I was sitting in church Sunday while one of our pastor was welcoming visitors. As happens every week, he invited anyone new to come to the visitor reception held after each service. The projectionist lit up the “glowing orb” over one pair of doors, highlighted the exit one could take to find snacks, a meet-and-greet with several pastors, and this week’s free gift (is there any other kind?). But what struck me was that the sign projected over the door didn’t just say “Guests.” It said “Guest Central.”
We seem to have a habit of giving special names to everything our church does. Instead of mere announcements, we have the “NLC3.” We don’t just have a Christmas program, we have “Wonderland.” And last year, we didn’t just have a weekly prayer meeting, we experienced “Revival Town.”
Like most churches, we have names for Sunday school classes and student groups: Desperation, TAG, Global, Generations, and the like. Last summer, we had “Man Time” and “Girl Time,” aimed at older elementary and junior high students. (Yes, I had a problem with the names, and no, I’m not going to digress here.)
There seems to be added value in running the words all together. That shows how trendy and cool we are: NewLifeNext, theMill, the DreamTeam, etc.
I got curious to see if this habit of giving everything a jammed-together name was unique to our church, so I did some checking around. Sure enough, it’s a nation-wide trend, at least among large evangelical churches. One church has a PADS Ministry, Elevate, Oasis, Promiseland, and C.A.R.S Ministry. (I found that interesting, because our church has an Elevate too, but apparently they have very different purposes.) Another church advertised WeServe and Vantage Point, while a third offered Cornerstone, The Guild, FaithBuilders, and Doulos, for starters.
There’s nothing wrong with having special names, and if it makes you happy to leave out the spaces, at least the capital letters help the rest of us figure out what you’re trying to say. I just wonder what it all looks like to someone coming to a church for the first time.
Do I go to Promiseland, Generations, or the Guild? Where do my kids belong? The Elevate in my old church was for young children. Is the Elevate here the same? (No, it’s our outreach to a hurting neighborhood downtown.) I’m feeling pretty frazzled—perhaps Desperation is the place for me!
The special insider language can leave out newcomers. And it’s not just the names of the various groups and events. I remember my first time in a church. I was a college freshman, and I’d been raised in a totally secular family. A guy I liked invited me to go to church with him, and I said yes. Then I realized I had no idea what to wear. When we got there, I didn’t know what to say, or when to say it. It was a liturgical church, and the congregation kept kneeling, standing, sitting, reciting… and I was totally lost. We sang songs I didn’t know, referred to passages in a Bible I’d never read, and heard explanations that included words I didn’t understand.
Our church works hard at making things non-threatening and accessible to someone like I was, but it’s so hard to really see things from the other person’s perspective. Even our “new” pastor (who has now been at our church five years) was initially confused by all the jargon.
Until the church starts putting footnotes on all their announcements, it seems the best solution is to have an interpreter. If we invite someone to church, we can steer them in the right direction and explain what people are talking about. But what if some brave soul ventures in on their own?
Our congregation numbers in the 10,000s, so there is no way anyone can know everyone. Therefore, when we have the “greet those around you” moment during the early part of the service, Pete and I have started making a point of asking everyone how long they’ve been coming to our church. A surprising number turn out to be new. It’s easy, then, to ask if they have any questions, and to make some helpful suggestions.
Every church wants to make visitors feel at home. If it’s all overwhelming, they may never come back. And that would be not only their loss, but ours.