This week is a fairly lengthy post, but we wanted to give it to you as a whole because it has a flow to it and creates one big picture. We expect that as people read though it, some will be drawn to one section more than another. Not everybody will implement every idea. That’s to be expected. The goal of the post, and of Outward OPC as whole, is to have a discussion about how to improve in various areas of reaching people. Use this post that way. Read through a section or two at a time if you can’t do it all in one sitting. Talk about one section at length if it hits you. Another section may not stick or cause any discussion. The purpose is to have, and to further, the discussion of becoming more effective in reaching the lost.
This week’s post is from Brad Hertzog, former OPC church planter in Queens, NY. Here’s Brad:
Tour guides don’t always provide the greatest experience. The trying-too-hard to be funny one. Overbearing with a side of obnoxious isn’t enjoyable. The stickler for rules—“I said, no photos allowed!”
But I’ve had a few great experiences with tour guides. One I recall vividly is a few years ago when I took a trip to Iceland. I enjoy investigating things that are forgotten or somewhat mysterious. I would only have a few days in the capital city, Reykjavik (pronounced Ray-ka-vick). I did my research and scheduled a tour for the morning of my first day there. This wasn’t a standard tour company. This was a college girl who grew up in Iceland, working by herself, and taking a group on a walking tour of the city for two hours. That may not sound too promising but it was clear from the reviews that this was the tour to take. It was billed as seeing Reykjavik like the locals. All the reviews were 5 stars. There were quotes on her site from big companies and media outlets. So, I gave my credit card and showed up at 9AM in the cold and rain.
It was fantastic. She calmly took us around the city talking about life in Iceland and what the locals do and where they hang out. She showed us the excellent street art and told us about the artists—some of whom she knew personally. She not only showed us the bright colored houses on several streets but also told us why they are bright and who lives there. She told us about places to eat like, “See that brown door? There’s a great restaurant inside there. There’s no sign. Just walk in and act like you belong.”
Why was this tour so enjoyable, not only for me but for everyone who took it? It was because of the tour guide. She took outsiders and made us feel like insiders. She took a place we had never been to and made it feel a little bit more familiar. She told us how to get around. She was low key and pleasant, but you could tell she loved her city. She wasn’t selling it to us, just showing us around. Not only did I enjoy the tour greatly, it changed my whole 3-day trip.
This college-aged girl in Iceland teaches us much about Sundays in our church. People need a tour guide. They are visiting a foreign world where they don’t know anybody and don’t know how things work. They don’t just need a warm greeting or smile and a brief welcome from the pulpit, though those are helpful. They need a tour guide from before they arrive until they walk out of the building. They are outsiders and they need insiders to show them around and make them feel at home so they enjoy their whole visit.
How do we do that? The most important thing is to put yourself in their shoes and help them with things they need to understand in a way that makes them feel like an insider, not an outsider. And that is hard to do. We may provide info that we think is important, but really isn’t important for the guest—“There are two Sunday Schools for adults: one is about the Westminster Confession and the other is about the imprecatory psalms.” They just want to know where to go to blend in. We may provide info that they need, but in an unhelpful or unwelcoming way—“Do you want to take your kids to the nursery?” No explanation. No help. It may even sound like a requirement or unfriendly suggestion. We may just miss the boat on what they need to know: do you realize how awkward it is trying to figure out the standing, sitting, and singing thing if you’ve never been to church? And an asterisk in the liturgy is, shall we say, not going to make them an insider.
There is a side note here about who we expect to visit our churches. Do we expect the kinds of visitors that don’t know how singing in a hymnal works? Or are we more inclined to expect visitors who want to sing hymns and not contemporary worship songs? Do we expect visitors who have never thought a nursery or are we expecting visitors who have a strong desire to “worship as a family?” There are more examples to think about, perhaps at another time. For now, let’s reflect on who we are expecting to visit our churches–those that are looking for a more reformed church or those that are looking for hope in the midst of hurting life. Obviously, this isn’t an either/or scenario. It’s not that we want one and not the other. So maybe the better question is: Do we equally expect visitors to our churches that know nothing of theology as we do people who are looking for a more reformed church?
So with those introductory thoughts, let’s take a look at some suggestions of how to be a great tour guide from start to finish.
Before Arriving For Church
Is this a category of thought for how you welcome visitors? Or do you only think about what happens once they enter the doors? Everybody goes to your website. ++What is on your site for visitors? We were kind of slow to put “What to Expect” Pages on our websites, but that is (still slowly) improving. Whether you have a dedicated page or not, there need to be a few points of info readily accessible.
1) Your location and time should ideally be visible on the first page without scrolling (and not in a slider). At worst, a slight scroll down. It can be other places too, but it should be so obvious that nobody has to work to find it. Your members don’t go the website. Visitors do. Put the most needed piece of information in the most visible spot. I have traveled a lot the last few years and often find myself on an OPC website looking for info. You’d be surprised how hard it can be to find. For one church, I spent five minutes, went to at least ten pages, scrolled. Never found it and went somewhere else. That’s an exception, but there shouldn’t be even one site like that and most church websites could make this info more obvious.
2) If you have a “What To Expect” page, that’s obviously a great way to talk about things visitors are interested in—dress, what to do with kids, how long, what happens, do I have to stop listening to rock and roll, become a republican, and put a fish bumper sticker on my car—standard stuff.
3) Whether you have a dedicated page or not, there may also be things we forget are an issue. Do you have any weird street parking things that you are used to but will confuse others? Are you renting a facility that has multiple entrances? Tell them.
Arriving & The First 5 Minutes
1) Do you have good signage (if needed)? Thom Rainer, in his book on being a welcoming church, notes signs as a significantly neglected area. He mentions both the presence and absence of signs, but also signs that are wrong or outdated because something has changed and nobody took the time to change the sign. Rainer recommends a “sign audit”—go through the facility as a first-timer every so often and take note of every sign or where you could add a sign.
2) Is there a weird parking situation or long walk? Put somebody outside to greet and direct. And not only until 10 minutes before the service. Visitors come right on time or late. Like greeters inside the church, somebody needs to be out there until the first hymn or so.
3) Greeting & Welcome. Most important: Have someone doing it! And at the right time: they may have to cut out of Sunday School or fellowship time. And they need to miss the first ten minutes of the service. This one is surprising how often it’s not done—or not done right. Not too long ago, I walked into an OPC church as a first time visitor. It was about five minutes before the service. I intentionally had my head up with a smile, looking around at people. There was nobody greeting. I couldn’t find a bulletin. I looked at about five people and nobody acknowledged, smiled, or said an audible word. Ah, an exception you say! Unfortunately not. At least three pastor friends have told me about visits to different OPC churches with the same experience. One took a fair number of kids into a back pew, sat there the whole service, worshipped, sang, behaved, etc. Not one word before or after the service and they slowly headed back to the car. I could share several other stories.
4) Be A Kind & Hospitable Host: Like it was your home. Point out the worship space and tell them if you’re waiting for Sunday School to end and that’s why there is nobody there yet. Point out the bathrooms. Nursery–this is a big one. Obviously tell them and show them where it is. But explain the nursery! Graciously! If you have an age requirement, tell them what is typical but that you can work with them either way (their kid is too old, but they are new and not ready for him to be in an hour and half worship service….Their kid is the right age but they may not be comfortable dropping him off with someone they may think is a “crazy Christian”). Work with them. Give them options and help. Make them feel at home and that within reason you’ll do what you can for what’s best for them. Pro-Tip: This moment probably isn’t the time to explain covenantal worship and the evils of nursery.
5) Guest Table: Do you have one? If so, what is front and center? A guest book so they can give their address and email to those they may currently fear are “kooky, cult people?” Have you ever thought that a guest book could make visitors uncomfortable? Our “contact info” is now a cell phone which we are aren’t as quick to give out for “marketing” purposes. There may be numerous other reasons a guest book makes people uncomfortable. Think of it this way: we Reformed folks don’t like the custom some have of asking visitors to stand up in the service to be welcomed, right? Why not? There may be several reasons, some theological. But the main reason is it makes the visitor uncomfortable. Let’s be careful to not, even in a lesser way, make a guest book or getting the visitors contact info a reformed version of making visitors stand up (and stand out) to be “welcomed.”
So, what should be on the guest table? How about a nice welcome banner, some nice relevant welcome signs or images? One church I visited allowed an artist to serve every week by taking a chalkboard with all kinds of colored chalk and putting a Bible verse for the day with great designs and drawing. Really well done and really appropriate. How about the books? We all have books. Books tell visitors something about who you are. Is it infant baptism, Westminster Confession, and RPW? Those are all fine of course, and actually needed. Some of your visitors will be reformed Christians. But are there books and pamphlets about the types of questions other types of visitors are asking? Things like: What if I have questions about faith? Why does church matter? Is heaven real? Is Christianity intolerant? Is there any reason to live? Where can I find hope? Will divorce send me to hell? And when you add those kinds of titles make sure they are by authors who use an engaging poke or prod not a sledgehammer.
In Worship Room & Start of Worship
1) Have a normal person say hi. Assuming your greeters are warm people and reasonably normal, the visitors will have met them. The first few minutes before the service may be when the “soapboxers” are on the prowl. You know, hi welcome here’s a brochure on abortion. You may not be able to stop that (I would try), but you can offset it by making your friendly folks aware of the importance of that time and making a point to give visitors another “normal” greeting so they don’t run off. (Yes, we used the word “normal” several times. Not sure what “normal” is? A couple of weeks ago, Paul Viggiano talked about it here: “On Being Normal & Reformed”
2) Start of Worship: This is their first encounter with the pastor or an elder—a leader in the church. It would be nice to take some (very valuable) time to greet them AND make them feel at home. Saying, “If you are visiting with us today, we give you a warm greeting,” doesn’t make the greeting warm.
Asking them to sign a visitor card or book isn’t really that warm, either. That first moment isn’t the greatest time to ask them to give you something. At your house, do you answer the door and say, “Welcome to our home, we are glad to have you. Did you bring us a gift?” Obviously, you want to get their info, but maybe there’s another time and place to do it. For those that you actually need their info, there will be opportunity to get it.
Thank them for coming. Acknowledge it’s hard to come into a church where everybody seems to know everybody. Reassure them that you know and see that there are other visitors there they just don’t realize it. But you do. Tell them. Maybe give some brief helps. Point out not only the need for a bulletin but also how it helps. “If you like to know where things are going it’s there, or you can just follow me. If it just seems like everybody is standing and sitting at random times, just pay attention to me”….but then you have to be sure to tell them when to sit and stand.
This may be a difficult category of suggestions because it’s valuable time and you often have several announcements. You may know that some members don’t even want a greeting and think we should focus exclusively on preparing for worship. But we need to be hospitable, not just a token sentence each week. Few people welcome people to their home by saying, “Glad you are here, now let’s eat!”
1) One obvious idea that gets a good bit of press is using short explanations for some parts of worship. That’s a good idea. Be judicious. Maybe you pick one or two elements every week and rotate through. Explain in a way an outsider can understand. “In worship, we try to keep things simple and focused….so basically we read the Bible, sing the Bible, pray the Bible, teach the Bible,” is better than “God regulates our worship and keeps us free from our vain imaginations.”
But here, I want to focus on two parts of the worship service experience for visitors that seem to get overlooked.
2) The Lord’s Supper: Our practice can be extremely off putting or offensive. That doesn’t mean we change it. But we can do it better. We “fence” the table and we appreciate what that means. But maybe “fencing” doesn’t have to be the expressed method. You don’t have to build a fence so that people feel like they are looking through barbed wire at everyone at the table. You can explain what’s happening and why only Christians who are members of a church take communion. But you can do it in a welcoming and hospitable way. I had a pastor in a conservative PCA church who used to say, “If you are visiting with us and you have questions about church and faith…you aren’t sure where you stand with Jesus, you are in exactly the right place. This is where you learn about Jesus, ask questions, etc. But in this moment…..” He’d then go on to explain the supper and fence the table. That always struck me as a kind way to put it. I adopted that when pastoring in NYC. I also added when explaining about not taking the elements that “people aren’t going to have a pencil out noting who doesn’t take them. People aren’t looking around. Those serving are very accustomed to people politely declining.” The fencing of the table may ultimately be offensive, but as we often say, let’s not add to the offense by not considering what our visitors are experiencing.
3) After the Service: Either right before or right after the benediction (depending on your Reformed worship sensibilities), it’s a good time for the pastor to speak ++publicly to the visitors again. Yes, again. I notice we don’t do this so much, but notably friendly churches do. You might thank them again for visiting. You might mention that if they are the kind of folks that aren’t afraid to jump into the deep end, someone will have them over for lunch and you’ll help them figure out who that is. You might acknowledge the awkwardness of the moment and the feeling of wanting to run to the door but noting someone will probably say hi to them. You might even ask them to be patient some weeks we are really friendly and some weeks we aren’t as good or may even seem weird. Acknowledging the reality of these shortcomings can go a long way with people. When you are in a weird situation don’t you wonder if the insiders know it’s weird or if they are just oblivious? I do.
Like before the service, a warm greeting from a normal person after the service would be nice. It takes social graces. You don’t need someone to dart across the room and beeline for a visitor. Hopefully somebody nearby is on alert and sensitive. If not, rather than a beeline, a normal person may head toward the door knowing guests will be headed there very soon and intercept them to say hi.
Asking the right kinds of questions would be helpful–talking about them. Not their church background or political views, but more like how old their kids are, what they like to do, what they do for a living. You can see if they are infra or supra on their second visit. (Note: That’s a difficult, somewhat obscure theological question for those who may not be familiar).
Some churches have a set schedule for people who are ready on the spot to invite guests to lunch if they seem open. Others always have a pot of soup or spaghetti. Making the offer would be nice, even if the visitors aren’t ready. People only turn down so many offers before giving it a shot.
Follow Up After the Visit
Do you do it? What’s it like? Is it all about the church? Do you talk to them about things they may be thinking about? Do you give them no-so-intimidating options for moving along in their journey of checking out your church?
One of the things you could do is break their expectations for this type of communication. Would you ever consider saying something like: “We know it can be hard to visit a church. It’s awkward. We may not have been real friendly that day. You may have been approached by someone with a soapbox issue. Someone may have said something offensive. It’s happened before. But we strive to make it not the norm. We aren’t perfect. Be patient with us. We’ll be patient with you. If you are interested, maybe we could grab some coffee and talk about the real issues with trying to explore or find a church.”
A smile and warm greeting are great. But most visitors are entering a foreign world, and they need a tour guide. They need an insider to help them not feel so much like an outsider. Like my experience in Iceland, that’s the role of the tour guide. But let’s return to that image of the tour guide for a moment. A great tour guide has another role—to show you the heartbeat of the city. Imagine you were going on a tour of Paris. What if the tour guide didn’t show you the Eiffel Tower? You would miss arguably the most important or at least most recognizable part of the city. Life may happen in the shops and bakeries, and it’s a joy to see them. But you don’t want to go to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower. When we think of ourselves as tour guides on a Sunday for our church, we need to remember this point. We are showing our guests around and making them feel comfortable for two reasons. First, we do it so that they can enjoy the experience—so that they can get a real taste of this foreign world. But second, and more importantly, we are a tour guide so that they don’t miss the heartbeat of the city—so that they don’t miss the most recognizable and most majestic thing in the city. Jesus Christ. Being a tour guide isn’t just about showing them around and making them comfortable. We do that to show hospitality and to help them enter our world, but we also do it so they don’t miss the most important part—the heartbeat of this city called the church, the King of this city: Jesus himself. We want our visitors to see Jesus on display in the worship, the preaching, the fellowship, and all the elements of worship and events of the day. People have all kinds of ideas and expectations about what constitutes the heartbeat of the church—some hot button social issue or political view, a rulebook for how to be a good person—let’s not let them leave without a clear view of the true heartbeat of our strange city here on earth.
Let’s work on creating a culture where collectively we provide that kind of experience for our visitors on a Sunday. Let’s help those outsiders become insiders who later help escort others into life in this crazy world we call the church to worship and serve our great King.