Our Experiences Visiting Churches

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.

Confirmation of His Will

Back in July I posted our story as the Lord led us to leave the pastorate and start out on a new journey helping churches and individuals do missions around the world.  In the five months since then we have had repeated instances where the Lord has confirmed to us that this is the path He has chosen.  It is both exciting and daunting to venture where there are no lines drawn and no path to follow except to see where the next step is.  I want to share some of the things that have happened over this time, as much for me as for those who will read this.

Immediately after our last Sunday at Spring Creek we had to decide where to attend church.  Having been in one church for over 20 years, I thought it would be refreshing to see different churches and how they “do church” as well as hear some of my friends preach the Word (it has been wonderful by the way).  The first Sunday we went to Faith Bible with Amanda and Kevin, our friend Aaron was leading worship that week.  Wouldn’t you know it, it was “Mission Sunday.”  In fact three of the first four Sundays, in four different churches, there was a mission emphasis.  These “coincidences” served to affirm in our lives over and again the Lord’s leading.  Over the last five months we have been in at least 7 mission services, none of which we knew about before we walked through the door of the church.

In November we had an opportunity to do something different and it required much prayer.  We took the weekend to consider the possibility of moving into a different type of work.  That weekend the church we visited had a missionary speak.  He preached on a passage that was key to our original decision back in July.  I dropped out of the new opportunity without hesitation and have had no second thoughts.

The latest instance happened just before Christmas.  The pastor who performed our wedding, Ed Wright, moved to Vermont to begin working at a new Baptist college.  When I heard about it I was intrigued with the idea of doing some work with them in the New England area.  In early December I finally contacted Ed about scheduling a trip in the Fall of 2014.  Interestingly, Ed was going to be in Austin before Christmas and was speaking at Hillcrest Baptist, the church where Julie and I were married and the one we planned on attending the Sunday before Christmas!  Another coincidence.  Through our visits we have decided to take a trip in February there and are now going to work on another one in the Fall.

These are just some of the things that have happened, but it is good to remember all that the Lord has done and how He has led us continually.  One of our wisest decisions back in July was to drop everything, quit both our jobs, so that we would be able to go anywhere at anytime.  We’re learning to be ready to go, to see that those things that some might call mere coincidence are often the hand of God at work as He leads us along a path.  We have to be discerning, choosing those things that are in the path He has directed.  We have to be wise, knowing that there are limited resources, and yet trusting, knowing that He has unlimited resources.  We have to be creative, doing the work when there is no established pathway.  And we have to be faithful, knowing that the Lord has a plan beyond the horizon of our sight.

When we began I told Julie that I could get us to the end of August 2013.  We’ve gotten to January 2014 and I can see through about April.  Looking forward to what comes next.

P.S. Sometime in the future I’ll share some of what I’ve learned about being a Christian who isn’t a pastor or staff member.  It’s been challenging after being on a church staff for the past 30 years.

Lessons from My Church Visit

I visited another church in the area this past Sunday morning. On vacation, but not out of town, I wanted to see how someone else does “church.” Here are a few things I learned:

1. It’s tough to go to a church you’ve never been to before. Even though I’m a pastor and have been going to church all my life I found myself a little nervous getting ready to leave the house. I think Christians should understand how much courage it takes someone, who doesn’t go to church regularly, to walk through the doors of a strange place and to go through the foreign (to them) experience of worship.

2. There is a difference between greeting and welcoming. As I walked through the front doors, which were opened already, I was greeted by a kind woman, “Good morning, glad you are here today.” I walked through the somewhat crowded lobby looking for a sign to the worship space. As I entered the worship space about 5 minutes early I was handed a bulletin, “Good morning.” I found a seat on an empty row, which wasn’t hard since at this time 95% of the people were still in the lobby. That was the end of my welcome.

3. During one of the early songs there was a welcome time, though I couldn’t hear it because of poor sound mixture. The row in front of me turned and each offered a smile and a handshake with a “Good morning.” They were the last people to speak to me. I will say that people were talking to those around them in pleasant tones with smiles on their faces, but there wasn’t much welcome for me. I don’t think this is unusual for churches. We are often much more friendly to one another than to unknown guests who haven’t come with someone. And we will respond to questioners that we are a “friendly church.” Maybe we should look at our friendliness from the perspective of the unattached visitor.

4. I enjoyed the music and the preaching was great, a wonderful message on the importance of Scripture in our lives drawn from Psalm 119. It was odd though that on this Sunday it appeared that only about 10% of the congregation brought their Bibles. Perhaps that was a holiday weekend anomaly.