One of the aspects of moving to a new community I frankly don’t like all that much is the process of finding a new church family. When I moved to Springfield from Arkansas a few years ago, it took me almost a full year to find a church where I felt like I belonged and could really dig in.
(I’ve been spoiled a bit as well, in having found great churches in the past who are dead-on about reflecting Christ to the world, like Refuge Church in Jonesboro, Arkansas or Impact Church in Ozark, Missouri. When you find churches you feel at home in, the bar for anywhere you go gets higher. Those churches raised the bar quite a bit.)
When I took this job with the Branson Tri-Lakes News, my intent was to move to the community, and part of this move would be finding a new church home. My move has been delayed because it costs about the same as buying a new car to rent a two-bedroom apartment for a month which isn’t filled with bugs or meth remnants. Still, I felt led to begin the church search a few weeks ago, and I’ve been doing the church hop around the greater Branson metropolis.
Now, I’m not going to critique individual churches here by name, so if you’re hoping I’m going to spend a few column inches bashing Bob’s Baptist Bonanza Church & Waterpark or the First Church of God in Christ of the Holy Spirit Temple Mount Branson, you’re going to be out of luck.
I am, however, going to throw out a few things church leaders might want to think about when it comes to people visiting their churches for the first time. Mainly, because I’ve been involved with church leadership groups and worship teams in the past, and sometimes I think church leaders are a wee bit out of touch with the people who are checking them out.
I do want to add, I’m naturally introverted when I’m “off the clock” and don’t have to be aggressive in digging for stories for work. I prefer to observe people in their mostly natural states and see what they do when they don’t realize people are watching. (I find it’s usually a way to better get a feel for the real nature of a person or group.)
First thing I want to touch on is what I call the “Welcome Gauntlet.” It’s the wall of people who volunteered or were coerced into being part of the “First Impressions Team” or “Greeter Team” or the “Holy Spirit First Alert Welcome Squad!”
You see them from the moment you get from your car to eyesight of the front door. They’re milling around, sometimes waving signs, waiting for the opportunity to cover you in a wave of Christ’s love. They’ll either try to shake your hand a half dozen times or they’ll try to steer you toward their welcome center with glazed donuts and the second cheapest coffee they could get at Price Chopper. (Hey, God wants you to be a wise steward with donations, but not even the Almighty wants the cheapest coffee.)
What most church leaders don’t realize is those of us visiting your church don’t give much, if any, credence to those door greeters. We know it’s why they are there, so even if those folks are genuinely sincere, we know it’s still their “job” and thus don’t put much stock in their warm welcome.
We look at the people beyond the perimeter.
I visited a church where, past the greeters, not a single person even said “hello.” Nothing. People were just going about their morning routine, warmly greeting people they knew, but nary a quick “hi” for the newcomer.
That says to a newcomer, unlike the signs held by the folks at the front door, you do not “belong here” and you are not “home.”
Secondly, we love passionate worship, but most of us don’t want a concert or a worship team’s best impression of the latest hot worship song’s YouTube video.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of what I call “Hillsongization” in a lot of worship teams.
There are a handful of major worship artists who influence a super-majority of American churches: Hillsong, Elevation Worship, Lincoln Brewster, Jesus Culture, and the 800 pound gorilla of worship music, Chris Tomlin. There is a near 100% chance if you attend a church with a “modern” worship set, you’ll have at least one song from those folks, and likely more than one.
Now, I’m not saying they’re bad, or unholy, or anything in that realm. I’m saying they’ve reached a point with YouTube where the influence of these performers has gone beyond providing new songs to giving some worship teams their entire performance.
This is where the rub comes in for me: I don’t think you’re really leading people into worship if your focus is on recreating another worship team’s performance. When your team is more interested in making sure you sound and look like the original performers than just trying to give your talents back to God and point the congregation up rather than toward the stage, you’re missing the point of worship.
One thing which immediately clues me into a church wanting to put on a performance rather than leading actual worship is the stage movements of the singers and musicians.
I completely get raising your hands if you feel the Holy Spirit, or clapping, or other physical expressions of worship.
However, if your worship singers raise their hands at the same time Hillsong’s singers raise their hands in the YouTube video, or if your worship leader tells people to “clap for the Lord” at the same point in the song Chris Tomlin says it in his 2985th live recording “Live from a Porta Potty Outside Athens, Georgia”, then you know they’ve been working to just recreate rather than draw you into worship.
It’s performance. It’s a show. It’s not real worship.
Now, I do give a little cushion, because this IS Branson, and a lot of folks in worship bands ARE performers. It’s instinctive for them to try and parallel original songs as close as possible. But many artists long to break out into their own sound or feel or focus, and this is the prime opportunity.
You see, those bands aren’t trying to mimic someone else. They’re being who they are, focusing on worship, and they’re leading people into following them toward God. It’s what I (and many other visitors) are looking for in local worship. Authentic musicians using their gifts to point to God.
You can play a song by another performer and (GASP!) change parts of it to make it unique or to perhaps customize it for your local church body to communicate Christ to them in a way you know will better connect.
Visitors notice things like this.
And since I’m running out of column inches, I’ll limit this list to just one more item: communication.
Every church I’ve ever attended has their “connection cards” or “visitor cards” or “special guest memory sheets” or “W-2 forms.” They want you to give them your contact information, ostensibly to follow up to see if you have questions or would like more information about the church.
Unfortunately, these days, what usually happens is you’re put on an email blast or mailing list, where an anonymous church staffer will hit you Monday morning with an email starting out with some variation on “Did God rock the house yesterday or what?” and ends with a link to the church’s tithe page.
It’s generic, and you know it went to everyone who visited, so you know your name was processed with the same care and concern as the person entering names for Medicare sign ups at a mall kiosk.
Even if you paid some email blast company to make sure someone’s first name appears in what you send, we know it’s a form letter. It doesn’t make us feel like you really “are so happy you could join us!”
And if you send those out with questions about your service, or solicit some other kind of response, be ready to reply if someone takes your bait. If someone takes the time to respond to your email, and then you just ignore it, you’re telling this person all they are is a number on a list the pastors can use now and then to try and bump up church giving. (“Hey, we reached 398 new people this year! Give to the welcome fund so we can continue to give them all coffee mugs with the church’s name on it when they visit!”)
As I’m out of space, I can’t give more specific examples, but I’ll say this: authenticity matters. Visitors can tell what’s real, and who is just going through the motions of their regular Sunday machine. The people you say you want in your church body who will dig in, volunteer, contribute financially, and spread the Good News to others isn’t likely to be attracted to the plastic and programmed any longer.