John Q. Gets Word Overload

Posted on May 26th, 2011

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?

Today’s church:

A medium-large suburban congregation in a conservative denomination.

Before I went:

I had been curious to visit this church for a while, after passing its location on a major thoroughfare many times. Visiting the website to find the service times, I scrolled up and down a few times before seeing a link for service times and directions. The link was fairly near the top, but was hard to spot due to the sheer bombardment of words and links and lists.

Beyond that crucial info I was looking for, I didn’t see anything that would help a visitor know what to expect. The abundance of information on the website appeared mainly directed at members. Without time to listen to a sermon podcast or watch a service online (the church streams its services live, and then has the archive available), I headed to the church armed with only my assumptions about this church’s denomination.

First impressions:

As soon as we entered, we saw a manned visitor information table where we asked directions to the nursery. The woman pointed us down a nearby hallway and we dropped off our toddler with friendly, capable-seeming people, but no check-in process at all. With relatively few children there, I had little doubt they could keep track of her and hopefully remember her name, but there were no procedures for security or to be able to notify us if there were a problem. (We noticed in the service that apparently parents are encouraged to keep even very young children in the service, as the bored and wriggly little ones in worship outnumbered those in the nursery by far. Kudos for offering a nursery anyway, even if that's not the preferred option.)

Coming back by the visitor information table, the woman encouraged us to fill out a contact card, which we declined, and handed us a folder of information about the church. Both the presence of the visitor’s table and the contents of the welcome folder are excellent offerings for newcomers, but most of the information in the packet would be equally if not more useful online, given that most potential visitors will check out a church’s website before going.

The welcome brochure went into great detail about the church’s theological tradition and why they do things the way they do. This is excellent information, just quite a lot of it, and bordering on preachy and defensive as they emphasized certain points in all caps, seemingly pointing judgmental fingers at traditions that do things differently.

Bridges and Barriers:

Bridges and barriers seem to go hand in hand for this congregation, as they make steps in the right direction toward making things accessible and welcoming for newcomers, but then seem to throw up roadblocks with their zealous efforts to reinforce their traditions.

For example, there were two large screens on the wall for projecting song lyrics and other information, which is a wonderful way to help worshipers (new and old) participate easily in the service. However, this church seemed to use the screen as an electronic bulletin and hymnal, projecting far too much content—including the musical staff and all four stanzas, scanned straight from the hymnal—making most of the words too small to read from the middle of the sanctuary. Printed hymnals were available as well, and many people used them, some as a matter of tradition, I’m sure, and others who—like me—could not read the screen's tiny type. 

The church leaders also were very intentional about explaining the significance of certain elements in the service, such as communion and the offering, which is a great way to demystify practices that are common in the church but might be foreign to those not raised in church. Their explanations were not directed particularly at visitors, but still could provide a bit of context for the uninitiated. The problem, however, came in sheer length and tone of these 5-10 minute introductions. Scripture-enhanced emphasis on how one should pay the tithe every week and reflect seriously on the crucifixion of Jesus when receiving communion crossed the line from godly counsel into didactic guilt trip.

This church takes very seriously its role as spiritual guide and instructor for its people. That is something to be applauded, but also approached with caution. It is possible to over-explain and over-instruct, to the point that even committed members—not to mention visitors—start to tune out.

Bottom Line:

Between lengthy announcements, preachy communion and offering introductions, and a methodical 30-minute sermon in which the pastor casually threw out dozens of Bible citations as if they were t-shirts shot into the crowd at a basketball game, we felt bombarded with information but had little real experience of worship. There was no margin left for those ineffable moments with God that simply cannot be put into words.

I think my mother, who was visiting with me, summed it up best when she leaned over and said, “They talk too much.”

Less is more, Church. Less is more.

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