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.