I love visiting churches. While we love our home church, going every week can get a bit… familiar. The service follows the same format, the songs are the same style, and it becomes easy to go through the motions without really tuning in.
My recent trip west gave me an opportunity to attend two other churches. I enjoyed both services, and could easily see myself joining either one if I lived in that area. Still, coming in as a visitor gave me a unique perspective, one I no longer get at home. Even if we don’t travel again this year, I plan to be a visitor to a different local church every few months, just because visiting allows me to notice things I otherwise would miss.
For one thing, we assume that everyone will understand our insider jargon. This can cause clueless guests a lot of embarrassment, or worse. For example, in my church, Base Camp is the 5th and 6th grade ministry. In my friend’s church, Base Camp is their adult small groups program. If one of their members decided to drop in on Base Camp at our church, they’d feel really out of place!
We also assume that the person seated next to us has plenty of friends, feels right at home, and has no need to talk to us. Neither church I attended on my trip included a “meet and greet” time during the service. Since I was at the first church with my friend who was also a visitor, neither of us knew a soul. The only person who noticed us at all was the exceedingly friendly greeter at the front door who pumped our hands, flashed his pearly whites, and hurried us into the building so he could greet the next couple. I often cringe when it comes time to introduce myself to a stranger, but making a newcomer feel at home is worth my momentary discomfort.
The second church I visited was the one our daughter and her family attend. Because their friends know I’m Karin’s mom from Colorado, I’m not sure I count as a visitor. Still, when Karin was off working in the nursery and Ian was out directing traffic in the parking lot, people I didn’t recognize came up and asked if we were new, where were we from, and could they help us with anything. I’ve never had such a warm greeting at a church service!
If I had been church shopping, I’d have given more significance to the way the service unfolded. Was the music a performance—or a time of worship? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Looking around, were people singing? Did their posture indicate they were focused on God? Or were they standing with their arms crossed across their chest, looking bored until the “real” part of the service could begin?
Was the sermon Biblical? Or was it popular, self-help psychology? Was it intended to make the congregation feel good about themselves, or did it challenge them to a closer walk with Jesus? As I mentioned in a previous blog, it just so happened that both churches were encouraging people to invite friends to church for Easter.
What kind of outreach does the church do? The first church, in California, was clearly focused on local ministry. They had numerous opportunities for their members to serve their small community. The second church was also heavily involved in local ministry, plus they support a number of overseas missionaries, and were encouraging people to sign up for a trip to Kenya. (The first church might support missionaries too, it just wasn’t mentioned.)
Visiting a church isn’t the same as deciding which congregation to join. As a visitor, I wasn’t concerned with issues such as theology, finances, and church governance. I was more impacted by first impressions, hospitality, worship, and teaching.
I’m not a pastor, and I have little input into the way our megachurch does church. But I can be friendly. My new goal is to greet people every Sunday morning in the same way I was greeted at our daughter’s church in Washington. Who knows—they may be visitors in need of a friendly welcome.