As pastors and ministry leaders, you have heard that people are shallow and leave churches because the music wasn’t right, the bathrooms weren’t clean, or the sermon was too long. You spend your time working hard to make sure all this and more are covered each time the
doors are open to your church. The goal: allow people to feel like they belong to your church community and desire to come back.
But in an effort to be all things to all people, churches often overlook some of the basics which creates a gap between people’s expectations and what they encountered. I would like to share two personal examples that have helped shed light on the issue and one recommendation you can implement this week to start creating the right vibe at your church.
No room at the inn a.k.a. our event is too packed so you aren’t welcome
One Christmas my wife and I visited a well-known church in our community to see their live nativity. It was advertised on Facebook and on the church sign out front. We were having one of those fussy baby moments so we missed the initial group but saw there was another one that went a little later. The pastor of this church was one of my seminary professors years ago so I was excited to see him walk across the lawn toward the welcome area. I flashed my biggest smile and caught the “I recognize you” look and before our hands connected for a handshake he utters out, “Gotta go.”
Okay, I can live with that. He’s a busy man. So we wait at the check-in a little longer. Finally it’s almost the start time for the final group to go when someone asks us what we are doing. We tell them again we are there for the last live nativity group and they apologize and tell us it’s canceled.
Trying to make the best of a situation that we just stood out in the cold for 45 minutes waiting, we notice the earlier group is only halfway through. “Can you just take us through to meet up and finish the journey with them at least. We’ve just waited 45 minutes in the cold.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t do that. You’ll have to come back again next year.”
My wife and I couldn’t believe it. But all I could think about was can you imagine how someone who was hurting and searching would feel if the “church” turned them away at the door. I shudder at the lack of thought that went in to treating first-time guests at this event with the quality care they deserved.
Easter egg hunts are only for church people that show up early, apparently
This year my wife was sick on Easter and her family invited me to take our kids and do an easter egg hunt at their church before their service started. I was a little reluctant because it was a last minute thing but saw I could make it there right on time if we left out immediately. So the kids grabbed their baskets. squealed with glee, and away we went.
Easter is one of those Sundays that always has a loving, kind, and expectant buzz on campus no matter where you visit. I love this energy and was excited to see how this church (one of the fastest growing in its area) would be organized.
We arrived and the kids piled out with their easter outfits and egg hunting baskets rearing to go. We walked up to the main area right on the nose of the time for the event and I start looking for the mass of kids gathering. But there wasn’t one. We slow down around the front
gate to see if someone can point us in the right direction but no one greets us (there was a lady who looked like she had that role but she darted her eyes away from contact and walked away). I made eye contact with the guy I knew served as the pastor but he was engaged in a conversation and didn’t swing over to provide some help.
“Well let’s just go walk on in and try and find where we need to go.” I told the kids.
We walked around the sidewalk, around the corner and then back out to the courtyard where I noticed a couple of kids with a few baskets counting eggs. We clearly stick out like sore thumbs at this point but still no one greets us or helps us so I finally ask someone when and where the easter egg hunt is.
“Oh they held that earlier.”
Seriously… I felt like we were on repeat of getting turned away at the inn once again. I search for someone who could at a minimum throw some eggs and the ground and let my kids compete against each other and not one person was around to help. I looked back at the advertised times and we were right on time and in the right spot. So I head back to the front gate area to at least say something to someone and nobody is around that isn’t engaged in a conversation with someone else.
We finally left and my kids were severely disappointed. Once again all I could do is shudder at the thought of someone having that experience that was searching and hoping the “church” experience was different than what they encountered in their past.
Church people often stay too busy doing church things (instead of serving). All of this brought to mind a story in Scripture about two ladies preparing for the arrival of some new guests. One of the ladies heads off inside and spends time trying to get things looking good and organized and kept on schedule. The other lady goes out to greet the guests and spends time listening to them talk. The indoor lady we know as Mary, and she was angry at the other lady, Martha. But how does Jesus respond?
Martha had her priorities right. She was focused less on the details and more on making sure she was in relationship with Jesus and HIs disciples, her VIP guests.
So what is the one major thing churches can learn that will keep guests from visiting and never coming back?
Be present and aware.
Okay, maybe that’s two things. But by focusing on awareness — putting yourself in the shoes of your guests, your church can realize how some things may come across to someone on the outside. By being present, you’ll have a focus like Martha – recognizing what’s good that is right in front of you instead of trying to so hard to get all the tasks checked off your list.
If churches can begin to do this, I think what people are experiencing will help considerably. We want people to engage with your church website, step foot in the door of your church, and have a desire to come back to hear the message preached and connect to the people of God. Don’t let bad decisions and busyness distract you from fulfilling the purpose Christ Himself laid out on the earth for us to do.