John Q. Feels Old

September 8th, 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 midweek worship experience at a suburban megachurch. The service bills itself as "non-denominational" and is branded uniquely from the church, which is affiliated with a conservative denomination.

Before I went:

I discovered this worship opportunity online, searching for evening worship services in my area. The website gave me a good idea what to expect, through descriptions and photos of the worship, and through helpful FAQs addressing time and place, style of dress, childcare, parking, etc. Knowing the affiliation of the host church helped me know what to expect theologically from the preaching.

First impressions:

Despite the specific instructions on the website as to which door (of the eight or more) to enter through, and its location in relation to the main road, the parking lot was a maze through which I drove in circles and over sidewalks to find the door I was searching for. (Signs or parking attendants would have helped.) After that initial frustration, I found the childcare and worship space easily. While the church boasts an impressive coffee shop/cafe, the plain stuff (no decaf, just "reguler") was offered for free at a counter just outside the worship space. People seemed very friendly, both in the children's area and as I got coffee and entered the space.

The age and style of most attendees struck me even at the coffee kiosk, and I felt ever older and frumpier as I entered the worship space. I was certainly not the oldest person in the room, but probably would have been more comfortable sitting with the handful of Baby Boomers I spotted in another section than with the thousand or so college students and young twenty-somethings to whom I am technically closer in age.


I arrived early enough to find a seat easily, but it was nice to see greeters helping those who cut it close find open seats in the packed space. Given the rainy weather, it was impressive (and surprising) to see the great turnout, especially among the teen/college/young adult demographic. A countdown clock on the screens let me know exactly how long before the service would start, and the announcement slides scrolling on the screens gave me a sense of the community's other activities. The slide featuring the name of the message series starting that night piqued my interest and made me quite eager for the message, which I was confident would resonate with me.

The service began with two baptisms, including both a brief explanation of what the ritual means in this community (a helpful explanation, for any unfamiliar with the practice or who might have been raised in a tradition that does or views baptism differently) and summaries of how the men came to be connected with the worship community and to Jesus Christ. This sent a message to newcomers that this was a community in which people's lives are changed.

While I had not heard any of the worship songs before, they were easy to pick up on--a credit, perhaps, to the songwriters, rather than the band, but either way, I could participate and be moved in spite of the lack of familiarity. The provocatively-named message addressed the general issue of "why bother with church?" or "what is the church really supposed to be about?", a topic of interest to me and, I imagine, to many of those drawn to a non-traditional, non-Sunday worship experience such as this one.


As always, bridges and barriers are in the eye of the beholder, as something that makes one person feel more comfortable in worship (in this case, screens, darkness, loud music) might be off-putting to someone else. But, assuming that a newcomer is comfortable with the overall style of the worship experience, barriers can come in the form of things a person finds confusing, that make it hard to fully participate or understand what is going on.

Overall, the message was a bridge to me, being on a topic I often think and wonder about, but I would have appreciated a better understanding of this particular message's focus and its role in the series; however, no title or summary of this message and the others that would come later in the series was given. I've noticed this trend (of not providing titles or a schedule of messages within the series) in several contemporary churches today, and personally, I do not care for it. While perhaps they don't want people to come in with preconceived notions, I prefer to have some idea of what to expect, and the ability to put things into context of the larger series. This message alternated between exposition of scripture and self-effacing stories from the preacher, which were funny and added to his likeability, but often left me wondering "what does this have to do with the topic?" It became fairly clear by the end of the 40-minute message, but if I had even known the focus of this message, that distracting element of confusion might have been eliminated. As it was, the message seemed to address the overall topic of the series, like a general introduction, perhaps, but I still have no idea what other aspects of the issue will be addressed in coming weeks. (Note: looking at the website several days later, I see the video of the message online, with a title and the focus scripture, but only after the fact and with no preview of coming weeks.)

Another barrier for this first-time visitor might also be the general demographic of the community--again, something in the eye of the beholder, since for college students and recent grads who might see no one their own age in many churches today, this community would be a dream come true. I can certainly appreciate that, and am very glad to see a place that is reaching that demographic so well, but personally I wondered if I would be able find a niche in this community. Given the number of children my own child's age in the nursery (and, presumably, a comparable number of children in each age's classroom) there must be a fair number of young families worshiping here, but it would take a concerted effort to connect with them amid the sea of young, hip singles.

Bottom Line:

These barriers are not enough to keep me from giving this worship community another try (and a second visit is what you really want from a first-time visitor, right?) but are things I would be thinking about on subsequent visits. The bridges of good music and a message that connects with a real felt-need in my faith are quite valuable, especially if considering only the weekly worship aspect of this community. Connecting with others and building the relationships that would hold me to this community long-term would require personal initiative that some visitors will have and some will not--a fact that is true of most churches.


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