Churches are complex groups of people who develop their church's DNA — often over the course of many years. Many are heavily influenced by their pastor of the moment, "lifers" in the congregation, or core denominational beliefs that may change as they develop or morph over time. During the course of my many local church visits, I've seen some meaningful change over the years, but some issues I've noted every year seem to be impervious to change.
For many years now, I've been sharing my lists of 10 things I'd like to see churches tackle seriously in the new calendar year. This list will be my last published in Alaska Dispatch News but I'll continue to write about them and other pertinent visit-based observations on my website, churchvisits.com. This list is in no particular order, but these items are widely recognized to be significant in attracting new believers, retaining members and sustaining church growth.
1. Hospitality should be world-class.
A major reason a church guest will never return occurs when they receive a sense they are not welcome when visiting a new church. It's easy: Just don't open church doors for them, establish eye contact or genuinely welcome them with a handshake and smile while handing them a bulletin or order of service. It's every member's responsibility, not just a designated greeter's. I've only heard one pastor deliver a sermon, in all my Anchorage church visiting years, that talked about the importance of hospitality.
2. Music should be relevant and respectful.
Every church has its own musical styles, from the Church of Christ vocal-only music with no instruments, to some Pentecostal and evangelical churches with killer music groups blasting up to 115 decibels for sustained periods of time. I've noticed, for the most part, that the louder the music, the longer the play time. Usually the contemporary music is a medley of mostly unfamiliar songs to which people stand and listen to the group perform. That's silly. It's even sillier to perform 30-45 minutes of such music that's unconnected to anything else in the service.
3. Sermons should be Bible-based with great takeaways,
Sermon series seem to be the flavor of the moment in many churches. They may last weeks or months. Many pastors seem oblivious to the research that indicates millennials, for example, are concerned with issues such as science and faith, sexuality, fostering relationship building, and hypocrisy, and feel the church fails to address these issues, to name a few. David Kinnaman's well-researched book "You Lost Me" provides the data to back up these concerns. Yet, I've never heard a single sermon address any of these issues. Little wonder this group feels religion is failing them.
4. Meet-and-greets are not guest-friendly.
Many churches practice this mind-numbing exercise to make themselves believe they really care about guests. Incredibly, some churches still ask guests to stand up and identify themselves, when research indicates this practice singularly discourages return visits by guests.
5. Visitor parking should be plentiful and convenient.
Visitor parking spaces, of a sufficient number, say, "Welcome, we were expecting you!" Yet, too many churches have too few of them. Like designated handicapped parking spaces, they say, "We value our visitors."
6. Guest packets are a must.
Every first-time guest should receive information about the church, its beliefs and practices, and information about learning more about it. Unless churches learn to know people walking in their doors, they'll never know who is or is not a first-timer. These information packets are often more effective when accompanied by a memorable gift such as a freshly baked loaf of bread, a great candy bar or a coffee card. I've received fewer than 10 such packets in all of my hundreds of Anchorage church visits.
7. Offerings must exclude visitors.
A very common practice is to shove the offering plate under every guest's nose without exception. Guests should hear clearly that they are not expected to give. Some churches take up multiple offerings, making it doubly important to remind guests, who are not members, that they're excluded from giving to offerings.
8. Follow up with every visitor.
It's a delicate matter getting information from new church guests. Many will be checking you out before they commit to sharing information. Others will gladly share that information if their visit seems to be going well. The field is divided whether a personal visit or some other type of follow-up, such as a letter or phone call, is best. However, the value of a guest visit to a church lessens with each passing day. Make that after-visit connection quickly.
9. Websites are important connectors; treat them accordingly.
I've seen some major improvements in church websites over the years but an often-overlooked fact is that most people consult them for two things: location and times of services. That information should clearly be showing at the top of the page when your main site comes into view. Many websites have taken the approach of using rapidly changing graphics to entice the user. Often that can confuse instead of help. All church websites should be updated weekly, if not daily.
10. Phones – make them work for your church.
Calling churches is currently, in my opinion, a waste of time. Even during office hours, it's a rare occurrence if a real person answers. Often, a messaging system will answer the phone and give numerous options about what you're looking for: worship times, location, staff, etc. Personal contact may be the lifeblood for establishing a relationship with a person needing what a good congregation can offer. Personally, I've discovered that messages left are returned less than half of the time.
This is my last ADN Church Visits column. I want to thank ADN for filling a void in church and religion coverage starting in 2008 with my blog and then in a weekly print column in early 2014. Over the years I've tackled a variety of issues regarding church culture and matters of faith. Though this column will no longer be published at ADN, I'll be regularly updating my website with similar posts of my visits and religion issues. I've stepped on a few toes but I write truthfully and honestly. My opinions are my own but I back up my writing with other knowledgeable experts and research. Thank you for reading my column. I invite you to visit my website, churchvisits.com, which contains all 8 1/2 years of my ADN writing and many more useful resources on music, mission and topical indexes (and ADN has indicated they'll be keeping my ADN-blogged and column writing, online into the future at adn.com/churchvisits).
Happy New Year to each of you!