Church Visits

Visiting Churches: Chris Thompson (stainedglass) is an amateur Alaskan biblical scholar and student of religion, especially as it relates to popular culture. He regularly attends national and regional American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature events to interact with and learn from worldwide religion scholars. Through unannounced mystery visits to churches in Anchorage and South-Central Alaska, he observes how guests (visitors) are treated during this initial church visit. Research indicates guests first visit perceptions affects further spiritual growth and religious attitudes as they search for a church home. Chris' church visits focus primarily on Christian churches. This blog contains accounts of those visits, and related posts about religion in culture. Chris looks for the following in his visits:

•Genuine welcome, true Christian hospitality

•Friendliness and warmth

•Effective, well-delivered, Bible-based, main teaching

•Music deepening the worship, not just entertainment

Google map of churches Chris Thompson has visited.

Follow my Church Visits posts on Twitter

Chris Thompson’s email: churchvisits@gmail.com

Significant 2013 Church Visits Posts

Top Ten Issues Local Churches Must Address in 2013

Ten Things Churches Did That Blew Me Away In 2012

Guest Post: Why Theology Matters to Musicians

Church Visits: What do millennials look for in worship? - 4/11/2014 10:29 pm

Church Visits: Visits to 2 churches leave 2 different impressions - 4/4/2014 9:19 pm

Church Visits: Research underscores deeper church attendance issues - 3/28/2014 9:19 pm

Church Visits: It's time we get back to observing the Sabbath - 3/21/2014 8:30 pm

Church Visits: Look deeper into Lent than just 'give-ups' - 3/14/2014 10:37 pm

First Congregational Church Revisit: Not Bad - Room to Grow - 3/14/2014 11:23 am

Church Visits: Pastors mark start of Lent by taking ashes to the people - 3/8/2014 10:56 am

Church Visits: Tools for finding the right church for you - 3/1/2014 3:03 pm

Mary Bolin - Cornerstone's Greeter Extraordinaire

As long as I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve emphasized warm greetings, conveying a sense of hospitality, and friendliness and warmth as two of the four criteria I look for in my church visits. Greeting members and guests appropriately is one of the most critical things a church can do. It sets the tone for the time people spend at church. Unfortunately most Anchorage churches fail to understand the importance of training and maintaining effective greeters in their churches. A few churches have them and this blog post highlights one such extraordinary church greeter.

Early in my visits, I visited Cornerstone Church and discovered Mary Bolin, a key part of their highly effective greeter ministry. I was shocked when I returned some months later to find she greeted me by name. In the intervening years, I’ve made a number of visits to Cornerstone and have observed Mary at work. I could use many superlatives to describe Mary, but the key one would ultimately be the result. She’s effective!

One Sunday I visited Cornerstone. As Mary warmly greeted me I asked if Pastor Brad was speaking. She indicated that he wasn’t as there was a guest speaker instead. I mentioned I was leaving because I’d come to hear Pastor Brad. Mary countered saying the guest speaker had delivered a wonderful message in the earlier service and that it was powerful. She was so right as it turned out to be one of the most memorable sermons I’ve ever heard in an Anchorage church.

I’m pleased to present this interview with Mary Bolin. The bolded text text are my questions of her. Mary's responses are non-bolded.Mary Bolin - Cornerstone GreeterMary Bolin - Cornerstone Greeter

How long have you been a greeter at Cornerstone?
I do not remember when I started to greet officially. I think I started in the ‘90’s. I do, however, remember my motive, and that was to make anyone who came through our doors feel welcome; newcomers and regular attendees alike, early, on time or late arrivers. Most people like to see someone who is obviously glad to see them.

Have you received any special training to be a greeter? Are you or Cornerstone providing any training to keep filling the ranks of qualified greeters?
I have not received any special training. At some point I was on the email list of a famous greeter who put out greeting tips. I forget now who he is, but he did have some good points that I may or may not be using. For me, greeting is not a technique; it is a state of mind, a welcoming state of mind. Even when I goof up and call folks by the wrong names, or put couples together who are not couples (as I did with you the first time we met!), if people perceive the sincerity of a welcome and a genuine interest in them as people, much is forgiven.

My single criterion for anyone with an interest in being a greeter is this: SHOW UP. I do not set up lists, I do not call and remind the greeters, if they say they will greet, I expect they will. Greeting is a wonderful privilege, it is not a task, it is not a duty. It is the best ministry in the whole hierarchy of church ministries. I have been a part of other ministries like teaching Sunday school, heading up women’s groups, serving on church council, serving on pulpit committees, and so forth. This is the best. I do have my new greeters greet with me for a couple of Sundays just to get a notion of my philosophy, but as individuals, each of them will greet in the manner than suits them best.

What kinds of things are guests looking for when they first visit your church and how do you help them find them?
A broad spectrum of things people are looking for: Do you have classes for my children? Youth groups? Women’s bible studies? Small Groups? Prayer teams? Men’s groups? Occasionally someone will ask about the kind of music we have or wonder what denomination we are, but not often. I will answer the questions I can and direct them to others for answers I do not know. Frequently folks will have found us online and will have read our statement of faith. Lots of times people say, “I drive by here every day and just decided to come.”Chaplain Mary BolinChaplain Mary Bolin

I understand you are a chaplain in Anchorage. Would you share the nature of your work with our readers? Does your work as a chaplain have any bearing on your mission at Cornerstone?
I am a Police and Fire Chaplain. That ministry is one of the greatest joys in my life. In that capacity, we Chaplains minister to the officers and staff of the Police and Fire Departments, as well as some associated entities such as the Medical Examiner’s Office. We are part of the police team in that we are dispatched, along with the officers, to incidents where we assist victims or friends and family members of persons who are injured or deceased. This allows the officers to conduct their investigations while the chaplains care for the others.

Being a Police Chaplain is kind of a cousin to a “Greeter Chaplain”. Many times, as greeter, I have the opportunity to minister to, pray with, and listen to individuals who come my way.

Some readers maintain the friendliness of the welcome of guests to a church has nothing to do with whether or not they will choose to return for another visit at that church? Do you agree with this statement?
Well, I think it is in the nature of human beings that we desire to be in relationship. A warm welcome can be the start of a relationship. Whether or not a person returns to our particular church does not concern me, other than if they do not return I miss out on getting to know him or her. I do not greet in order to attract people to Cornerstone Church. I greet because of what I said earlier. I want people to know someone is glad to see them who are interested in them as individuals valuable to God. Often I have said to people who say they are church shopping,”There are a lot of good churches in Anchorage. Try not to be swayed by your feelings, the music, the preaching or the youth programs. Rather, listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit places you in a church body, not only will you be fed, but the wonderful gifts God has given you will be used in ministry to others.”

Greeters in some churches ask seemingly endless questions of guests. “How did you find us? What church do you normally attend? etc.” Would you comment on the relevance of these questions?
It is helpful to me to know how someone has found Cornerstone. It is not an easy place to get to, at least for first timers. So I often do ask that question. It is a nice point of engagement for further conversation and helps me (sometimes) remember them the next time I see them. I deliberately do not ask about other churches because that is information not relevant to me. I wouldn’t want to participate in hearing anything bad about another church. Usually I ask people their names and try to connect in a way that I might remember them, as well as give them the lay of the land, i.e., “We have coffee, tea and water here in the foyer and you are welcome to take it into the auditorium during the service”.

What do you think when you approach a new guest(s)?
Usually I’m thinking, “Have I met this person/family before?” I usually approach that situation pretty directly by asking, if I’m not sure, Have I met you before? It would be unusual for me to ask, Is this your first time here? People are very gracious and whether I have met them before (several times, even) or it is a first time meeting, they are kindly to me and friendly back.

Cornerstone is unique in that guests are offered a gift. Would you comment on your welcome gift and what is given?
For a few years we did give gifts, and good stuff too like chocolate bars (large and good quality), coffee mugs, travel mugs, good books. Now we do not. The idea behind the gifts was to meet the newcomers. However, it became apparent that the gifts started to become the focus, and the meeting of someone was not important. Sometimes I would be talking to a person, turn around to find all of the gifts had disappeared, while I had not met any of the persons who had them! Enough with the gifts.

Thank you Mary for sharing your thoughts with Church Visits readers. It is my hope your insights might take root in more Anchorage churches, giving a new dimension to the proclamation of the Gospel. The "Field of Dreams" philosophy no longer works in churchianity. Many Christians and their churches have lost their sense of uniqueness that marked them, effectively, for hundreds of years. Effective greetings and conveying hospitality go back to Abram, thousands of years ago. God bless you as you continue to touch guests and members at Cornerstone.

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