Let’s say you have someone over for dinner, and when they arrive, the following happens:
- Your driveway is full, and there’s no good place for them to park.
- Your porch light is out.
- They knock, but no one answers. They peek in, and call out a tentative, Hello…?
- Dad, who is on the couch, barely looks up from the TV, and yells: Honey, your company is here!
- There aren’t enough chairs for the table.
- You have a family favorite for dinner, but it’s a dish your guests have never had before. They’re not sure if they should eat it with their hands, or with a fork. Not wanting to ask, they have to watch you closely to see how you eat it.
- During the meal, your family talks mostly to each other — largely overlooking your guests.
- When dinner is complete, a couple of your family head to the basement to watch the game. You start on the dishes. Two of your kids pull out their phones and immediately share private laughs over snapchat posts.
Crazy? Sure. Unlikely to happen? Probably. But what if something similar is happening at churches every Sunday, all across America?
Think of it this way. Just about every church has a get-together every Sunday. We call it worship. And for the churches in my tradition, we have a meal at the center of that gathering: The Lord’s Supper.
How many visitors/guests come each Sunday to churches all across this nation, only to experience some real-life version of what I just mentioned? How many church visitors have found at least one of these to be true?
- Parking is difficult.
- They’re not sure where they go, or their kids.
- They’re not greeted and helped when the arrive.
- When they enter the sanctuary/auditorium, people have already filled the seats along the aisle, so they have to climb over somebody in order to get to an available seat — or they have to walk down to the only open places, which are all down front.
- They don’t know the language or the traditions, and it’s not explained. (Just one example: Who takes communion? And how? When the trays or passed? Or when you’re ready? Or all together? Or up front?)
- They feel like outsiders, because everyone else is happily talking to other people — and they all seem to know each other really well.
- So, when the service is over, church people find other church people to talk with, make plans with, and eat lunch with.
Now, just like the illustration of having guests over for dinner, the picture I painted is exaggerated. Rare is the church who would do all of those things. But rare is the church who does none of those things.
For the simple truth is: the more comfortable we get on Sundays, the less likely we are to see what has grown familiar to us. And the more familiar we are with “doing church,” the more likely we are to forget how awkward and difficult it can be to “do church” when someone is brand new.
To this end, I am excited to be able to offer a service that helps churches see themselves through the lens of a visitor. I am calling it The Paraklesis Project, after the New Testament word that means “encouragement.” My goal is to encourage and assist churches of all sizes to consider how they can be a more welcoming place for people of all backgrounds, ages, and church experiences.
I recently offered this to a church in Indiana, and was able to visit them on a Sunday and help them assess what they do and why they do it. Since no one there knew me, I was able to go in just like any visitor might. Not being sure where to go or what to do, I experienced “Sunday church” as a newcomer. I then met with the leadership to share what I had experienced, and this conversation led to some deeper dialogue about the purpose and direction of the church, and the strengths and opportunities they face. I followed up that visit by preaching the next Sunday, using some of the insights I had gathered to encourage the church to continue to be family, while taking that love and openness to others — not just on Sundays, but everyday.
If you know of a church that would benefit from this ministry where I “go and visit,” and then “come and share,” send them a link to this blog. Or send them my name and email (gulpinggrace(at)gmail(dot)com). I’d love to talk with them about crafting a personalized plan to help them evaluate how they approach Sundays — but more importantly, how they approach people who need to see, and experience, Jesus’ love.
2 thoughts on “I’m New Here”
Ahhh, I’ve missed these posts! I think this is a great idea! Our first experience at our current church was unusual – we made it in and out without speaking to a single person (or being spoken to) except for the lead minister at the door on the way out. But we stayed anyway! The second time was more “normal,” and we met this really great guy with an amazing memory for names … I hope you call up some of the well-known big churches around here and offer your services. Every place can use a tune-up!
In the late 1990’s I was working in Washington D.C. on a 3 month detail. It gave me a chance to attend a number of different worship services as an outsider, completely unknown to them. One Sunday morning I walked into a church building for the first time. The “greeter” team had several members, all of whom were engaging each other in social conversation. I had to interrupt their conversation to ask about where I could go for a Sunday school class. The one person who gave me directions (but did not take me) to a classroom had directed me a class that wasn’t meeting that particular Sunday morning. That was a real-life lesson for me on how NOT to greet visitors when I returned to my church home. On the bright side, that was the worst reception I received in my visits to various congregations during my stay in Washington.