It’s Easter Monday as I sit to write this article. I had the luxury of having two viewpoints at two different churches yesterday. One of the churches was a 400 member church with three services and the other was a 200 member church with two services. Both churches’ staff knew that this would probably be the highest attended service of the year, so one would think that they’d have rolled out the red carpet to make sure the visitors were both well received and made welcome.
One would think.
It turns out neither church was well prepared for guests. Oh sure, they were both prepared for visitors who were lapsed church members or who had been to church on and off over the years. But were they ready for the real residents of their community? Not hardly. Rather than going through a litany of how the churches muffed it, it will be more helpful if perhaps we paint a more accurate picture of who Carl and Carla Community are.
Before I start, though, let me add this little tidbit. Although I claim to be from Seattle, where there are more unchurched folk than virtually anywhere else in the nation, the two churches in question are both located smack dab in the middle of the Midwest. One of the churches is in a university town and the other is in a rural county seat. Both of the churches’ staff realize there are a number of “unchurched” out there, but I’ve heard them say that the people in the Midwest aren’t as “unchurched” as the Pacific Northwest. As you get ready to read the next few paragraphs, whether you’re from the South, the Midwest, or anywhere else in the US, bear in mind that the following description really does apply to a growing number of folks living up and down the streets in your city, suburb, town, burgh, village, county, etc. They’re already living there, whether you realize or not.
Carl and Carla weren’t raised in the church. In fact, though their parents had been church-goers back in the good-old days when they were raised, Mom and Dad left the church as soon as they were adults and could make their own choices. That being the case, Carl and Carla have virtually no church “memory.” What they know about the church they either got from the few conversations Mom and Dad had about it or what they picked up on news specials about pedophilic priests and adulterous pastors. Oh, and then there were the times they were channel surfing and glanced at the PTL Club, the 700 Club, or some other television “evangelist.”
What they know about Christianity is nearly as sparse. Most of what they “know” came from the college courses they took on history and literature. They know that the church celebrates Christmas as the birth of Jesus’ in a manger and that Easter is a church holiday too. What they’re really certain about is that most Christians vote Republican, think homosexuals are evil, and are both hypocritical and judgmental. Although Carl and Carla agree that they know some Christians, they don’t really know much about them—none of them have ever talked to them about their religion. However, they’d be open to a conversation with a Christian about their religion, but they’d turn hostile quickly if it turned into a sales job. But an honest conversation with a friend? Sure.
There are a couple of other things you should know about Carl and Carla. They have no experience with the Bible. They know it’s a Christian book, but don’t know what’s in it besides some old poetry about the Lord is my shepherd that they heard read at their grandparent’s funeral. If you handed one to them, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. In fact, when they opened it, they’d be puzzled by the all those numbers sprinkled within the paragraphs. Oh, and the Bible would be just as authoritative in their lives as the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Vedas—in other words, it wouldn’t.
On the other hand, if you ask Carl and Carla, they’ll tell you they definitely believe that there’s a God. However, they’re not as certain that the God of the Bible is the only God, or that all the major Gods aren’t in fact just the same God with different names. They’ll also admit that they’re spiritual people and think about God-stuff now and again. To show they mean it, they’ll confess that they even pray regularly (though regularly means when something traumatic or worrisome is going on in their lives).
With all that in mind, let’s look at some of the ways we can help Carl and Carla feel more at home next year if for some reason they choose to visit your church on Easter (they’re not likely to show up unannounced or uninvited some other time).
Begin in the Parking Lot
Begin your hospitality efforts before they get out of their car. In fact, begin weeks and months before they arrive and begin in your parking lot. Next Sunday morning, take a look at your parking lot five minutes after worship starts (if you’re the pastor, get them to start without you). If a guest showed up, where would they park?
You get extra points if there are empty Guest parking spots well marked near the doors, but unless there are a LOT of them, they were probably well filled on Easter Sunday. Then where will Carl and Carla park?
The solution is to start now reminding mobile members that parking in the back forty is a part of offering hospitality to guests. And pastor, you need to be setting the example. If you’ve got a reserved parking spot that would make a good visitor’s spot, change the sign and start parking a long ways off on Sundays. According to several recent denominational insurance actuary reports, you could probably use the walk anyway.
Here’s Your Sign
Bill Engvall understands how important signs are … and he keeps pointing them out for us with his “Here’s your sign” humor. But it’s not all that funny when you’re standing in a parking lot of an unfamiliar building trying to figure out where the main auditorium is. In one of the two churches I mentioned above, there are three doors that face the parking lot. Exactly zero of them actually leads directly into the sanctuary, and exactly zero of them has a sign telling your where to go. Instead, there’s a sign that says Fellowship Hall, one that’s leads to “The Loft,” and a third that is unmarked.
“Just follow the crowd,” you might think, but on Easter Sunday (and most Sundays, for that matter) there are folks going in all three doors. And did I mention there are two other parking lots on the church property and five other doors all either cryptically marked or unmarked completely?
But finding the front door is only a part of the problem. Once they get in our buildings, can they find the all-important restrooms or will they have to ask someone? If they have to ask, it’s already too late for good hospitality.
Here’s the bottom line. If there’s a door, it needs a sign—a big one at that (consider large sandwich board signs that mark the main entrance). If there’s a corner, it needs a sign pointing to whatever a guest might be looking for: auditorium, restrooms, nursery, offices, etc. Every corner. Every door. Every time a guest has an option.
But don’t leave it to the signs. Every bulletin, program, etc. for every public service ought to include a map to the important sites. Not every single room needs to be marked, but the bit four need to be. In one of the two churches above, finding the restrooms almost takes a compass and the saying, “You can’t get there from here” was clearly coined in their sanctuary.
Friendly Greeters, Helpful Ushers
Everyone in church knows what a greeter does. They stand at the door talking sports or politics with each other and half-heartedly hand out the bulletins to any inconsiderates who deign come through their door and interrupt their conversation.
Okay, that seems extreme, except I’ve been there, experienced that. It wasn’t pretty. In most churches, greeters stand at the door and greet those who come in. In general, this works well and one greeter per door is adequate. Unless, of course, you actually have more than a couple folks coming through the door at the same time. Consider multiple greeters—and only put greeters there who truly like people, who smile, and who “get” what hospitality is all about.
But why not go the extra mile? Whether your doors are marked or not … and whether or not you have guest parking that’s close … get some of your studier men and women to be Parking Lot greeters. If it’s raining, equip them with oversized golf umbrellas to shuttle people in. These should be helpful folk who naturally know that opening doors for women and men and children is just being polite. Folks who know that juggling a toddler and a car seat and a Bible and a purse and a diaper bag is too much for even Supermom to juggle at once.
But don’t just stop with greeters. Carl and Carla may show up early, but they are just as likely to show up just-in-time. And everyone knows that those who show up just-in-time aren’t going to get a “good seat” (i.e., an aisle seat in the back row or two), so to help Carl and Carla, ushers need to ush. Train your ushers to show people to a seat so Carl and Carla don’t have to hunt for one on their own. And again, train your members that the last two or three rows “belong” to guests. Period.
Although I could go on (how to do non-threatening follow-up, eliminating coded language, etc.), but you can probably extrapolate from here. Carl and Carla Community simply don’t “get” church. It’s as foreign to them as you going to a Synagogue, a Mosque, or an Greek Orthodox service. Assume they don’t know when to sit, stand, what to sing or say, and don’t speak Christianese. If you want them to hear the Gospel, you’re going to have to remove every single communication barrier that gets in the way.