The following is a consulting report developed for one church. The identity of the church and individuals is masked. This church is a large church with two services. The town in which the church is located is small.
Our first-hand observations are anecdotal and may not be representative of how others would find things. Bear in mind that we come with a fine-tuned eye and experience things differently than an average first time guest.
Our Exact Experience January 26, 2017
We arrived in the area from out of town at about 10:30 am planning to attend the 11:00 am service. We drove around until 10:54 am when we entered the driveway off Main Street. It appeared that the parking lot was full and we wondered if we could get a spot.
I (Gary) dropped Wendy off at the main entrance which was easy to identify. Wendy entered the building and stood by herself without a word of greeting for about three minutes while Gary parked the car. Gary walked to the building without anyone saying “Hello.” With a buzz of activity around the building it appeared like this was a “happening” place. Gary approached the door and waited while a man with a cane was feebly exiting with a few others helping him decide which way to go. Nobody said “Hello” to Gary because they were concerned about this man.
Just inside the door I (Gary) found Wendy and we proceeded to walk toward the auditorium. Nobody had greeted Wendy in that three minutes as she waited for Gary. A lady at the welcome centre gave us a smile and a “Good morning” as we walked by. The two people at the door handing out the papers for the day gave us a warm greeting and a handshake offering the information about the annual report. Wendy politely refused that extra information and the answer was gracefully received.
We slowly walked in and without assistance located a seat about four rows from the back in an empty row on the right-hand side as we faced the platform. By now it was about 10:59 am. There was a pleasant buzz of conversation in the room. The countdown timer on the screen said there was several minutes to start time; it was not coordinated with clock time. After a couple of minutes “Mr. A” approached and talked to Gary with a pleasant manner. He was friendly but not invasive, engaging in general “Mouth to Mouth” type conversation. He handed us a welcome package; pointed out the Tim Horton’s gift card inside ($5) and asked us to fill in the registration card. Nobody explained what to do with the card. Wendy filled it out but forgot to put it on the offering plate but strictly speaking wouldn’t know to do that because it hadn’t been explained.
As Gary was chatting with Mr. A a lady approached from the other side. Mr. A explained to Gary that she was the pastor’s wife but didn’t introduce her to Gary. She didn’t identify herself to Wendy but asked, “Do I know you?” Wendy said, “I’m not sure.” They conversed for a few moments. Mr. A invited us to stay for cake “over there” after the meeting. The meeting began at least a minute after the timer passed zero at 11:07 am.
While singing the first song, Ms. B (a paid staff member) approached us and greeted asking if anyone had given us a welcome packet.
After the meeting ended we stood in place at our seats for about five minutes without anyone saying a word to us. We moved to the end of the row at the centre aisle and stood there for several minutes again nobody smile at us or greeted us. But there was clearly a warm friendly buzz in the room. People certainly seemed to be excited to be there.
Once we entered the aisle Mr. C (assistant pastor) was there talking to people and gave us a tentative “Good morning” and Gary quietly gave him the head’s up that we were “Secret Sunday Shoppers” so we moved on. He would have carried on a conversation with us if we had let him. His manner was very welcoming and unintimidating.
We slowly walked to the back and stood against the wall. Nobody approached us or looked at us. After a few minutes, we slowly walked in the direction they promised us cake but it was not clear where the cake was because we couldn’t see it.
We entered the side room and saw the cake on tables so we picked up a piece and stood in the middle of the room for several minutes. The cake was eaten by the time Mr. D approached us with a friendly grin and introduced himself. This was the first person who talked to us after the meeting and it was at least 10 minutes after dismissal. (Under normal circumstances we would have been long gone by then.)
We had a cordial conversation for several minutes and explained why we were there. Ms. E (pastor’s wife) joined us and exclaimed that now she knew who we were. The pleasant conversation continued. But it was of a different nature than the normal newcomer would experience because of the situation. By the end of that conversation the building was mostly emptied. It had been more than 15-20 minutes after the end of the meeting.
This is not an unusual experience. We have had similar experiences in dozens of churches. This is not an “unfriendly church” compared to all the others. In every case, when we explain this experience to church people after the fact, they are always “gobsmacked” and believe it must have been the exception because they are really a very friendly church. They are friendly with their friends. The newcomers they experience have always told them how friendly the church is. It is very, very important to understand that this expression that the church is friendly always comes from those who have broken in through the glass wall. Never brag to a newcomer that your church is friendly; they will form their own opinion very quickly.
There are unwritten social rules at play here. To illustrate, when you stand in an elevator you know the rule is that you face the elevator door. You don’t turn and talk to people. Normally you avoid eye contact. However, if you are the one who breaks the silence and turns to talk to the other unknown persons on the elevator they will likely have pleasant conversation with you if you are not too aggressive about it. Many newcomers to church will use “elevator rules” and not think it the least bit strange that others are not conversing with them. If they enjoyed “the show” they won’t mind getting from the seat to the parking lot without any conversation. They may well come back for next week’s experience and think nothing of it. Eventually, somebody will open the door on the glass wall and they will be welcomed in to the pre-exisiting “friendly church.” But this will usually only happen if they come back for several weeks. The magnetic draw of the warmth that is different than what they expected will be enough to keep people coming back for “some of that” — whatever “that” is. If there isn’t the magnetic draw of a friendly atmosphere — even though the newcomer is not part of it at first — no amount of forced friendliness from a welcoming crew will keep them coming back. However, without the gentle initiation of some people to welcome them in, they will likely give up and wander off in time.
How to Change It
Don’t get defensive. Your church may not be as friendly to first time people as you think. Every week is an exception in that things are never totally normal. Don’t accept it that any newcomer can slip away without someone attempting to reach them. Some will slip away no matter what you do but make sure that is their choice not your fault.
The problem is essentially that a church shouldn’t need a welcoming system because the Bible clearly teaches that greeting is a “one another” responsibility. Make sure everyone knows they are on the welcoming team whether they are officially appointed or not. But you can’t teach this in a Sunday service. This is “backstage” stuff. Find a backstage time to teach it. All who have leadership positions must live it or you will never enculturate it. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
Make sure your official people are on duty. Put some of those people “in uniform” — a metaphor not an actual uniform. Put name tags them. Put others out of uniform in plain clothes – again a metaphor as you think of uniformed and plain clothes police. Nobody should know who the plain clothes people are. The first clue a newcomer has to sense this is an official greeting is that the person physically approaches them or stands in an obviously preassigned place. This is not negative; in fact, it is usually appreciated if not too aggressive.
The subtle part is the most important for a newcomer. The newcomer never wants to feel processed. Your leaders must set the pace and naturally flow around the room without appearing like they are looking for someone. This takes a plan. During the meeting a leader can quietly position herself at a seat in the row of a newcomer so that she can start a conversation in the first few seconds after the meeting close. You get no more than 10 seconds here. Another man can scan the crowd and see that newcomer “is covered” and look for someone else he doesn’t know. When one leader is in one zone he can make sure other leaders aren’t in the same zone. In basketball, they talk of spreading the floor to do this. Space yourselves around the room. Make it your goal to avoid talking to people you know in favour of engaging people you don’t know. This does not mean you ignore people but just that you tilt your attention to people you haven’t met yet or talked to recently.
Take a mentee with you as you do this natural room monitoring and explain what you are noticing as you go. Teach that a simple glance may give you a world of information if you know to look for it. Let that mentee stand silently with you while you demonstrate how you start the conversation. Then debrief after the meeting and talk through the experience. It will surprise you how much your mentee misses at first. This is a trainable set of skills. If you don’t have the skills find a mentor who does and follow that mentor with your observations and subsequent questions until you get the nuances of how to do this.
People usually sit in the same place. Assign emerging leaders to the zone of 18 chairs around where they normally sit. They are to notice who occupies the chairs and greet the people they don’t know. When someone is missing, they should follow up to make sure the person is not sick etc. A person who leaves the church always starts leaving with their first absence. When you see that emerging leader taking their zone seriously — but not obviously — you know you have someone to work with for a higher level of leadership. If the person is too passive or too aggressive, notice it and give them some coaching on how to do better. You may need to occupy one of their 18 chairs to show them what a blessing it is to initiate conversation.