Blogging and writing about Anchorage-area churches through the Anchorage Daily News has occupied my time for more than six years. I was looking for four things in my mystery church visits, and they still suffice:
• Genuine welcome, true Christian hospitality;
• Friendliness and warmth;
• Effective, well-delivered, Bible-based, main teaching;
• Music deepening the worship, not just entertainment.
This list covers the basics. In this column, I'll give examples of how these four points work in actual practice. It's simple for churches to provide them, creating a welcoming environment. During this time, many seekers have found churches meeting their needs.
My blogging has focused on giving brief reviews of churches as seen by their guests. Over the past six years I've received many emails and blog comments from church guests affirming my observations. Often, readers have joined churches due to these observations, or occasionally, despite them.
Genuine welcome, true Christian hospitality
As a church prepares to host prospective guests, there are many ways to roll out the welcome mat. Is your church website up to date? Does it prominently display location and service times at the top of the home page? Location and service times are what most church website visitors are looking for. Or does the website display the church name over beautiful pictures of mountains, rivers, lakes, and streams? Unfortunately these beautiful pictures are a big fail for every church that makes this poor website design mistake, and hundreds of Alaska churches do it. Alaska tourism spends tens of million dollars attracting visitors to our beautiful state. Churches are not in the business of tourism!
When a guest shows up at a church are the signs readable at the posted speed limit? Are there visitor parking signs in sufficient quantity, and are they reserved for your guests? As the guests enter, open the door, greet them with a smile, and welcome them to your church. As you greet them, make an inclusive statement like "We're pleased you've chosen to worship with us today. My name is Fred. If I can help you in any way, please let me know. Our senior pastor is sharing a wonderful sermon on redemption today. We're having a potluck after the service, and you're invited. Please join us. There's tasty coffee and doughnuts in the fellowship area on the right."
Genesis 18 provides the best Bible lesson on hospitality, portraying an extravagant example of Abraham's kindness to strangers.
Friendliness and Warmth
Churches can convey the warmth of their church by individually greeting guests, even at their seats, and making them feel recognized and welcome. Do not ask their names, rather say, "I'm Freda and so happy to welcome you. My husband Bill and I sit over there. Let us know if we can answer your questions." These simple statements convey a sense of friendliness and warmth.
Pastors often fail to welcome guests from the pulpit, an egregious omission. Guests don't need to be welcomed by name, but should be made to feel welcome. Most churches play the "Meet n' Greet" routine ensuring you will not be met or greeted. Before the church receives its offering, the pastor should say, "I realize we have guests today. As our guests, don't feel compelled to give. Just let the offering plate pass you by. We're so pleased you've chosen to worship with us."
Well-delivered, Bible-based teaching
Most studies of why people visit churches indicate they come for the preaching. Effectively, they are interested in knowing what you believe. Guests don't come to hear book reviews by pastors, traveling music groups, or returned missionaries who're weary, battle-fatigued, and fighting depression. If you've never heard a well-delivered biblical sermon, you're in for a treat. (Email me to obtain several links to excellent ones.) An articulate sermon should happen in less than 20 minutes; in fact, with the younger generation, it's essential.
Music deepening the worship
Huge cultural clashes occur over music in today's churches. The conservative hymn, organ, and choir crowd does not appreciate the contemporary music scene, while the younger set enjoys rock n' roll music so prominent in many megachurches. Some churches provide a buffet of all the musical flavors, trying to please everyone. I look for several factors in church music. Regardless of the type of music, can I actually hear the lyrics? Is the sound level appropriate for my hearing? Does the music actually increase the depth of the worship, the sermon, and tie to the themes of the day? What doctrine or theology does the music express? Many local churches have musical sets lasting a half-hour to 45 minutes. A band member commands people to stand, and standing the entire time, sing mostly unrecognizable music. That's unacceptable. Sound levels in the 115 to 120 decibel range are disrespectful and damaging, but flourish in many churches. Finally, music people should invite people to stand instead of commanding. A good example is, "I'd like to invite all who can stand to do so and join us in singing 'Beneath the Cross of Jesus'."
Visiting a guest-friendly church can be wonderful; otherwise be prepared for a painful experience.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.
By Chris Thompson
Alaska Dispatch Publishing