Tag Archives: guest parking

A welcoming surprise in my neighborhood

When I visit churches, I often find I can enter and leave without anyone greeting or talking with me. This represents discourteous behavior to guests. I believe members or regular attendees perceive this is someone else’s job, taking no personal responsibility for involvement. Entertaining guests in our homes, we personally greet them, making them feel at ease, don’t we? Frequently, I hear members refer to church as their church home. Why then, do so few churches welcome people to their church home?

Before I share some details about the surprise I found in my neighborhood, I want to share a few thoughts of Christian author and social critic Os Guinness. In his recent book “The Last Christian on Earth,” Guinness writes, “We confess that we Evangelicals have betrayed our beliefs by our behavior. All too often we have trumpeted the Gospel of Jesus, but we have replaced biblical truths with therapeutic techniques, worship with entertainment, discipleship with growth in human potential, church growth with business entrepreneurialism, concern for the Church and for the local congregation with expressions of the faith that are churchless and little better than a vapid spirituality, meeting real needs with pandering to felt needs, and mission principles with marketing precepts. In the process we have become known for commercial, diluted and feel-good gospels of health, wealth, human potential and religious happy talk, each of which is indistinguishable from the passing fashions of the surrounding world.”

In previous columns, I’ve commented on churches exhibiting some of the same hallmarks Guinness attributes to evangelicals. Personally I’ve seen these behaviors stretch to other strains of Christianity beside evangelicals. Regularly I receive passionate emails from those seeking a truer Christian experience than what they’re finding, describing entertainment-based worship services, churches as businesses, guest-unfriendly congregations, and bland sermons.

In “Shopping for God: How Christianity went from in your heart to in your face,” James Twitchell documents the rise and fall of religious movements over the years, many of which were pure “sell jobs.” He summarizes by writing, “Who knows where the long and winding road of American Protestantism is going? Certainly not me. But it seems likely that it will retrace the same terrain over and over again, losing steam as it becomes repetitious and then recharging as it gloms on to some new delivery system. When this happens, we’ll think we are becoming more religious, but in truth religiosity is simply becoming more compelling as it shifts media to appeal to consumers once again.”

Which brings me to last Sunday’s surprise. Biking in my new neighborhood, I passed a Baptist church, one I’d never visited. Intrigued by the “independent” in its name, I made a mental note to visit them in the near future. I’ll admit I don’t eagerly visit Baptist churches because many of them use the same format, and guest-friendly is not the first term that comes to mind when I visit. Sometimes I’ve been ignored, while at other times subjected to hellfire and damnation sermons, and endless altar calls. Now I realize some of this is what I call denominational DNA, but it’s off-putting to a first-time guest. I hoped this visit would not be a replay of some of those previous visits.

As my usual practice, I timed my arrival to enter the church about 10 minutes before the start of services. Its website prominently listed service times, something not all churches do. However, their address, which I already knew, was at the bottom of the webpage, which is not guest-friendly; it should be at the top on any church site. Service times and location are the two main things potential guests seek.

Plenty of parking was available as I arrived; I slipped into a nonvisitor space. There were about three visitor parking spaces in front of the church, clearly marked. I noticed there were additional open spaces to the right of the visitor parking which, if intended, is an additional guest-friendly gesture.

As I entered the doors someone said hi. Going up the steps to the sanctuary level, I was greeted by a man named Roy who offered his name first, a guest-friendly practice. I responded with my name. Spotting me as a guest, he invited me to sign the guest-book, indicating no one would call on me. I mentioned that was not my experience and preferred not to do so, whereupon he seamlessly shifted to offering to find me a seat even though the church was not full. I believe this was the only time in all my local church visits someone offered to see me to my seat. This is very guest-friendly, relieving anxiety about sitting in “someone’s seat,” a fear of many guests.

Several people stopped to greet me before the service started, including the pastor who introduced himself as “pastor McGovern” (I later learned his first name was Terry). This is so rare, I almost fainted. Just kidding. But few pastors tend to do this.

The service began with a hymn, started first by the choir and then joined by the congregation. A color guard came in with a U.S. flag, a Christian flag and a man holding a Bible. In turn, the congregation recited the Pledge of Allegiance, Christian pledge and Bible pledge. This was another first in all my churchgoing. A man dressed in a sailor suit gave an inspirational reading and sang a special song. During the service, the congregation sang three hymns, all accompanied by piano. People really sang. A wide variety of ages were represented by this congregation.

The sermon was delivered extemporaneously about the Christian principles upon which our founding fathers established our country, and supported by Scripture. You can watch replays atibca-alaska.org/messages. Their sermons are also live-streamed. The pastor concluded with an altar call, after which a final hymn was sung and church dismissed. Announcements revealed this to be an active church with many activities involving all ages. All were invited to lunch at the church following the service. As I was departing the church, pastor McGovern went out of his way to say goodbye. The component themes I seek in my church visits were all present last Sunday. I really enjoyed seeing so many guest-friendly practices.

Oh, one last thing; the church was Independent Baptist Church of Anchorage.

About the Author

Church visit observations reveal friendly practices

Among my many local church visits, certain practices stand out, making some visits more memorable than others. As a result, I often make mental notes to revisit that church more often than others; positive practices are likely to remain in place, as are negative practices.

For example, after I’ve blogged about the unfriendliness of a particular church, I may receive comments or an email inviting me to do a return visit because they felt my experience was atypical of their church. Usually revisits reveal the same unfriendly practices were still present in those churches. Church pastors tell me it takes a long time to change church cultures.

Positive church practices make me smile as they often require minimal effort.

Personal pastoral greetings work

Some pastors are gifted at identifying and greeting newcomers to church. I’m always impressed whenever I see it in action. Yes indeed, pastors are busy people with multiple church roles, but it is gratifying to see in action. It is leading by example. Of course, some pastors are more comfortable behind the pulpit than face-to-face with people, but from a human perspective, direct approaches are effective. More importantly, pastors should be connectors trying to connect newcomers with someone in the congregation who might sustain that connection. Surprisingly, many pastors even fail to greet guests from the pulpit. Warm greetings should be given to members and guests at every service. Unfortunately, too many pastors depend on the queue filing past the past them at service conclusion, but it’s not enough.

Great coffee before and after the service creates smiles

Culturally, coffee is a great social lubricant. Many great friendships have been struck up over a cup of coffee. I connect with people more easily before and after services this way. Often, the coffee is located in some out-of-the-way place only known to insiders — a huge mistake. Space permitting, great coffee should be prominently available shortly after entering the church. Another mistake is that too often churches brew the cheapest coffee they can buy. Anchorage is known as a coffee town. There are many local roasters with excellent roasts. Members and guests will appreciate you serving the finest coffee in your church. Coffee mugs for guests are a great welcome gift, but I’ve seen only one church in Eagle River and another in Anchorage take advantage of this practice.

Name badges facilitate friendships

Name badges for guests and members alike are great levelers. Hospitality personnel should make and offer them to guests; saving guests the trouble of making their own. Members should wear them if already provided or make their own to wear if that is the practice. Some members may give a reason for not wearing a name badge as “everyone already knows me.” This is always wrong, as many members, and certainly guests, may not know that person. Part of being a friendly church is to drop the elitist title that can become easy to wear. Name badges facilitate conversations with anyone on a first-name basis.

Nazi-persecuted German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”

Guest recognition gifts are memorable

Recognizing guests is an art and should be done when they enter a church. This is easily done, except in the few megachurches we have in town. Guests tend to stand out. Once recognized their visit should be noted by a token of recognition. Several churches in town give a small spiritual book, some offer freshly baked bread, and others may give a packet of information about the church and its congregation. A few offer coffee cards to newcomers. At larger congregations, church personnel often ask people to identify themselves to distribute these tokens. It’s understandable and should be tolerated. However, asking guests to stand, identify themselves, and say where they are from is a practice that tops the list of reasons first-time guests give for not choosing to make return visits to a specific church.

Reserved parking for guests says you were expected

I always smile when I find churches with designated guest parking in sufficient quantities to satisfy first-time guests. This shows guests they were expected, and that the church treats their guests with the utmost concern. No church should be without designated first-time guest parking. If members are parking in those spaces, they should be tactfully reminded of their true purpose. Sometimes, when arriving at a church late, I find guest spaces occupied even when the flow of the service reveals there were no guests that day. If I’m a first-time guest at a church, I use guest parking.

Explanatory service language warms the heart

Churches using explanatory language during their services are delightful. Many pastors are skilled at doing so. It’s easy to spot, and so reassuring. When an offering is taken up, they always explain to guests they are not expected to give, it’s just a normal practice for their members. Service participants are introduced or introduce themselves when performing their function. When insider language is used, it should be explained. In other words, the person using it should interpret it for guests in a way that’s inclusive and conversational. Communion and Eucharist are where this language is most effective.

Renowned theologian Karl Barth wrote, “Jews have God’s promise and if we Christians have it, too, then it is only as those chosen with them, as guests in their house, that we are new wood grafted onto their tree.” Every worship day, churches have an opportunity to share our respect for that relationship with others. I love it when church practices warm my heart and make me smile.

Top 10 suggestions for improving Anchorage’s faith community – 12/27/14

Around the New Year for the past five years, I’ve presented my top 10 list of non-theological issues I feel lessen the effectiveness of our faith community. Surprisingly, little changes from year to year, which may contribute to the malaise affecting churches and members; there seems to be little interest in self-examination. A few readers report signs of change. One reader recently noted her large-church pastor announced “meet n’ greets” and “self-identification” will be replaced with pre- and post-service hospitality — a step in the right direction. With best intentions for our faith community, I forge ahead and present my top ten list for 2015, in no particular order.

Reduce proof texting

Many preachers use a form of sermon delivery incorporating “proof texting.” Taking a theme, they support it by dozens of texts from all over the Bible. Recently I attended a service at a well-known evangelical church in town. The pastor spent the majority of his talk time quoting so many verses of Scripture that by the end, my biblically-rooted head was fairly spinning. An unnecessary and defensive practice, it confuses and possibly misleads more than it informs.

Takeaway: Proof texting is not the best practice

Balance social gospel outreaches

Some churches spend so much time focusing on social gospel issues, they fail to inform and inspire membership on understanding the totality of the gospel. While social gospel issues are important, too often they duplicate the work of the state and community dealing with individuals and families with needs, who may have no interest in the gospel or a spiritual life, making churches welfare agencies.

Takeaway: There’s more to religion than social gospel

Adopt customer service attitudes for your guests

After 15 years of visiting area churches, I find most lack in treatment of guests. Usually I’m ignored, not welcomed, and leave with more questions than answers. However, churches tend to avoid self-examination, denying such behavior exists. The untrained serve as greeters, providing poor hospitality. I’m traveling in my ancient truck as I write this. Needing a spare tire I located the appropriate wheel at a wrecking yard, and took it to a well-known Oregon-based tire company. Carrying the wheel inside, I was surprised when a representative opened the door, took the wheel from me, while asking me what I needed. My need was quickly serviced, and I was on my way with a smile. From that experience alone, I’ll go to that company in the future. Despite Genesis 18 counsel, and numerous Pauline exhortations, few churches do this. Greeters need to be similarly trained, pure and simple.

Takeaway: Customer service attitudes are needed in churches

Clean up church websites

Too many church websites are a mess — out of date, poorly designed and maintained, lacking service times and locations on the main page. Beautiful pictures of mountains, lakes, rivers, and forests adorn most church websites. Yes, Alaska is very beautiful but our natural beauty has absolutely nothing to do with the work of any church.

Takeaway: Poorly designed and maintained church websites hurt more than help

Provide guest parking

Too many churches do not provide any guest parking, or if they do, designate a pitiful number of spaces. Signs saying “First Time Guest Parking Only,” translates to “Welcome, we expected you.”

Takeaway: Guest parking is not an option, it’s a must

Stop blasting people

The worst sound I experienced in 2014 was 117db, equivalent to the sound of a jet taking off from 100 yards. This behavior is anti-Christian by its insensitivity. A mother with a newborn was across the aisle from me, about 30 feet from the stage. I believe that child suffered permanent ear damage from it. Here’s a thoughtful take — including a useful chart — on the subject.

Takeaway: It’s un-Christian to blast guests with excessive sound levels

Create a millennial-friendly environment

The millennial generation offers the greatest hope for the church, yet most churches provide millennial-unfriendly environments. Few churches actively study the massive amounts of research on millennials to understand and address their needs. The average member doesn’t know what a millennial is, what their issues are with churches and religion, and seem not to care.

Takeaway: Understanding millennials is critical to the survival of most churches

Cultivate hospitality attitude

How many sermons on hospitality have you heard during your years of church attending? Probably none or few, especially compared to the number of sermons you’ve heard on giving, missions, or you name it. Hospitality is a practical application of the Christian life. Guests are stranded in a strange land when they visit a church using non-inclusive language. Compare this with how you would treat someone in your home. Sitting down to dinner you might recognize your guests, and let them know how happy you are to break bread with them. You might say a prayer, noting it’s your custom to hold hands around the table as it’s said. This doesn’t usually happen in churches, but recently I attended a communion service where it was done. It was wonderful — like being part of a family! “Meet and greets” and calls for guests to identify themselves was the topic of a recent column citing a survey by church researcher Thom Rainer as the top reason first-time guests do not return.

Takeaway: Customer service understanding can pay big dividends for your church

Rethink attitudes toward music

Most evangelical and Pentecostal churches devote a lengthy amount of time — perhaps 30-45 minutes — to music. Songs tend to be contemporary, and presented in pop/rock format at excessive decibel levels (see above). Often congregants are so unfamiliar with the songs, there is little singing. In essence, it becomes a concert performance with lyrics that are often theologically dubious or sentimental. A few churches are discovering the beauty of hymnody. Catholics too are going through a renewal of their music.

Takeaway: It’s not about the music wars; it’s about the meaning of the music

The mission field is really Alaska, not elsewhere

Alaska church people still send people to far-flung mission fields on expensive, short-term mission trips instead of recognizing the mission field is here. Most African mission fields, for example, are much more Christianized than Alaska. Why are people and millions going there instead of resources being devoted here?

Takeaway: The mission field is here

Happy New Year and joyful church-going!