Hello, my name is Kevin Watson. Welcome to deeply committed. I am the author of this blog and I am thrilled that you found your way here. (This seemingly random introduction will make more sense if you keep reading.)
One of the strangest parts of moving from Dallas, TX to Seattle, WA has been the experience of being a first-time visitor in church. For various reasons, I have not been in this position since seminary. And it was different even during seminary, because I was often visiting a church as an assignment or as part of my seminary training. The point of this post is to share a bit of my experience from the past two weeks in order to help church leaders view their churches through the eyes of a first-time visitor.
The first thing I would say about visiting a church for the first time is that it is hard! I like routines and the comfort of feeling like I know what is going on. None of that really applies when you are a first-time visitor at a church.
Here are a few, not necessarily connected, thoughts about the last two weeks:
Neither church was United Methodist. We visited these two churches in order to get a sense of the kinds of churches that my soon to be students at Seattle Pacific University will likely be attending and to get a feel for the types of churches that are generally in the area where we live. It was interesting to visit non-United Methodist Churches. A clear emphasis of both churches was on the importance of small groups, though neither of them appeared to have something I would consider a close analogy to a 21st century class meeting. Nevertheless, it was a humbling reminder than many parts of the Body of Christ are currently doing a better job of practicing Wesleyan communal Christian formation than United Methodism. In fact, the sermon at one of the two churches was on the importance of connecting and small groups were clearly highlighted both before and after the sermon as a vitally important part of the life of the particular community of faith. Without going too far, this church emphasized the importance of connecting through small groups, and providing an accessible and clear way to become involved in small groups as strongly as they could have.
My impression was that both churches that we visited were sincerely trying to be hospitable and welcoming to new visitors. I did not sense that either church was a closed group that would just assume that my family was not there. On the contrary, I think that both churches had successfully cultivated a culture where people wanted new life and would have been genuinely pleased if my family were to join the church. At one of the churches, as soon as someone realized we were new to the church, we were given a small gift bag with a book, pen, water, and breath mints (so much you could over-read into that!) in it.
The same church also had a nice set up of coffee, muffins, bagels, and other breakfast foods. There was no sign anywhere that there was any expectation that you would pay for these things. I think it is a mistake when churches put something next to food and drinks that makes it obvious you are supposed to pay for them. In my view, this severely undercuts the act of hospitality in having food and drink available. (Maybe I was just hungry and glad I could feel comfortable eating even though I didn’t have cash on hand…)
Here are a few things I noticed that would have made the experience more positive for my family:
We were a bit early to one church, and when we arrived in the Sunday School area no one was there. To be fair, someone showed up within thirty seconds of our arrival. But, it was a bit disconcerting to show up where we were told to take our daughter and find an empty room.
Andrew Forrest, the pastor at my family’s church home in Dallas, started doing two things in church that I appreciate after the past two weeks even more than I did before. The first time Andrew speaks in the worship service, he always introduces himself. He says something very concise and simple like, “Hi, I’m Andrew Forrest. I’m the pastor here at Munger Place. If you’re a first time visitor we are really glad you are here…” To people who attend every week, this may seem unnecessary. But what I have discovered the past two weeks is that if someone who is speaking in the worship service does not introduce themselves, and you are new to the church, you have no way of knowing who is talking to you. It isn’t the end of the world, but it is a bit confusing and a subtle way that a person can feel outside of what is going on in worship. (See, now the first sentence makes complete sense… right?)
The other thing Andrew started doing a few months before we moved was give an idea of how long the worship service was. To be honest, at first I thought this was a bit silly and unnecessary. However, the past two weeks have changed my mind. Both of the services we attended were different lenths, and they were both different from the typical length of the worship service at Munger Place. Again, it wasn’t a major issue, but because we have two little ones who are on schedules as far as when they eat and sleep, etc. Melissa and I did start to get a bit anxious when the service started to go beyond the time that we assumed it would be. It didn’t end up being an issue either week, but our minds would have been put at ease if someone had simply said something like “our worship service typically lasts x.” (Having said that, I think there needs to be room for the Holy Spirit in worship. The point is not to be legalistic, but just to give new visitors a sense of what is going to happen.)
Related to this, both churches gave us something when we entered the sanctuary. However, it was not an order of worship. I don’t really care if a church gives you a detailed scripting of what is going to happen. However, I do think when churches give you no sense of the layout of the worship service, it is all the more important to give verbal clues to the congregation of what is happening, what is next, etc. At one of the churches, the worship leader ended a song and then said, “Ok, we are going to take a break now. Make sure you say hi to someone” and then walked off stage. My wife and I had no idea what was happening, because we have never been to a church before where there is a break in the middle of the service. It would have helped if he had said a bit more, with new folks in mind.
One more positive: Both churches had thoughtful set ups for children. People knew where our kids could go (better still, at one church the greeter took us there and introduced us to the adults who would be with our kids). There was also a good sign-in system that gave us confidence that our kids would not be handed off to someone else at the end of the worship service. These are things I must admit I did not think about before having children. One of the reasons I mention this, then, is in case some of you who read this do not have children. It might be helpful to ask some parents of young children what would be important to them if they were to visit a new church, and if they attend your church they would be great people to ask how your church could be more welcoming to families with young children.
A final thought: I realized that a good website is essential for a church that wants to have new visitors. This is probably obvious to most of you who are reading this. However, even in writing this post I am realizing that we would probably not have even visited either church if the website had not made us comfortable that there would be a place for James that we would be comfortable with, etc. If you are in an urban setting and you don’t get many visitors, you may want to think about the quality of your website. If your website looks unprofessional, many people will not even visit the church. Another way of thinking about this is that in 2011 there are no true first-time visitors who come into your church. Rather, your first-time visitor is the person who visits your website and decides whether they want to come “back” by coming to an actual worship service.
There you have it, a few thoughts from a few weeks of being a genuine outside in two different churches. What would you add to what I’ve said? What do you think is important for the church to keep in mind when it thinks about new visitors?