Tag Archives: acceptance

Secret Church Shopper Sunday: Epic Fail Edition

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I’m convinced that all churches need “secret shoppers.” Here’s why. Almost every church I work with describes itself as friendly and like “one big family.” It’s easy to feel that way when you’re part of the regular life of the community, but it can be a different story when visitors come ‘a calling.

As a vocational church worker, I hear the laments of congregational leaders and pastors who see dwindling numbers and shrinking offerings. It’s easy to blame such decline on changing culture, on competing congregations with better programs, contemporary worship, modern facilities, and any number of other rationalizations and excuses, but human nature is pretty consistent. Our base needs are the same. We want relationship, we want meaning, we want to be a part of something that makes life better, and like the old Cheers television theme song said, people want to go where they know your name.

Today was one of those rare days when I wasn’t leading worship and/or preaching, so I decided to be a “secret church shopper” and visit a congregation where I could be “incognito.” Unfortunately, what I experienced is pretty typical of declining, dispirited mainline churches. Even sadder: it simply doesn’t have to be this way because we have the best message in the entire cosmos!

Problem:  The first hitch was finding the time of worship and address of the church to plug into my GPS. The congregation that I chose is a small one(mainly because I have a real heart and deep love for small churches). It did not have a website or Facebook page. My iPhone (thank you Siri) found the phone number, and thankfully the worship time was included on the pleasant recorded message.

Solution: Any congregation can have a web presence these days. A Facebook page or group is free, and a simple website can be easily designed and hosted thanks to tools like Weebly, Wix, and WordPress. People rarely use phone books, so save the money you used to spend on a YellowPages ad and get your congregation on the web. Do you want to be found? Do you want to share the gospel with people? Make it happen. No excuses.

Problem: The next problem was simply getting into the worship space. The congregation worships in a beautiful old building–without parking, at least none that I could see. I parked on the street. No problem there. I’m a big girl. There were quite a few options for doors, and I inevitably chose the wrong one. Once I got into the worship space I didn’t see the proverbial greeters proffering bulletins. There were only a few people in the place, and worship was supposed to start in about five minutes. I had to ASK if there were bulletins. Once I asked, I was quickly redirected to the correct entrance where the bulletins were laying on a table. The woman I asked was nice enough, but she didn’t offer to engage me further in conversation.

Solution: If you want to encourage new folks to come in, make it clear where to go. Make sure you have someone to say hello and provide a bulletin or handout if you have them. Make sure the restrooms are clearly marked. Make it easy for guests to become oriented. Smile. Say hello. Act interested that someone new has darkened your door.

Problem: A first time visitor may be leery about where to sit. What if you sit in someone’s personal pew, and they come and shoot you a dirty look or worse ?

Solution: Show hospitality and make sure guests are comfortable. If someone sits in your personal pew–get over it. It won’t kill you to have a different view of worship. I’m bold. I asked if I would be taking someone’s pew before I sat down.

Problem: When there’s less than 30 people in worship on an average Sunday a visitor sticks out like a sore thumb.

Solution: Welcome guests. Say hello. Introduce yourself. If you’re sitting nearby and they look lost in the liturgy, try to help. I had to initiate almost every conversation. You usually get only one or two shots with guests. Make connections. If your community is friendly then show it. Do unto others as you’d like to have someone do unto you. This isn’t rocket science. It’s God’s house, and God wants us to love our neighbors–even if it stretches us outside of our comfort zone.

Problem: After worship, NEVER let a guest stand around looking awkward. Today, I walked out without anyone providing an invitation to return. Not even the pastor asked my name or invited me to come back again.

Solution: Invite them to your next fellowship opportunity.Give them a copy of your newsletter. Invite them back to worship next week. A guest should never walk out of the door without a reason to come back. If you can get their name and address, write them a personal note. (Note: I did put a check in the offering plate, so I’ll be curious to see if someone snags my name and address from that and writes a note.)

I don’t want to be totally down on this congregation. The facility was clean, although a bit worn. In its heyday it must have been quite stunning.  The organist was better than good, albeit a bit loud for the almost empty nave. The pastor’s sermon had some solid points, was pretty easy to follow, and offered a solid challenge to listeners. The hymnody was varied, but there wasn’t much singing going on. They did have communion, and the usher did a nice job of providing me with instructions. The baptismal font, a classic old style, had been retrofitted with a fountain. I love the sound of running water in a font! It always makes me sad to see an empty baptismal font.

Secret Church Shopper Overall Score: One  star out of five.

Even for the seasoned-churchgoer and loyal Lutheran, this congregation exuded little hope and energy. Had anyone invited me to return again, I would have been willing to give the congregation another shot. After all grace abounds, right? Everybody deserves a second chance, and I need Jesus in word and sacrament on a regular basis.

Sadly, I had a better, more meaningful interaction with a lady on the street while I was trying to figure out how to enter the church building. She asked me if I could spare 50 cents. She was gracious, she looked me in the eye with kindness, and in her I saw the face of Christ. True, worship is about God and not about what we can get out of it, but if a visitor has no clue why our gathering as the Body of Christ is any better or different than what can be gotten at the local pub or  Lions Club, then we aren’t doing our job as disciples.

It’s all about relationships, folks. If you want your worshiping community to thrive, it has to be about more than a one hour transaction on Sunday morning and keeping the doors open. It’s about the good news. It’s about God’s love for a broken and hurting world. It’s about radical hospitality, prodigal love, and selfless service. It’s about a different way of living and being in this world.

Here are three words times three to get you started: Welcome the stranger. Welcome the stranger. Welcome the stranger.

Hungry

There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread. — Mother Teresa

Last night a teenager in the school district where the church I serve is located completed suicide. Evidently she posted her intentions on Facebook. I don’t know the details, and I didn’t know the young woman, but I do understand the incredible hunger for love, acceptance, and appreciation that so many people feel.

Not everyone has strong families, wide networks of support and friendship, and vibrant faith communities to combat the pain, emptiness, and utter loneliness of depression, bullying, addictions, or difference. Life can be really, really hard.

My heart hurts for this young woman, for her family, her friends, all who knew her at school, and for the community left behind trying to make sense of this deep sadness and painful loss of a life cut short. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, five children or teens commit suicide each day. That’s a lot of pain and hunger for love and acceptance.

My prayer and hope is that we would all find ways to feed those who are hungry both in body and spirit. May we seek ways to be more compassionate and merciful. And may we make our schools and houses of worship safe spaces where all may be fed–without judgment and with open arms.

Thanks-Living Action

Beginning tomorrow consider doing three things each day:

1. Tell the people you love that you love them. Really look at them. Smile. Give them the gift of your time and attention.

2. Do at least one kind act for a stranger. Spread kindness and compassion lavishly; in doing so you will make the world just a little bit better.

3. Do something kind for someone you find difficult to love. Listen to that person. Try to see life from his or her perspective. Remember that your smile or kind word may be a lifesaver to someone in the midst of despair or loneliness.

And remember these words…

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.  ― Thomas Merton

…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. Luke 10:27

Photo by tjook and Charles Kremenak. Thanks!

Be Real! Be You!

What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet this is often just what we also fear more than anything else . . . . Little by little we come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. — Frederick Buechner

It’s called being vulnerable, transparent, and real. Like Frederick Buechner says, it’s what we really want, to be accepted for who we are. Unfortunately, fear all too often prevents us from embracing our true self–with all of our gifts, talents, failures, achievements, and imperfections.

Western culture and advertising are good at telling us what we don’t have and what we need to make us feel better about ourselves, look more attractive, be more financially secure, attract the person of our dreams, have an amazing body, and be wittier and more appealing. The idea is to cause us to want and to feel like our wants and desires are really our needs.

We are bombarded by somewhere between 500 and 3,000 advertising and marketing messages each day, all of which appeal to our need for acceptance, love, and personal betterment. No wonder we edit ourselves for public viewing! I don’t know about you, but I’m no super model; in fact, my youngest daughter wants to submit me as a candidate for “What Not to Wear.” Now Google and other sites on the Web are tailoring advertising specifically to my searches and browsing history. Oh, brother!

Thankfully, I have reached an age and stage where I really like the real me more than the edited versions of my younger years. What I’ve discovered by trial and error is that most of the time when you accept who you are and start feeling comfortable in your own skin, not only will others be more likely to accept you, but they’ll also feel more comfortable letting you meet their own authentic self.

You, dear friend, were uniquely created, and there is no one exactly like you. You were created for a purpose, you have a reason to exist and much to give to the world. If you haven’t stopped editing your innermost self, please consider doing so now.

Only when you let your real self shine through can you achieve what you are called to do and be who you are designed to be. Drop the masks, quit the posturing, ignore the ads, forget the perfection you will never achieve, and let your beautiful soul shine through.

Live, my friend. Live life in your own wonderful skin. Learn, laugh, love, give, share, and be real. Be you and believe that you are here for a purpose. Don’t settle for anything less than the real you. Give thanks for who you really are.