John Q. Goes Alternative

August 17th, 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 casual alternative service at a generally more traditional church. (Not being a technical term, "alternative worship" might be roughly defined as a smaller service distinct in style, venue, and target demographic from the church's main services.)

Before I went:

I became aware of this evening service through the signs posted along the road in front of the church, which is a prominent edifice along a well-trafficked road. I googled the church itself to find more information, and found the service featured in a rotating carousel on the home page. Clicking that feature, I was taken to a separate site branded specifically for this service. The time and location of the service within the church's facilities were easily found, as were a list of FAQs that answered both of the main questions in had before going: a) was child care offered? (yes) and b) could I wear the shorts I was already wearing or should I at least wear pants? (The FAQ read "can I really wear flip flops?" and the answer emphasized a truly casual, "come as you are" dress code.)

First Impressions:

Entering the parking lot, we easily spotted the door through which we should enter, and were greeted there by a friendly man who asked if we needed directions to the nursery or whether we would be keeping our daughter with us. We asked to be pointed to the nursery, and while we followed the signs, the door we found read "emergency exit only." Not seeing an alarm or an alternate door, we opened it anyway and came into the back side of the nursery, which the nursery worker seemed fine with. (We learned that the sign had been placed there to help people avoid a logjam in a narrow hallway on Sunday mornings, and after the service we discovered the "correct" path to the main nursery entrance.)

The worship space was in the gym, but successfully transformed such that one hardly noticed the basketball goals on the edges of the space, which was made cozier by curtains and even chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling. The team coordinating this service clearly put great effort into the space (presumably having to tear down and recreate the space each week). A long table running down the center aisle featured an elaborate thematic display coordinating with the sermon series, and a hospitality area outside the worship space offered coffee, snacks, mission opportunities, and even an art display.


What helped us feel included and connected to this worship community? From the website to the parking lot signage to the greeter to the carefully planned and prepared space, we had the distinct feeling that they had prepared for us. Odd and self-centered as that sounds, this seems to be a part of hospitality that is sometimes overlooked. Friendly people matter, of course, but seeing the effort and care put into the service made us feel comfortable and welcomed in itself.

A worship band that felt professional and yet low-key and folksy (in a good way) kept the atmosphere comfortable, and a "man on the street" style video before the message helped us connect with and reflect on the key question of the series. Prayer stations on the edge of the space enabled worshipers to respond to the message in a unique way after receiving communion. The church clearly invested a lot in the service--not just financially and in terms of time and people, but organizationally, as great care was taken in planning each aspect of the service.


The guiding notion behind most alternative services, it seems, is to build bridges between church and those who may not connect well with more formal expressions of organized religion. Thus, those planning alternative worship are typically quite attuned to the potential barriers that may alienate visitors--insider lingo, extreme formality, and lack of instruction on where to go and what to do to participate fully in the service. This church was clearly very intentional about being a bridge-builder and honestly did not throw up any major barriers to that connection, aside from our confusion about the nursery door. Communion could also have generated some confusion for some visitors, as the method in which the bread and juice were given was not explained for the benefit of those unaccustomed to that method. The message ended in a cliff-hanger style, leaving people to connect the dots on their own, which could potentially be confusing or offputting to some, but not necessarily moreso to a visitor than to the average attendee.

Bottom Line:

Alternative services are designed to offer something different and unique that is appealing and accessible to the over-churched, de-churched, and un-churched, and this service seemed overall to succeed in that goal. The key lesson for all of us to take away is that intentionality and investment go a long way in creating a successful worship experience.

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