”I haven’t done that in a while”, I said as my wife and I left the worship service. We had just finished worshiping at a local United Methodist Church and were leaving the sanctuary. As my wife exited the sanctuary, she turned right down the hallway. ”Okay, you go that way and I’ll go get our daughter”, I said jokingly. ”Are you sure it’s that way?” my wife replied. ”I’m so confused.”
It’s something I hadn’t felt in a while. Sure there was the occasional hectic morning trying to pull off a sermon or find ushers to fill the gaps left by the people that had strangely on a Saturday evening forgot how to work their alarm clocks. But I hadn’t experienced confusion like this in a while. This was different.
Not only did we find ourselves in a new church on this particular Sunday morning but we were also in a new city and state.
My wife, my daughter and I recently moved to Durham, North Carolina as I prepare to begin seminary in the fall. In the meantime, we have been looking for a congregation to call home for the next few years. It’s been an interesting process transitioning from a full time staff person to a regular church visitor. As I reflected over the past month, I began to realize that I have rarely attended a church that I was not on staff or new someone closely in the congregation. I have spent several years of ministry trying to create welcoming environments and reach out to visitors and yet this experience has confronted me with one thought.
I had forgotten what it felt like to visit a church.
Do we as churches understand what we’re really asking people to do? Do we understand the fears associated with visiting a church for the first time? Having been raised in church and active in leadership my whole life, I found it odd that I still got a bit of a queasy feeling of uncertainty as I ventured forth over an unfamiliar door jam. Confusing signage, empty hallways, and unscripted worship rituals are merely the symptoms of a greater disease.
We’ve forgotten what it means to welcome the outsider. Throughout Scripture we see God’s command to welcome the foreigner. By this, all outsiders will be brought into the family of God. Conversely, by this command, all insiders will be held accountable to God’s Law. Surely this command means more than just putting up wildly ambiguous signs or providing left over manna from the event the night before. There must be something more to offering the kind of hospitality that the Scriptures describe.
Might I make a few suggestions from my recent experience as a church visitor…
1. Church signs are disorienting. Unless it’s the only thing on the wall and in huge font, it just confuses me more. There’s nothing worse than having to search through pictures of your children’s ministry’s pizza party to find an unintelligible map with the location of the nursery. Save your money on the signs and just give me a warm body and smiling face to talk to.
2. Always act like visitors are in the right place. There’s nothing worse than standing in front of a door that you think leads to your Sunday School room only to open it to find you’ve interrupted the praise team’s prayer meeting. Never look at visitors like they’ve just committed an egregious crime for entering the wrong area. Smile, laugh, let them know that they’ve caused no harm and you’ll help them find where they need to be.
3. Adults go where their kids go. I’ve heard this in the past but it rings even more true now that I have a daughter. We’ve visited a few churches in the area and I’ve discovered that nothing gives us immediate hesitancy like being unsure with our kid. One church nursery we entered looked at us with what I can only describe as shear terror as I brought my daughter to the door. I introduced myself and my daughter and we entered the nursery as the workers just stared. No “Sign in here” or “Put her bag here”. Nothing. Strike one. Then I had to ask the workers their names because they made no effort to introduce themselves to me. Strike two. Lastly, after showing them where extra diapers and diaper cream were in the bag, one of the workers asked, “Did you change her recently or do you think I’ll have to change her?”. Strike Three. ”Uh, we changed her before we came but she is a toddler so she may need changed again. Is that going to be a problem?” I asked. After the worker assured me unconvincingly that they could handle it, I headed to the sanctuary to meet up with my wife. Needless to say, when we picked up our daughter her diaper was full to the brim (I’ll spare you the details) and the workers sighed the biggest inaudible sigh of relief I’ve ever seen. Though we enjoyed the worship service, my wife and I were turned off by the way our daughter was handled.
What are some of your stories from church visits, good and bad?
What are some ways you can practice Biblical hospitality in your youth group?
How can your youth group partner with your church to provide Biblical hospitality to visitors of your congregation?