Over the years I’ve been to quite a few “church growth” seminars. Much of the attention given in these seminars is around the topic of “first time guests” and what it feels like to enter a church for the first time. As a first-time guest enters the parking lot there is often quite a bit of anxiety that builds up. Here are some of the “spots” that are potentially awkward and painful:
The first one is the walk from the car to the front entrance of the church. First, they are wondering whether they have the right door! And second, they are anxious about who or what they are going to encounter on the other side of the door. One of the ways we can help ease that anxiety is to place a friendly and welcoming face on the outside of our door who hopefully shadows what they might be encountering inside.
The next place of potential anxiety/pain is what happens from the time a first-time guest opens that door and finds his or her seat in the sanctuary. There are all sorts of questions in a guest’s heart at this moment: Where are the bathrooms? Do they have a nursery? Am I going to take someone’s seat in the sanctuary? And more! The key here, according to experts, is not to do one of two things: (1) Overwhelm guests with too many people almost “over-eager” to help, and (2) leave them all on their own without any help. There is almost an art form as to how we maintain a healthy balance between too much and not enough. One of the aspects of this ministry that surprised me was the anxiety many have around where to sit in the sanctuary. It is a good idea to have someone gently guiding people to a seat. (Just on a side note here: I talked with a young couple one time about this and they said they went to a church that formerly ushered them to a seat in the church. They felt good about that. They were in the back and thought they’d be able to exit easily. But then at the end of the service, the ushers ushered people out of the church, and they started in the front rows! They were the last to leave. They felt so awkward and almost trapped. They never went back to that church)
The next place of potential awkwardness and anxiety is, believe it or not, the passing of the peace and the prayers of the people. Insiders see this as a great way to show that our church cares about each other. We rush around greeting folks that we know and old friends we haven’t seen in a couple of weeks or months. We name names of people we are praying for. But for new folks, they see this as an explosion of unknowns. They often reluctantly get up and awkwardly greet someone one but if it goes on too long, they just stand there not knowing what to do. During prayer time they often feel like they are sitting in the middle of someone else’s family reunion. I mean who is Aunt Sally anyway?
The last potentially awkward spot for first time guests is the gathering space after worship. Some of the awkwardness is due to the same issues as the passing of the peace, but the truth is there needs to be a warm invite to stay and fellowship and a willingness to allow folks to leave without feeling like they are letting you down.
One of the points that experts in this field often make is that for “insiders” the fellowship hour is a time to get with their “church friends” and visit. And so often we get so wrapped up in “our groups” that we don’t notice new folks awkwardly standing in the middle of us not being engaged. The solution to this is to designate “spotters” in your group whose job it is that week to stand above the crowd and notice folks who are being left out by the group. They are then to go over and gently engage with them.
Being a “spotter” is an interesting job. In fact, there is no way some people can do this. For instance, as a pastor, this is a very difficult job because after worship there almost always is a line of folks who want to “visit” with the pastor about important ministries in the church or about important pastoral care issues. As a pastor, you are trying to get to these folks, but the “needs” of the church often prevent you from getting there. I don’t know how many times I’ve “missed” someone in the fellowship time because of “other assigned duties”. That is why it’s important to have people whose number one job is to “pay attention” during the entire worship experience.
One of the key components of any loving organization, whether it’s a marriage, a family, or a church, is to pay attention. In fact, one could say that when we say we love someone we are really saying we are going to paying attention to them.
There is a cool tradition in many indigenous and Catholic communities in Mexico that I have grown to love. When a family in their community has a baby, one of the elders often weaves them an “eye of God” and places it in the crib of the baby. The idea is that God is watching over your baby. When I first heard of this tradition, I was kind of freaked out about it. I think I interpreted it wrong. I was thinking more of the idea that “big brother” is watching you. God is watching your every move, so you better be good! But that is not the intention of this symbol at all. The idea is that God is paying attention to you in love. God is watching for those times when you need a friend, when you are hurting inside. God is noticing you in love and always willing to come by your side when you are in need. God is there, paying attention, in love.
My hope and prayer for Bear Creek and all its ministries is that we always learn to pay attention like God does… in love.
Your friend and pastor, watching you…in a good way, Brook