed to think that church requires people to “check their brains at the door,” this explanation that defies critical thinking would raise significant red flags. Given that the passage was not central to the message’s point, it might have been better left out altogether, rather than requiring a distracting aside.
I imagine that classes the church offers go into much more depth, and this likely reflects a very conscious decision to make Sundays über-accessible and save the tougher stuff for smaller, more informal settings. Several learning opportunities were mentioned during the service, and the website says small groups are emphasized for relationship building and spiritual growth.
This church did an exceptional job making a first time visitor feel welcome and comfortable. When it comes to the message, however, it might be good to approach the Bible a little more seriously—especially if you take it literally.