Each year, based on my church visits and observations for the year just ended, I look forward to sharing things I believe churches can do, or do better to be more welcoming to members and guests, increasing attendance, and membership at the same time. Many of these things seem to appear on my lists year after year, because churches do little or nothing about them. Did you know guests decide in 5-8 minutes if they’ll ever return. How does your church fare?
Warmly Greet Each Guest and Member
Rarely do I receive a truly warm and welcoming greeting. Many churches rely on bulletin passers to be greeters, which for the most part they are not. The 20 questions many churches seem to ask guests are off-putting and extremely distancing. You know the questions. What is your name? How did you find us? Greeters should use their own names, and welcome guests with greetings such as “We’re pleased you chose to worship with us today!”. Be sure to have a welcome gift in hand or close by to make guests feel truly welcome. And Pastors, for goodness sakes, stop embarrassing guests by pointing them out during the service.
Advertise Your Presence
Many Anchorage churches do a poor job of letting the general public know who they are and where they’re located. Newspaper and direct mail advertising should be more utilized. Most advertising is directed toward Easter and Christmas. The Daily News offers no-charge postings for special events available Saturday’s Matters of Faith page. Yet, few churches take advantage of this generous offer, often to be outnumbered by non-Christian listings. I receive very few direct mail pieces in my neighborhood, yet I’m within 5-10 minutes drive of many well-known Anchorage churches. Only once have I been aware of a member direct visit to my home. Finally, many church websites are poorly designed, out-of-date, and ineffective. If your church is not tapping the power of the internet, you’ll ultimately lose the game.
An easy way for churches to identify themselves is to have signage, readable from the road at the posted speed limit, up-to-date, legal within the parameters of Anchorage’s sign ordinance, and making a positive statement about your church. To achieve these goals, I strongly suggest your church use a sign professional who understands the proper use and construction of a sign. Service times should be optional, but your church’s web address should not. Many churches, with outmoded signage, identify themselves as “yesterday”. A relevant church for today understands the importance of good signage.
Make Those Websites World Class
Many Anchorage area church websites are woefully deficient in virtually every aspect of a truly functional website. If these churches competed as businesses (some would argue they are), they would be losing business hand over fist to more agile competitors. Part of this is due to a questionable reliance on untrained and unskilled church members to construct and maintain them. Don’t be tempted to go this route. You don’t have an untrained or unskilled pastor do you? Church websites are so important these days, they must be professionally built and maintained. Whatever you do, keep your website up-to-date, always, without fail. Remember, first things first – name, address, and service times should be on the first page where they can be seen, without scrolling. I know we live in a beautiful area, but mountains, lakes, streams and forests are totally unnecessary. Leave those scenes to the convention and tourist bureau. Rather, depict happy members engaged in the work of your church, and in positive social contexts.
Don’t Embarrass or Annoy Your Guests
Despite solid research, and pastoral warnings, many area churches have embedded within their churchly DNA, a strong compulsion to ask every guest to stand up and identify themselves by name to satisfy congregational curiosity. A few guests will tolerate this but the majority do not desire this, and will seek another place of worship to avoid being embarrassed in the future. Never ask your guests their names, especially in public. That’s rude and un-Christianly. Give them space. Don’t be overly familiar or suffocate (mob) them. Give them space to evaluate your Christian hospitality.
Make Your Bulletin a Roadmap for Guests
Many Anchorage churches are proud of their bulletins which tell the guest little about the church or the ensuing service. They consider this to be “new school” thinking and staunchly defend this practice. The end result is the guest goes away from the church knowing little about it, is totally unfamiliar with the order of service, those participating by name, the rituals being employed, and news of what’s going on in the church. And while we’re at it, please do not waste member and guest time by reading the bulletin to them. That is purely insulting! I’ve observed many Anchorage churches devoting 10-15 minutes to this rude practice.
I frequently observe churches that share absolutely nothing about their services and practices during the service, leaving the guest in a quandary as to what’s happening during the services. These churches ASSUME guests will understand their practices intuitively or by osmosis. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Communion, for example, can be observed in multitudes of ways, but to not explain your practices by word or in writing, can be unsettling. For example, is it truly “open communion”, “semi-open”, or “closed”? Is the bread/wafer taken, held and consumed in unison with the rest of the members, or is it consumed immediately? Same for the wine. Communion leaders can explain this simply in few words, and conversationally. Other practices such as baptism, methods or styles of praying, and use of music all require less assumption and more explanation in a guest-inclusive way.
Pastors Should Greet and Say Goodbye
I’ve noticed a disturbing trend among pastors in the last five to ten years. Before the service, many of them are nowhere to be found, when they could be greeting guests and members, leading by example. After the service some are practicing what I call “Duck n’ Dash”, making themselves unavailable to the worshippers. They become invisible. Some pastoral literature suggests this is good as it makes you seem more important, i.e. not being seen as frequently. It’s part of a pastor’s job to be available. A competent pastor will also use this time to connect members and guests with others in the congregation who can help them with special needs. The pastor should keep his business card handy to give to guests ensuring they can contact them.
More Study, Less Music
Current research and survey results show the majority of guests visit your church to find out what you believe, to study scripture, and to learn about your church’s doctrines. Pastors should assume guests know little to nothing of your beliefs, something that’s quite possibly true for members too! In a recent Pew Forum Survey of Religious Knowledge, only 40% of individuals answering the question about the true meaning of the bread and wine in Catholic Communion got it right! The modern church response is to give members and guests 30-45 minutes of contemporary Christian music, and a prepared 3-pointer or a fill-in-the-blanks sermon. This kind of service mix is canned entertainment and assures many churches will be filled with ungrounded members. Music of questionable influence is given great importance in many church services. Theologian David F. Wells has studied contemporary Christian hymnals, comparing them to regular hymnals, and discovered approximately two-thirds of contemporary Christian songs are theologically inaccurate, while few traditional hymns are so tainted.
Money, Money, Money
It’s the truly rare church I visit in Anchorage that doesn’t confront guests with the offering plate. Uppermost in guests minds is “…it’s all about the money”. The easiest way to deal with this is to kindly urge guests, before the offering, to not feel compelled to give, recognizing they are your guest. This should also be inserted in your bulletin. Be sure to note offerings are taken on a free-will basis and that many members have their own giving plans and practices. I’ve had pastors argue this point with me vehemently, but the end impression in guests minds is that it all boils down to money. This past year, I’ve been confronted by church pledge drives, building drives, and mission drives, all during the main part of the service. Valuable learning and lesson time is wasted during these off-putting financial pressure points. Committed believers give! They don’t have to be pressured.
2011 was a learning time for me. I did discover solid, positive churches and wrote about those meaningful church visits. Many unsolicited emails were sent me describing ill treatment at the hands of unthinking and uncaring churches, asking for suggestions about churches where such behavior would not be likely. Mostly I’ve heard the same theme over and over; “Help me find a church where the golden rule is practiced.” I look forward to another year of church visits, and of sharing them with you.
May 2012 be a year of meaningful seeking and spiritual growth for you.