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.