First impressions in church are a huge challenge, mainly because you get only one chance to make it.
In established, legacy churches, it becomes even more of a challenge because we have to strategically and intentionally be thinking "What would it be like to visit our church for the very first time?"
This is a difficult posting to make, due to the reality that pastors and churches are not supposed to be this transparent on the internet. Websites, Facebook posts and Twitter updates are always supposed to be uplifting, encouraging and enlightening. However, sometimes, the cold, hard reality of church-life comes and to ignore it or sugar-coat it is to do more harm than good.
I received an email this morning from a family that visited with our church for the first time (and possibly the last time) yesterday. I responded with great appreciation for the honesty and asking permission to share this information with our Leadership Team and church membership to help us understand the value of first impressions. I was given permission, but have changed the name in the email because it seemed like right thing to do.
Ready? Here we go...
My wife and I attended your church for the first time this past Sunday. Our intent was to attend the 9:15am service. We wandered into the main sanctuary. The worship team was on on stage. We picked a seat and sat down. We were the only ones in the pews. Obviously we felt odd. No one approached us to redirect us to the gym for the service. (Our 9:15am service is more contemporary in worship style, and meets in our Family Ministry Center/Gym. - DT) Two friends of ours that were also attending for the first time asked a man with a name badge what we should do. He explained that the 9:15 was held in the gym and pointed to it's location. He did not offer to take us there. Needless to say we wandered a bit until we found the gym. No one from the church greeted us. No one said "hello" or "welcome." We were handed a packet when we entered the gym. That was the only contact we had with any staff or volunteer servants. We stayed for the entire service and were rushed out afterwards to facilitate the next event in the gym. My wife and I are not baby Christians. We are searching for a church home that follows the Word without compromise. I really thought that your church was it. Sadly, we will not be returning. No one welcomed us. We felt like we were NOT welcome there...
Bless you, Steve.
I was heart-broken and frustrated when I read this email. Not because Steve would dare send it. I greatly appreciate the fact that he did. I am not really mad at those who missed opportunities. I am, however, frustrated because I know we know better. We know that guests do not intuitively know where to go on our campus (which is a maze, to say the least) and that missed opportunities remained missed opportunities.
We know there is much to be done facility-wise here, but also in other areas, as some have called it "to friendly-up the church."
Don't misread here, we do have a friendly church. There is great love here and people who would (and have) do anything for a brother or sister. This church has stepped out of our comfort zones over the years to strategically engage our community. Yet, even with great intentions and strides taken, we miss at times. And those misses hurt.
Why is it a constant challenge? Because we (and I do mean we, not just others in the church) get busy, have our routine, go to our classes, sit by our friends and forget that just calling ourselves "family" doesn't mean we are.
I don't know if Steve and his wife will come back. I hope they do. Fortunately, they are believers and so we didn't create a barrier to their salvation. But...what if they weren't believers? What if this was the first time they attended church ever and only did so because of a family crisis, or because after years of being prompted by the Holy Spirit, they said "yes."
Some will say "The ushers missed this" or "The greeters missed this" or "The staff missed missed" or any other group designated to say "Welcome" but the reality is that WE, the entire church, the entire family, missed here.
Swing and a miss!
May we learn from this and seek to remedy an age-old problem. This is the good news - we can learn. We can do better. All churches can.
No one wants to go to a church where they feel unwelcome or ignored. That storyline is played out and that must change. Not just here...but in all churches seeking to engage a lost world for the sake of the Gospel.
"A word to the wise is sufficient."