Every day I pass Turnagain United Methodist Church traveling to/from work. I’ve made several abortive attempts to visit this church, but each was unsuccessful. Most recently, I pulled into the parking lot just before service time and there were only three or four parked cars, a bad sign for any church visitor.
Previous to that, I’d had a mixup with their summer schedule and ended up entering mid-service. Sunday, February 27, I arrived just before service start. I was handed a bulletin by a Boy Scout, worked my way through a crowd of scouts blocking the aisle, and found a seat. Though only a small crowd was present, no one said a word to me until the pastor asked me to identify myself, from the pulpit nonetheless! As a visitor I felt adrift with no bearings throughout the entire service. Although service times, location, pastor and address were on their main webpage, it took some scrolling around to find them. And too, there was still an announcement for their longest night of the year service in December 2010, two months previous. I sensed that these were good people, but they need to internalize the value of “extreme hospitality” as they seem to be hiding their “light under a barrel”.[img_assist|nid=156081|title=Pastor Kelley and Scouts Around the “Campfire”|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=184]
Neighborhood Churches Don’t Always Attract Guests: Here’s One Reason
Methodists have been spending significant sums of money in support of their “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” advertising campaign. Critics of this expenditure point to membership numbers which show continued gradual declines in UMC membership nationally despite the campaign. One might always argue the declines could have been greater without the campaign, but advertising campaigns, with few exceptions, do not make huge long-term differences in membership. Mainly they help the members feel good about themselves but are so unfocused as to be of little effect.
I always enjoy entering a neighborhood church that extends itself to make me feel welcome, giving me assurance that I made the right choice. To allow someone to enter your church and not make them feel welcome is bad enough, but to ask them to identify themselves to the congregation, during the service, is sad, especially if that person is not of your faith. At that point they’re eying the nearest exit for the clean getaway.
Many Methodist churches seem to have the self-introduction principle embedded in their church DNA. In some cases, it seems to be perceived as a club trait, where club members from afar are announcing their home church (club) and the purpose of their visit. I’ve been pleased when a member takes the initiative to get to know me, and offers to introduce me. But to call people out, causes embarrassment and anxiety upon many first-time church attenders. In all honesty, I was given a guest bag of goodies for which I am truly grateful. But there are other ways of handling this.
Service Not Guest-Friendly
Many church guests find themselves on unfamiliar ground when attending a new church. Tactful, matter-of-fact explanations throughout the service can help provide common ground to gain an understanding of the service and liturgy. Scout Sunday, as this was, is not the best day to attend a church for the first time, under the best of circumstances. I might have passed up Turnagain UMC this Sunday if this had been so noted on the website. The service had many rough edges due to the lack of familiarity of the scouts, counselors, and leaders with the way that church is normally done. Don’t misunderstand me; I believe in scouting and feel it’s an important aspect of American boyhood. Those same leaders and boys have doubtless been going through life ‘doing church’. As such, ‘doing church’ should have been an easy and comfortable experience. It did not appear to be so this Sunday, from the campfire up front, to the scripture readings, to the congregational readings, and the offering, it appeared to be uncomfortable.
Pastor Dale Kelley gave a good scouting sermon which she said we could listen to or not. But was more of an adult sermon, filled with big words and possibly difficult for a scout to follow. I’ve heard her speak before and she’s a good speaker. The keyboardist/choir director was ill that morning and her substitute performed ably but had difficulty with some of the music. The offering was taken with no mention of excepting guests from giving, a notable omission in any church.
I was most impressed with the member’s child and family who came forward to tell about the 600+ boxes of Girl Scout cookies which had been collected and were being donated to the Downtown Soup Kitchen.
At the end I was startled when they dismissed by joining hands in a circle around the church and singing that old hymn “God Be With You Til We Meet Again”. That truly seemed to be a better expression of church than when I started the day. Having recently buried my mother, this meaningful hymn had a dual meaning for me.
Would I Go Back?
Rev. Kelley asked me to stay for coffee which I declined due to other commitments. Over time I would guess I could assimilate in some way. Many of us long for a real church experience, and continue to seek until we find it. Church means people not buildings. I look for the genuine article of people worshiping God, and fellowshipping together as Christians. I might visit this church again if I were persuaded they understood what happened every time someone walked through their doors.