Here’s my annual wish list for area churches. I can already hear my “morbidly” local Mormon critic trumpeting “You’d never find any of these problems in a Mormon Church”. Or the critic who complains “what do any of these things have to do with real church?”
The relentless march toward religious “nothingless” continues. If local Alaska churches want to maintain the status quo and continue at the bottom of national church membership and attendance patterns, then do nothing. Or, you could examine your current practices to see if improvements could be made to the various ways you present your church to the public.
1. Greetings & Hospitality
Churches in Anchorage & the Mat-Su, with a few notable exceptions, continue to treat their guests (visitors) poorly. Tied to this, if greeters do recognize guests, they often do so intrusively with distancing questions such as:
-Is this your first visit to our church?
-What church do you normally attend?
-What’s your name?
-How long have you been in the area?
Instead, guests should be greeted with a smile and a handshake, and a warm “Welcome, we’re glad you are joining us in worship today. My name is ____________. If you have any questions, please ask me, and I’ll do my best to help you.”
Want to see great greeters in action? Try Cornerstone Church or Trinity Presbyterian any Sunday.
2. Use the Term Guests Instead of Visitors
Do you use the term visitor when someone comes to your home? Obviously not! They are your guest and you treat them kindly. Why would we use such distancing language as “visitor” when they are really your guest?
3. Invite Guests to Lunch
Churches and/or their members fail to invite guests to lunch, even when there is a fellowship luncheon. They assume a brief mention of this is sufficient. Many churches demonstrate this is an “insider function” by not pointedly inviting guests to join them as they leave the church. Christ’s parable of the sheep and the goats make it clear where these “insiders” will be going. In ten years of visiting Alaska churches, I’ve been genuinely invited to lunch only once or twice.
4. Fix Your Websites
Many area churches have websites that are an absolute disgrace. They’re adorned with pictures of the church, the pastor, or Alaska mountains, lakes, and streams. Few church websites depict members in action, doing what motivated Christians do. Sadder, many church web websites do not contain, on their main page, worship times and church addresses, the two main reasons people visit them. Many churches spend more on cookies, donuts, and coffee than they do on ensuring their websites are presentable, up-to-date, and worthy of being published. Too many churches rely on volunteer labor to maintain one of their most important aspects.
5. Provide Decent Coffee
Alaska is known for great coffee. Many roasters here produce excellent coffee. People know this, use their products, and expect to have decent coffee served at church. Too many churches serve inferior, weak coffee, made from canned product. People are not stupid. When they’re served a watered down product, they can easily make the bridge that your brand of church is also watered down. It costs little extra to serve the best. Let guests know your church does the best because your love impels you. Coffee is a great social bridge, that helps insure great conversations, sometimes building lasting friendships. Why stint? And advertise what you are serving for coffee. It will build relationships with the roaster, and the guest or your member.
6. Misuse of Contemporary Christian Music
Too many churches have leapt to Contemporary Christian Music praise format to arrest declining attendance and membership. Often this will only hasten the demise of your church. I recently attended a church that was attempting this transition. The bulk of the members in attendance on that Sunday were mature with grey or white hair. These members seemed unenthused with the process, partly because the music was poorly presented, and partly because of the lack of theological import. A well-known theologian, David Wells, recently reviewed over 600 Contemporary Christian musical pieces against a similar amount in an average church hymnal. Approximately 60% of the CCM songs contained not a single theological message, while it was difficult to find a song in the hymnal that did not contain multiple theological messages.
7. Stop Using Music as a Draw
The theory behind the use of much of today’s Contemporary Christian music is that it draws the seeker. Unfortunately, many Christianity lite lyrics and contemporary musical idioms, such as rock styles, cheapen the gospel message. The gospel is about Christ’s mission to reconcile man to God, not to bring God down to our level. Anyone who has a clear idea of the holiness of God knows this was the true message of the atonement. Many churches have lengthy, 30-45 min, portions of their service devoted to narcissistic, “me” oriented, music. I’m not condemning all Contemporary Christian music here, just the misuse of music. Music should be used, whatever your form, as part of true worship to God.
8. Give Us Bulletins that Work
Too many church bulletins waste time and paper. Many are extremely unhelpful to guests. Often there is no order of service listed and they are crammed with inserts of different sizes, colors, and shapes. The bulletin should be used to convey a sense of your service distinctives to guest and member alike. Personally I love Trinity Presbyterian’s bulletin. It is a large format tri-fold on a distinctive grey paper. A lengthy section of scripture is always on the front page. This scripture is read and referred to during their pastoral message. Inside, there is one page with a clearly articulated order of service. The remaining pages are devoted to a calendar for the current week at Trinity, announcements, and church business, and the back page is for notes.
9. Make Your Signs Useful
Many Anchorage church signs fail to convey anything other than the name of the church. If service times are posted, usually they’re in such a small type as to be unreadable from the road when passing at the posted speed. The name of the pastor is totally unnecessary, unless it’s in his contract and for his gratification. In addition to the name of your church, the sign should only contain your website address in type able to be read at the posted speed limit. The sign should be in good repair, well lit, and with current technology. If it’s a readerboard sign, dispense with the cutesy messages such as: “It’s a new year, why don’t you do something new: go to church.” What potentially new parishioner wants to attend a church that humiliates those who read that sign? Instead, use that space to share website address and worship times.
10. Use Welcome Gifts
A few churches use welcome gifts for guests to great advantage. First United Methodist gives a loaf of bread, Cornerstone and Trinity give a chocolate bar and a spiritual book, and a few give coffee cards. Of course information about your church, usually a trifold brochure, is also tucked into the gift. It is important that welcome gifts should be given without calling attention to the guest. A certain Assembly of God church I attended asked guests to identify themselves to receive a coffee card. I didn’t raise my hand, and I never returned.