Happy New Year Church Visits readers. It's now 2014 and I've just finished ruminating about ways local churches could address various ways they operate to make themselves more attractive to guests looking for church homes. As always, I invite your feedback on my thoughts. I usually don't throw things out there unless there is documented evidence of the need for addressing these issues.
Top Ten Issues I'd Like to See Anchorage Churches Confront in 2014
1. Friendliness and Welcome
Despite looking for truly friendly, warm, and welcoming churches in Anchorage, I rarely found or experienced them in 2013. I can tell you more about who they are not than who they are. The average Sears, Carrs, and Nordstrom store is more friendly and welcoming than the average Anchorage church. True hospitality is not only measured by being handed a bulletin, and greeted by a handshake, but an outstretching of the human spirit conveying a genuine sense of spiritual welcome, that you are in a special place, and that their prayers for God’s blessing are upon you. You’ll know when it happens to you.
Takeaway: Friendly, welcoming churches attract new members.
2. Clean Up Church Websites
Many local church websites are out-of-date, illogically and inexpertly constructed, and contain numerous grammatical errors. Most visitors to church websites are primarily looking for service times for your church and its current location. Sadly, some churches locate this information at the bottom of a too long home page, out of sight of the searcher. Others locate service times under something called schedule or calendar, not worship or service times. Too many church websites are hopelessly devoted to geographic scenes of Alaska lakes, mountains, or rivers having nothing to do with the church. What catches my eye are pictures of happy members engaged in the work of God.
Takeaway: Well constructed, attractive websites attract guests.
3. Fix Your Church Signs
Too many churches still have hopelessly outdated church signs that are illegible, contain useless information, and can’t easily be read from a car passing by at the posted speed limit. Those constraints and Anchorage’s sign ordinance mean that church name, web address and possibly service times are about the only things that can be read by a passing driver. If a commercial business’ sign vendor designed code acceptable signage similar to what many churches use, there would be reasonable grounds for a lawsuit on the grounds of ineffectiveness. Most churches hire professionally trained pastors. Why shouldn't they just save the money and get a “wanna be” pastor? Wouldn't it be cheaper? Yes! Would it be effective? No!
Takeaway: Hire a professional sign consultant now.
4. Stop Being One-Stop Shops
Too many Anchorage churches fail to support community-wide efforts to bring music, drama, or nationally known speakers to a cross-section of all churches. These churches refuse to announce the availability of these presentations in their bulletins, newsletters, or by pulpit announcements. There is a predominating church culture here which projects a “not going to support, because it’s not from us” attitude. Science flourishes based on an interactive give and take culture, stimulating discussion. So does today’s religious climate flourish by vigorous discussion and debate. The average pastor in Anchorage does not encourage its members to look outside the box, projecting a fear of the unknown. For example, over the past year, I've privately encouraged pastoral support for the showing of an award winning, and faith building film on Hell. To date no church has shown the courage to expose its members to this film. It’s like the dark ages all over again.
Takeaway: Churches that do not interact with the church community as a whole ultimately project the wrong image.
5. Visit Other Churches
Every Anchorage church needs to have members going out to visit other churches, to observe first-hand, what works and what doesn't. Hidden issues in your church may become obvious when you see it in another church. Do other churches have effective greeters? Do they maintain guest friendly services, including them in the dialog, or do they assume guests know and understand what is happening at all times? Does your visit leave you wanting more, or during that critical 5-8 minutes from arrival, did you feel as though you would never revisit that church? It’s what I call a “church DNA” thing. You’ll know when you experience it. This information needs to be brought back and shared with your church.
Takeaway: Visiting other churches regularly pays big dividends.
6. Train Your greeters
I know only one or two churches in Anchorage with greeters truly worthy of that title. The rest are sadly lacking because churches are “penny-wise and pound-foolish” about locating and providing this training. Most churches rely on volunteer greeters trying to ensure each member does their part of this thankless chore, by filling in their names for a Sunday or two. It’s easy work. Just stand there, be cheerful, hand the guest a bulletin, don’t talk with them, and move guests inside. Don’t worry about saying your name instead of asking theirs, don’t truly welcome them to the service setting expectations about what will happen, and certainly don’t give them any information about your church they can take home. Greeter training does take time and money, but believe me, growing churches find it pays! Almost every church and pastor I know overestimates their greeter’s abilities.
Takeaway: Professionally trained greeters are a huge win for any church.
7. Become Culturally Relevant
Our churches should not mirror our culture but should stand as a bulwark against it and its excesses. Much of today’s religion reflects an unbridled display of narcissistic practices. Do you find it as interesting as I do, that many pastors and church leaders dress down when they go to church, but dress up to go to court, graduations, marriage or naturalization ceremonies? People go to church to worship and fellowship with the divine, but rarely dress up to do so reasoning it’s not as important as those secular ceremonies. Consider too that much of today’s church contemporary music is narcissistic and about me, me, me. Some church music is trance-like with meaningless repetition, while other church music can be erotic singing using love affair types of terms. Many of today’s religious leaders have begun to recognize the dangers of this Pop 40 format i.e., it cultivates a careless attitude regarding the divine.
Takeaway: Music and dress can say much or little about the relevance of the gospel and interface with the divine.
8. Please Include Guests in the Money Dialog
Most churches pass the offering plate without considering guest impressions. The kindest way to handle this with guests is to tell them they are not expected to give saying “It’s our church’s practice but you should feel under no obligation to give”. Would you send an offering plate around the table in your home expecting guests to also give? Of course you wouldn't, but I only heard one Anchorage church address this honestly and fairly in 2013. Money is a big part of many church discussions, so much so, that many church guests can think it’s all about the money. Being an inclusive church, one that wraps its arms around people, means not allowing guests to feel they are being compelled to give. The worst case is at one local unnamed church where the pastor spends about 15-20 minutes on a pre-sermon offering appeal, and then sends around KFC buckets for the offering.
Takeaway: Extorting money from guests is bad policy.
9. Give Your Guests a Kindness Token
Few Anchorage churches take notice of guests long enough to offer them something with which to remember their visit. I received maybe two or three such tokens during my church visits this year. One was a loaf of bread, presented by a member who actually sought me out after the service. It was not a meaningless gesture, but bespoke of a faith that wanted to share. Another church shared they used to give guests a premium candy bar, small spiritual book, and information on the church, until they discovered members taking these gifts for themselves from the hospitality center. The gift was discontinued because of this. What a sad commentary on people of faith. The bottom line is, don’t let guests go unacknowledged.
Takeaway: There’s more gospel in a loaf of freshly baked bread than anything else.
10. Eliminate the Queue to Shake the Pastor’s Hand
One of my pet peeves is to visit a new church and then be forced to stand in line to exit the church because the pastor is blocking the main exit point. There are many ways some churches have discovered to eliminate the “standing in line” dilemma. One is for the pastor to stand in the front of the church available for discussion or feedback on his sermon or a special request. Mark Meredith at Community Covenant used to do this. Fr. Dan used to stand behind open double exit doors at Holy Cross Parish and grasp parishioner’s hands using both hands as they flowed around him like Moses at the Red Sea. Traffic really moved. Another excellent way is for the pastor to immediately go to the fellowship area where he mixes and mingles. When church guests encounter “waiting for the pastor” lines, it often makes them uncomfortable and less likely to return, or they’ll sneak out of the church by some other route.
Takeaway: Traditional waiting to shake the pastor’s hand was dead years ago, and will push guests away. Get rid of it!