Dr. Charles Revis, Executive Minister, ABC Northwest
Many churches are absolutely convinced they’re the friendliest church around. It’s a form of denial that inward focused churches can’t seem to shake. That’s because they operate more like a closed family than a missional community. Each Sunday the same familiar faces show up and everyone is happy to see the same familiar faces. The dynamic is not much different than a small town Elks club. People recognize each other, smile warmly, greet each other, catch up on some chit-chat about the weather and the process is repeated Sunday after Sunday. Because they’re friendly to one another all are convinced that they’ve cornered the market on friendliness. However, guests would beg to disagree.
Some churches have come to realize that maybe they’re not as friendly as they think they are. Outward focus churches evaluate their “friendliness temperature” from the perspective of the newcomer rather than that of the insiders. They recognize that what the newcomer experiences and what a regular old-timer experiences can be radically different.
For example, there’s a church I visit on occasion that always
does the “stand up and welcome one another” routine. The members stand and shake hands all around. One would assume this is a friendly, welcoming thing to do, unless you’re an outsider trying to join in. In this particular church it feels exclusionary. Why? Because while people shake your hand their eyes are sliding sideways intent on finding a friend they would prefer to greet. They never ask for a name or seem interested in getting to know a person beyond the prescribed handshake. The “welcome” time communicates “you’re not one of us and we really don’t want to know you.”
Unbeknownst to the regular attenders this “friendly greeting ritual” simply reinforces the impression that they’re a closed group. It could be I need to change my mouthwash brand! But seriously, they should dump this unfriendly “friendly ritual” until some of their more extraverted people have been trained to greet guests with the aim of getting to know them—really know them. Or, they could teach their people to enact the “three-minute” rule. That is, the first three minutes after, or before, the service should be spent in conversing with someone they don’t know before talking with a friend.
The truth is, some weekly worship rituals turn off newcomers with the result that they drive people away. At the least, they communicate that some participants are “insiders” while others are “outsiders”, which is not a good thing. Rick Warren calls attention to this in The Purpose Driven Church. He mentions that a church he attended started asking all visitors to remain seated while the regular attenders stood and sang a hymn in their honor. He writes about that experience: “Can you imagine this? The first time we visited, the members stood up all around us and all I could see was a bunch of big fannies. Then they began to sing to us, ‘We’re so glad to have you here. It’s great to have you near…’” Hah! He concludes the illustration with this wise admonition, “Think through everything you do from a visitor’s viewpoint.”
Many churches engage in little rituals in their worship services that subtly, and not so subtly, cause newcomers to feel uncomfortable, even uninvited. For regular attenders these seem benign and even comforting, because they are part of the regular “family” rituals. But, for the outsider they can feel weird and exclusionary. Check me on this. Visit two or three growing churches above 200 in regular attendance. See if they practice any of the rituals I identify below. I bet you will find that the majority of these growing churches avoid these practices because they recognize they turn off newcomers. This is part of the reason they have broken through the 200 barrier.
You may respond to this with, “Well, this is just part of who we are as a church family. Guests can learn to accept them.” Maybe so, but more likely they will move on to another church who focuses more on being an inviting place for newcomers. This is yet again, one of the reasons certain churches grow, while others do not. Outward focused churches really pay attention to the people they are trying to reach.
Here is a sampling of practices that should be AVOIDED:
1. Prayer requests from the congregation followed by long pastoral prayer. I know this will ruffle a few feathers out there. You’re probably saying, “But this is an important part of communicating our love for one another.” Maybe so, but it’s more appropriate for small groups and Sunday School classes. For the guests who do not know the individuals that are being mentioned from the floor, this is dead air time. They don’t know the individuals, and it makes them feel all the more like an outsider. This practice also opens up the floor to lengthy medical details that are better placed in print on a prayer list. Encourage regular attenders to fill out a Connection Card with space for prayer requests. Compile these requests each week for inclusion in a church-wide prayer list that can be sent out by email and printed in a bulletin insert. If an important prayer request needs to be highlighted on a particular Sunday morning it should come from the person leading the congregational prayer that morning.
2. Inviting announcements from the congregation. Inviting announcements from the floor during the service is a time-killer, a distraction, and it comes off as lack of planning. It’s best to print all announcements in the bulletin in advance. Or simply scroll through them via projector at the start of the service. One church I know projects their announcements while the offering is received and special music is presented. It seems familiar because this is what movie theaters do.
3. Long list of verbal announcements. Speaking of announcements, minimize the number of announcements to only the one or two that concern the entire church. Again, avoid wasting people’s time. People check out a church hoping to encounter God, not to be distracted with ten minutes of announcements that don’t pertain to them.
4. During announcements mentioning people only by their first name, assuming everyone knows the reference. This one is obvious. This practice communicates to guests that they are definitely outsiders. When referring to a contact person in an announcement first and last name should be provided.
5. Recruiting volunteers during the general announcement time. Volunteer recruitment is best done in person, either on the phone, or person to person. Recruiting volunteers in public worship seldom yields results. It communicates the church is hard up for workers. And, they’re generally tinged with guilt. Again, a poor practice that dampens the spirit of the worship hour and causes guests to feel uncomfortable.
6. Worship with no flow or logical progression. This one may seem obvious, but some churches put little thought toward the logical flow of the worship service. They just cobble together a series of disconnected, disjointed components. There is no theme pulling the pieces together; or the service unfolds in a disjointed, herky-jerky fashion.
If your church routinely engages in any of these practices they should be dropped from the normal Sunday ritual. Instead, think about all that happens on Sunday morning from the perspective of the newcomer, and you will be surprised by what you discover. Better yet, recruit 3 to 5 “secret shoppers” to visit your church and give you their impressions. Every church can improve the way it presents itself to the guest. In this way being hospitable is even more important than being friendly.