Many churches across the country seem to be caught in what may be described best as a web of inhospitality, especially when it comes to their worship services. They’re not trying to be unfriendly and they often have years of tradition to defend their practices. And yet, after years of conversations with the unconnected, there is little doubt that many of our sacred practices in worship has more to do with satisfying our own personal whims than with helping our guests to feel warm and welcome.
The following list comprises five “Thou Shalt Nots” of effective worship hospitality. Before you read any of them though, I must warn you. These five tips aren’t for the faint hearted – especially if you’re in a church that was established over fifty years ago. Indeed, when we make these recommendations to churches we’re doing consultations with, they almost always push back against at least one, and sometimes all, of the recommendations. So, in no particular order, here’s the worship hospitality thou shalt not list.
Ignore the Folks Until They Get Into the Building
I drove into the church parking lot and got out of my car. Although I was only a few minutes late (maybe two minutes), there was no one in the parking lot. No worries, I thought as I glanced around. There were two prominent brick buildings facing the parking lot and each had a sign – which normally would be a good thing. Except that one building was labeled “Sanctuary” and the other “Worship Center.”
Although most churches don’t suffer from such a dilemma, the fact is, most churches leave their guests to fend for themselves until they manage to somehow get their bearings and find their way through a door. And it seems like there are a lot of church buildings with multiple entrances, some that get you where you’re going, and some that don’t. For this, and many other reasons, your church should invest some talent in a Parking Lot Greeting Team. These hardy greeters assist arriving members and guests to find parking places, help bear the burdens of over-stuffed diaper bags and Bible carriers, and most importantly, provide both a cheery greeting, a word of welcome, and directions on how to find the right door to whatever the guest is looking for. One of the key duties of at least one member of the Parking Lot Team is to remain outside between ten and fifteen minutes after the service starts to direct panicking or bashful latecomers.
Make Your Guests Feel Conspicuous to Show They’re Welcome
It was his birthday and he and his coworkers headed out to celebrate over dinner. It’s not clear to this day whose idea it was, but they all ended up at Casa del Fuego for nachos, burritos, and enchiladas. All would have been well except for someone spilled the beans and in moments the birthday celebration became a never-forget moment of public humiliation. One waiter plopped an oversized sombrero atop the birthday boy’s head and then called everyone’s attention to the special guest on his special day. When everyone’s eyes were on him, they began to sing their version of the Happy Birthday song. It was the longest thirty seconds of his life. I suppose I don’t really need to mention that he’s never been back.
To be sure, there are some folks who relish that kind of attention, but they’re a vast minority of the population. Most of us would rather endure some sort of torture than wear an ill-fitting floppy hat while a roomful of strangers eyeballed us and sang on our behalf. And yet, there are still quite a number of churches that choreograph their own version of this scenario every time a first time guest is identified. I’ve heard almost every “excuse” in the book from churches trying to justify their particular version of guest identification. Invariably, someone will tell me they would be embarrassed not to be introduced or that it’s bad manners. Or that the church wouldn’t know who the visitors are if they weren’t identified publicly. I’ve never been in a church with over 250 in worship who have engaged these practices, instead they’ve all been under 200 in worship, and most of the time they’re well under 100.
In today’s world, privacy and personal space is highly prized and the level of discomfort escalates in proportion to the number of onlookers. People who are “trying out” a church, particularly those who are without church experience, are there to find the presence of the Divine, not to be made into a spectacle. It’s an intensely personal and intimidating act to show up at a church, even if invited. Churches that publicly identify guests in any way, even down to having guests wear a name tag that’s different from the member’s name tags, are pretty much guaranteeing few first time guests become second time guests.
Treat Your Guests Like Pariahs
After the previous section, you may be thinking that churches should give guests extra space so they are “safe” from interactions – welcome to paradox. In the main, guests don’t want to be publicly identified, but they don’t want to be ignored either. It’s a tightrope that the church must walk every week. Too much attention and the guest may feel smothered, too little and they label the church as an inwardly focused, unfriendly clique.
What’s the right balance? Start the greeting in the parking lot. Continue it with smiling, gregarious greeters at the door. Move along with friendly ushers. And make sure there are hosts in the worship space who introduce themselves and are more interested in listening than in hearing their own voices (but know how to ask good, open ended question and are sensitive enough to discern when a guest wants/needs to be left alone). If you have a greeting time in the service, make sure that guests get adequate attention, but don’t mob them either. The axiom that we should do all things with moderation is no less true of how we greet our guests.
Commit Both Assault and Battery In the Name of Friendliness
I’m sure it all started with good intentions, but there’s something discomforting about visiting a church where the service ends with the one-great-act of solidarity: the congregational hand-holding sing-along song. I don’t know when it started, but I wish with all my heart that we’d quit it.
Assault can be broadly defined as the threat of unwanted touch or affection and battery as the touch consummated. With that definition, there are hundreds of churches across the US that committed both assault and battery under the guise of solidarity, camaraderie, and friendliness. But here’s a gentle newsflash … not everyone you meet wants to hold your hand. And although shaking hands for a brief moment of greeting or introduction is socially acceptable, even amongst relative strangers, the social acceptance of holding hands while singing Kum Ba Yah isn’t – especially when the participant has no real way of refusing the “offer.”
I don’t know if he was truly phobic or just had more guts than most, but there he sat in the middle of the sanctuary while the rest of the congregation stood holding hands around the perimeter singing some closing song. It must have taken a tremendous act of willpower to not succumb to the congregation’s expectation that everyone in the worship service would relish the opportunity to hold some stranger’s hand in a gesture of solidarity. Of course, the expectation that a guest would feel any such solidarity or inclusion is probably overly optimistic. Indeed, for many, the forced hand-holding is tantamount to an invasion of personal space, i.e., assault and battery.
Now, I know there’s going to be some real pushback on this by churches who, with all their good intentions, practice this. But here’s a question for reflection: Is it worth risking the discomfort of your guests who may be offended (and trust me here, many are) for the sake of a tradition?
By the way, I probably don’t need to mention that the lone guest who refused the hand holding never returned to that church … and may never set foot in a church again.
Be a Bisensual Church
When I was growing up, we had a TV with a blown picture tube. The audio worked fine and I remember trying to watch a television program without video. I also remember getting bored and frustrated pretty quickly because I couldn’t follow the plot because so much depended on visuals. On the other hand, I realized pretty quickly that when I went to worship that I could color, doodle, draw, and manage all sorts of other distractions and still follow along just fine – even if I didn’t bother to look up at all.
We live in an age of multi-sensory participation. Successful and effective schools no longer depend on teacher’s lecturing while students sit in neat rows paying rapt attention to their every word in order to deliver an education. Multimedia and interaction is the rule of the day … but most churches seem to caught in the past. They’re still committed to worship using the bi-senses of sit and listen. Indeed, if you can pick up a CD or cassette of the sermon after the service, give it an absent friend, and if they can follow everything, then your church is a practicing bisensual church.
Communication, education, and training have taken huge leaps forward over the past decade – over the past two years even. I’ve attended services recently that used SMS texts and even Twitter as a part of the sermon in order to create an interactive experience for the audience. Many churches are using their video technology to the nth degree in order to communicate visually what cannot be expressed well in words. I’ve watched artists paint or draw during the service in order to bring a part of the message “home.” In an earlier article in On Track I wrote about the eye-candy of a congregation that used seven screens reflecting three different simultaneous images throughout the service in order to communicate their well focused message.
In today’s culture, any investment of time comes with an expectation of a reciprocal return. Church leaders who understand that effective communication involves all five senses, not just sit and listen, can craft messages that are worthy investments. Guests will notice and return for more.
These five faux pas of worship are certainly not the five unforgivable sins … but any one of them may be enough to put a stumbling block in front of one of the “little ones” who was reaching out to explore the faith. Anything we can do to be hospitable and to welcome these into our midst is the least we can do for the sake of the gospel.