Observations From My First Year of Church Visits

It’s been a year since I started posting accounts of my church visits in this community blog courtesy of the Anchorage Daily News. It’s clear this blog is being widely read here and throughout the Lower 48. My heartfelt thanks to those churches I’ve recognized for their warm treatment of visitors. For the others, there’s much to be learned from these accounts. If your church has not fared well in these accounts, it might be helpful for you to send out teams to visit other churches to see, firsthand, what is working. I offer some observations gained by my visits in this week’s posting.

Friendly Churches are Consistent
They are friendly on the first visit, and every visit. An “off day” is simply not an option for them. Their hospitality consciousness is driven by their faith, motivation, and friendly concerns for the stranger coupled with a strong love for the Word and their fellow man.

Friendly Churches Do Not Assume
Most churches perform their liturgy, rites, and associated rituals assuming visitors will understand them by osmosis. Unfortunately, this leaves most visitors in the dark, less likely to return. A simple phrase such as “In this church it is our custom at this time to receive offerings for the support of our ministry. Visitors should not feel compelled to give.” goes far in putting visitors at ease.

Don’t Overdress
In the last decade or so, we’ve seen a trend toward casual dressing in church. It’s less common to see suits, ties, and dresses in church these days. Blue jeans and casual clothes are “in”. Visitors who overdress draw undue attention. They will more likely be ignored than those who dress more like the parishioners. If you think God judges you by what you wear, you may be worshiping the wrong God.

Bibles Don’t Go to Church Often
It’s becoming rarer to see people taking Bibles to church. Why lug it when most churches displays every text onscreen, in sermon outlines or bulletins? Of course, the corollary is that fewer people are seriously reading and using their Bibles because they are being spoon-fed, clearly getting out of the “Bible habit”.

Bring Coffee Money
Many churches operate coffee concessions. To take advantage of this you’ll need coffee money. Of course, this also means people traipse in and out of church to get their “fix” before and during the service. It’s a disruption but it’s all the “Lord’s work”, isn’t it? Oh, and if you’re sensitive to the smell of coffee, you’ll find some churches with quite overpowering coffee odors.

Church Websites Confusing and Not Helpful
Very few church websites clearly articulate, on the first screenpage, who they are, how welcoming they are to visitors, and when they meet. Many churches also have non-functional, non-existent, or out-of-date websites but are in a state of denial when I’ve called it to their attention. I do not visit churches with non-functional websites. The public depends on them.

What, Invite Visitors to Lunch?
During this past year, I’ve only been invited to a church meal once or twice. I fear that many times visitors to our churches could use a meal, but are routinely ignored or not included. It’s not my case to be needing a meal, but several times, when departing, I waded through a church crowd chowing down, or preparing to do so, without a single member noticing or asking me to join them.

Some Churches Seem to Delight in Having People Stand for Long Periods
Often, the worship leader will start the music, ask people to stand and leave them standing for 20 to 40 minutes without further comment while a variety of hymns, presentations, solo’s, etc. are performed. From the audience it looks like the worship leaders want you to stand in awe of their “big show”. Many people simply cannot stand for these inexplicable lengths of time. You should not feel compelled to remain standing for such discourtesy. God will not look upon you any differently.

Best Sermons Came from Pastor’s Not Reading Them
Extemporaneous speaking is rapidly becoming a lost art. Most pastors read sermons failing to attract sufficient attention to what they are reading. A few can pull off reading the written word as if it was conversational. I feel church attendance in Alaska is the lowest in the nation, in part, because people have discovered they can read on their own and don’t need a preacher reading to them. In those few churches where the pastor actually preached without reading, it was engaging, understandable, believable, and conversational. Pastors, the adages are best. The real “three pointers” are: 1. say what you’re going to say, 2. say it, and 3. say what you’ve said. It’s that simple!

Big Musical Entertainment Churches Tend to Be Less Friendly
This really surprised me. When I’ve found churches with large, sometimes loud, musical worship programs taking big blocks of time, I’ve generally found colder congregations showing less friendly attitudes toward visitors.

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