Ed and Mike are typical church visitors.
One afternoon they were crunching through the forest leaves, headed for their favorite deer stand when Mike collapsed in a heap.
Mike cried out, "Ed, I need a priest! I need a priest!"
"Why, what's wrong?" Ed asked.
"I think I'm dying. I need a priest to give me the last rites. Please, help me!" Mike pleaded.
"Gee whiz, Mike, there aren't any priests around here, but maybe I can help. I used to live next door to the Catholic Church and I heard their rituals all the time. I can repeat what I heard if you think it'll help."
Mike said, "Thank You."
Ed leans in close to his dying friend and in a quiet voice quivering with fear he repeated the old familiar words he used to hear coming from the Church next door.
"B-6, N-33, G-52, I-24, ... Bingo."
There are lots of folks like Ed out there. Church is a cross-cultural experience, wholly foreign to their way of thinking and acting. When something happens to propel them to be church visitors, they feel somewhat like the novice sky-diver who, for the first time, disembarks from a perfectly good aircraft out into thin air. Being a church visitor is scary.
Do you know what you don't know?
I'm closing in on forty years of ministry; the thirty year mark is vanishing in the rear view mirror. In all of those years virtually every church I've been to is friendly. At least, that's what they claim for themselves.
Only one of them was.
The rest of them were... comfortable - for the regulars. In all of those other churches it was evident that the folks genuinely enjoyed seeing one another. It is common to see folks chatting for a few minutes, obviously moving beyond the vacuous "How are you?" From time to time I have even seen people praying together, spontaneously, without being told to by a pastor or worship leader!
But it is a radically different experience for church visitors. They don't know the drill, they don't know the expectations, they often don't know the dress code and in all likelihood they don't know anyone else who's there.
A tough turn-around challenge
It's hard to get church folks to see their church objectively. It's hard for them to realize that their experience as club members is very different. As the change agent, the Transition Pastor needs to figure this one out and bring about some beneficial change.
Here are some strategies that I've used in various churches; they have worked with varying success. But even those strategies that didn't work out as I'd hoped at least created discussion and opportunities for the church to grow.
- Hire a mystery shopper - you know what this is all about
- Send thought leaders as mystery shoppers to other churches
- Appoint someone with hospitality gifts to lead the "guest services" ministry; then train that person extensively.
- Modeling - make it your goal each week to introduce yourself to at least one new person and learn their names. In your preaching be sure that your demeanor, your vocabulary and your smile shows that you are open, engaging and genuinely delighted (and maybe even surprised!) that folks came to listen to God's Spirit and Word.
- Commission the folks - a form letter from the pastor or someone on staff is probably a worthless effort these days. But a phone call or a quick card from a member of the congregation, accompanied by an invitation to dinner? That'll open doors.
- Simplify the glide path - make it absolutely crystal clear, using as many channels as possible (a minimum of seven), what people can do to become enfolded into the life of the church.
Here's what I'd like you to do. Develop a list of all the various clues and signals that are the church visitor's "tell." For example, if you're in the So Cal area your list might look like this:
- If he's wearing a white shirt and tie, he's new here
- If she just had her hair styled and is wearing pumps, she's definitely new here
- If the little boys are wearing collared shirt - likely this is a first visit
- If they're looking up at the buildings trying to figure out where to go - definitely noobies.
- If he's wearing flip-flops he's probably been here before, but no guarantee. Needs corroborating evidence.
- If someone in the crowd is sporting a water bottle or a Starbucks, this is their church and they'd probably be insulted if you treated 'em like guests!
So, what are the "tells" at your church? How do you spot church visitors?