Monthly Archives: July 2016

What makes a church welcoming to new visitors? Answers to some common questions

From time to time, readers write with questions or observations about this column. This week I’m devoting this space to a sampling of questions I’ve received. Many relate to the columns devoted to church visits, so a little context is in order before turning to those questions. My church-specific columns are usually intended to focus on the perspective of a first-time visitor — someone hopefully regarded by that church as a “guest,” and my visit descriptions are intended to document the way any visitor might be treated at that church.

How many visits have you made to any one church without being warmly greeted and becoming aware of a sense of hospitality?

I’ve visited several local churches at least three times without being greeted by anyone, or at least being handed a bulletin or worship guide. At one prominent Hillside church in particular, I was even invited back by a member sure I would receive a warm greeting next time. Unfortunately, it never happened, even though I stretched myself to endure three visits. I could never recommend that church or any other unfriendly church to a potential first-time guest or in my columns. Unfortunately, something in that church’s DNA prevents it from changing.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to determine if you’re welcome at someone’s home. The same is true at church.

I remember a woman from a local Episcopal church approaching me after her service saying she’d recently put on her “visitor” mentality and persona when she visited her hometown church. She said she was astounded at what she noticed; it wasn’t all guest-friendly.

As a church consultant, I’ve recommended for years that multiple teams from a specific church need to visit other churches, every Sunday, to see how they are treated, and look for encouraging practices worthy of emulation. By and large, churches refuse to do this, plain and simple.

Frequently I’m asked about my local “home church.” Do I have one?

I write about congregations representing a variety of religions, though most are Christian. According to Pew Research Center religious demographic data, 62 percent of adults in Alaska profess Christianity. However, as a self-professed religion scholar, I’m also vitally interested in other faith groups in our community. Many non-Christian religions that are represented in Alaska make up fewer  than 1 percent of adherents to any faith, according to the Pew data., Together, faiths including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other non-Christian religions make up another 6 percent of the state’s population.  (31 percent are unaffiliated — the religious “nones.”)

I’m constantly in motion, visiting congregations from a variety of faiths on any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday. To maintain my impartiality I claim membership in none, but clearly have certain congregations to which I return regularly.

My church is not listed on your list of churches to visit; why is that?

I maintain lists of good “first-time” churches on my website,, as I consider them to represent safe choices for people seeking church homes or looking for a solid faith community.

Your church might be one that makes first-time guests uncomfortable. Maybe you do not welcome them in a friendly manner, possibly ignore them altogether, or give them the 20-question test upon arrival. (Example: What is your name?, How did you hear about us?, What is your home church?, Who do you know in our church?, How did you find us?, etc., ad nauseum.) My column two weeks ago gave a real-life example of how one friendly church treats guests with honor and great hospitality.

Your church might be one of the many that insist on having guests stand up and identify themselves, telling the group where they’re from, etc., which by the way, is the No. 1 reason people do not return to a church. Possibly your music may have been 30-45 minutes of insulting, ear-pounding noise where congregants are “told,” not “invited,” to stand, to spend the entire time enduring songs many don’t know. Maybe your pastor preached a really great sermon, at least in his mind, while mostly reading it without inflection. Worse yet, he may have used his main remarks from a popular writer whose book was on the best-seller lists.

But first-time guests usually make a decision about whether to return to a church within the first five to 10 minutes after they arrive. Forget the music, and sermon. It’s already too late. They’ve decided.

Why do you draw attention to beautiful features of some local churches, while ignoring Gospel content or social justice ministries?

For Christians, a theology of beauty is represented in Scripture going back to the creation itself. In the exodus of the children of Israel, God ordained a theology of beauty in the construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle of Moses. These symbols were deliberately established to be constant reminders of God’s greatness, love and physical presence.

In an edited monograph, “Toward a Theology of Beauty,” systematic theologian Jo Davidson writes, “God pointedly established an elaborate, lavish system of corporate worship in the Old Testament. Yet, over and over again He censured through His prophets the glorious worship that He Himself designed and implemented but that was now being used to disguise a degenerate life. The internal condition of the participant is critical: “‘Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ (Amos 5:23, 24).”

Beauty is not a final solution; it must touch and heal the heart as well. Many religions believe in a theology of beauty, and express a God-given appreciation of that beauty in their symbols.

As a religion scholar, I’ve made field trips to many religious edifices in various areas of the world. Invariably I’ve been drawn to God through my viewing of the symbolism represented by various features. At Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Philadelphia, “The Prophetic Quest,” a series of 10 stained glass windows by artist Jacob Landau, brought entire books and chapters of Old Testament prophets leaping to mind.

But social justice initiatives are also an ongoing feature of this column. Many churches ignore their importance. I do not.

I appreciate the dialogue this column offers in the religious community. Not everything I write will be appreciated, nor do I expect it to be. However, I enjoy hearing back from readers. More questions are welcome either in the comments  or by email, at As time allows, I try respond personally to each. Happy questing!

About the Author

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 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

Ministering to men, one oar stroke at a time

As the spray from a stretch of rapids splashed over my face on the Gulkana River recently, I turned back to look at the man rowing our raft. Reading the water like an eagle, he was trying to use the power of the river in the safest way possible. Stretching behind us were nine other rafts, each carrying an oarsman and three or four men. The timeless rhythm of the sound of the water and the stroking of the oars brought me back to when I first met Dave Lemaire.

I’d been invited to a men’s “beast feast,” a wild game dinner, at Baxter Road Bible Church several years ago. After dinner, Dave shared a sobering personal account of the kidnapping and brutal murder of his 11-year-old daughter, Mandy, in 1991. He broke down several times as he shared the pain and suffering of that tragedy with the other men. He recalled how his faith in God sustained him during that time, through the trial, and subsequent appeals. In 1999, adding to his pain, the Alaska Supreme Court overturned the original verdict, ordering a retrial. The convicted man was not released from prison while awaiting retrial, and subsequently died before a new trial could be held.

The years after Mandy’s death were filled with bitterness and pain. Dave hadn’t given up on God, but underwent a period of recovery, questioning why it happened. Understandably he was disappointed with God and the church. At one point, speaking on camera for the television program “Ice Cold Killers,” Dave said, “If I didn’t believe my daughter was in heaven, I’d have no reason to live.” He told me he wasn’t suicidal but it was a dark moment in his life. His marriage to his wife of 13 years was destroyed in the aftermath of Mandy’s death.

Fortunately, he met a childhood friend, Michelle, who went on a blind date with him. It didn’t go well initially. Michelle Lemaire said, “When we met as adults, we went out on a blind date. He had just performed a funeral for a child whose parents could not get a pastor to perform it because they did not attend church. He told me all about his life and everything about Mandy. When I left, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would never go out with him again.

“Besides having too many problems, he was shorter than me, had kids still at home, and had a beard — three strikes in my book. But after much soul-searching and a vision that I believe was from God, I looked at his heart and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a man of integrity. A man I could trust with my heart.” They married in 1997.

Dave is a consummate outdoorsman. In 2000, he and Michelle started a ministry for men calledCopper River Float Ministry based out of Glenallen. After the first father-son float trip he conducted for a Palmer church, Dave was invited to join a men’s breakfast there, as they were asking for another trip. His “aha” moment was discovering the participants remembered a talk given six months ago, but not the talking points from the previous Sunday’s sermon.

Now, after 16 years, Dave and a dedicated group of volunteers take groups of men from area churches on up to four 1 1/2-day float trips each year down the Gulkana River for fellowship, to fish and to be fed spiritually. Lemaire’s stated goal for these trips is that participating men form a relationship with Christ and relationships with other men in their church. He encourages what he terms “a ranger buddy type of friendship that can push you toward your goals; someone who’s there with you through thick and thin.”

Participants pay a fee to participate; this trip was $70 per person. The trip was for Clear Water Church, a 3-year-old church meeting at Wendler Middle School. It’s rapidly growing and needed this connecting experience for the congregation’s men. Trips and participants are generally for a specific church, and, with a few exceptions, for men only. The oarsmen come from various churches and denominations. Usually churches arrange for a speaker of their own. Talks are given after supper on the first day, and after breakfast and lunch on the second day. The speaker on my trip was Taylor Davis, team leader for Cru, formerly Campus Crusade, in Anchorage.

Most men fished along the way for grayling and king salmon. King fishing closed at midnight that first day, so there was a rush to fish as much as possible; three kings were caught by midnight. Arriving at a sandbar, we set up sleep and cook tents, and a port-a-potty. Dinner, fresh red salmon, Dave’s trademark blackened recipe, was tasty. Breakfast was eggs and biscuits with gravy the next morning. Lunch served at noon the following day, featured Michelle Lemaire’s chili and hearty tomato soup.

“It was the best men’s connecting event we’ve had,” said the pastor of Clear Water, Mike Merriner. “Twenty-two guys, many of whom did not know each other, now know each other’s names. They shared a common experience. It was the beginning of relationships for a lot of these guys; from now on out. My sense of the trip was it was a fundamental occasion to hang out with each other and foster a sense of community.”

“I agree guys that have been on the trip have developed relationships with trip participants and are more involved in the church and what it’s doing,” said James Embree, adult ministries pastor at Lazy Mountain Bible Church in Palmer. “When you have close friends involved in the church, you become closer to the church.”

“A great opportunity, a great ministry. It’s a shame it’s only a couple of trips per year,” said Henry Couser, pastor of Rabbit Creek Community Church.

Dave and Michelle perform a marvelous service for men and churches in Alaska. It’s a real example of building “servant hearts.”

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