Since we resigned our church back in August, Julie and I have had the great opportunity to visit a lot of churches over the past several months. We’ve gone to see family and been in some familiar churches and we’ve been to some of my friend’s churches to hear them preach and experience their worship services. Some we have visited more than once, just to go to different services to see what they were like. As a pastor it has been both interesting and enlightening to see how different groups “do church” in so many different environments. We’ve been to large and small churches, those with multiple services and those with single staffs. We’ve heard choirs, bands, orchestras, and kids choirs; we’ve sung hymns, old choruses, new hymns, songs we haven’t sung in decades and songs we’ve never sung before. One constant, everywhere we’ve been, Bibles have been opened, the Word has been faithfully preached and invitations to respond in faith have been offered. We’ll probably settle in once we get through our next round of traveling, but before we do I’ll offer some thoughts on our experiences visiting churches.
1. There are a lot of ways to get “church” done. Every service has had some common elements: congregational singing, preaching, a guest welcome time, offering, announcements, but no two services have been the same. From different orders of service to different ways of doing the basics, they each accomplished worship but did so unique to the church. Some did video announcements, some did the offering at the very end, some did larger blocks of singing than others, some were very polished with smooth transitions and others were volunteers doing their best, but none of those we saw seemed to be performing, they genuinely wanted to worship and lead others to do the same.
2. Feeling comfortable as a visitor in a strange land(like a church) isn’t going to happen, but churches can do more to help. I’ve been to church my whole life and been on church staffs for almost 30 years, and I have to tell you that I still feel a bit nervous as we pull into the parking lot to go to a new church. I can only imagine the sheer terror that accompanies some dear souls as they enter a church parking lot for the first time in their lives or the first time in years. Keep that in mind as you consider how to welcome a guest on the campus of your church.
2.1 Parking lot signage can go a long way. As an experienced church person, I felt pretty confident in knowing where to park to make the shortest walk in and out of church. Some churches do a great job with signs pointing you to guest parking and main entrances as you drive up. Most churches do nothing in this regard. I found that even in smaller churches it was often difficult to locate the main entrance and hard to know where the worship service was going to take place. Multiple building erected over the years often leave a visitor confused about where to go. It’s just easier if I can see that before I ever get out of my car.
2.2 The corollary to this is interior signage. If the main entrance doesn’t take me right to the entrance of the worship space, there is a need for interior signage to get me to the right place and a person there is also helpful. A couple of times we wandered through churches looking for the worship area, saved only by a moving crowd that swept us along in the right direction. My wife and I have no small children, so finding a nursery or children’s area wasn’t an issue for us, but I would say that we were probably fortunate in that regard. Most churches we visited had children’s ministries during the worship service, but clearly marked directions or instructions were hard to find.
2.3 Over the past six months we have been in many services in many churches. At times we were with family or friends, but most of the time we have come into the building as those who are attending for the first time. In every one of those services we have been greeted at least at the door and almost every time we have had someone say hello to us during the welcome time. People have seemed friendly and often glad that we have chosen to attend. Generally the smaller churches have been friendlier as far as the number of people shaking hands with us. In all of those churches though, only three people ever actually introduced themselves to us and asked our names. One kind lady actually invited us to a small group bible study and said more than five words to us. I don’t think church people are unfriendly at all, but I do think we need to learn better how to meet people and make them feel welcome. I know not everyone wants to have a fuss made about them, but there must be a better way to go about welcoming those who have bravely ventured out of the safety of their homes to enter the strange world of a Baptist church.
3. Every church has their own secret language used by members to communicate the locations of meetings. It may be a building named after a previous pastor or a room named after a characteristic it no longer has. I’ve got a friend that I meet every once in a while by the “mexican place” (a preferred mexican restaurant that no longer is standing). We know right where that is, but no one else could know. We’ve been invited to rooms or locations on campus that might as well be next to a mexican restaurant that no longer exists. I know everyone in the church probably knows where the meeting is, but as first time visitors we have no idea where that is.
4. There are some great ministries taking place in the church today. I have been amazed by the creativity of churches to get the work done in so many different ways. We know that Baptist church life isn’t what it was forty years ago when it seemed every church was cut from the same pattern (especially the architecture), but the variety in church life today is beyond what I would’ve imagined. I would recommend that every pastor take some time during the year to visit some other churches just to see what is happening and how God uses so many various methods to share the timeless message.
5. Just a quick note about websites. We’ve been completely reliant upon information on the web when we’ve decided to visit a church. That is, we are looking for worship times and information specifically. Church websites are often as varied as the churches, though there are some standard templates we’ve seen. Making the location, contact info and service times easy to find is very helpful for a visitor. If I have to search long for that info I’m less inclined to visit.