We had a visitor to our church last week. That is not unusual. We get a fair number of them. But what was unusual was the complete candor this person had.
Let’s call him, “Bob.” Before the start of the service, I saw Bob sitting in the pew talking to a couple of our members. I did what I normally do when I recognize a new face — I went over and introduced myself. As I reached out my hand to shake his, Bob’s face showed a fair amount of surprise. “Are you the preacher?” he asked, looking confused.
In the interest of full disclosure, Bob’s surprise and confusion were understandable. We are informal at Mountain of Faith. I was wearing my standard summertime clergy garb — a golf shirt and a pair of black slacks. The only indication that I might not be one of the members is that I was wearing a large cross around my neck. “Are you the preacher?” seemed like a reasonable inquiry. But Bob’s candor went far beyond that question. Bob’s church experience that day and his openness caused me to do some serious thinking.
I found out later that one of our members had engaged Bob in what turned out to be a very frank conversation. He told her that he had not been in a church in years and that he didn’t consider himself to be very religious. He went on to say that for some reason, he felt he was supposed to be in church — this particular church — on this particular day. So he came, not quite knowing what to expect.
Unlike most visitors, Bob was not shy about engaging strangers in conversation. He asked the person in the pew next to him, “Do you come here a lot?” He wanted to know if he was talking to a real “church” person. After getting the “yes” response, he asked the profound question that has caused me to write this article. He asked, “What do you get out of it?”
Pull at this thread just a little and “What do you get out of coming to regular worship?” can be expanded to “What do you get out of being a person of faith?” There are no easy, sound bite answers to such deep questions. Perhaps the best answers can only be experienced by attending and participating in a worship service. But typically it takes time for those experiences to come.
This presents a real challenge. Too often churches do not do a good job in making a visitor or a guest feel welcome during that first visit. Guests are not likely to return or “get” anything out of worship if they are made to feel awkward or uncomfortable during their first visit. With that in mind, I’m going to propose a “Church Goer’s Bill of Rights.”
When we extend these “rights” to our visitors and guests, they will have a much better chance of having a positive first experience with us. I will address the first three of these rights in this article.
• The right to personal space: Every visitor has a right to feel welcome without attracting too much attention. They should never be asked to stand up and introduce themselves. Neither should the pastor nor the members single out a visitor for attention. Many people are introverts and the last thing they want is to draw attention to themselves — especially in a setting that is unfamiliar to them.
• The right to casual conversation: Sometime during the service, most churches have a “Stand Up and Greet Each Other” time. But, for visitors this event often ends up looking like a time for the church family to talk mostly among themselves. Visitors have a right to be engaged in pleasant, casual conversation. Rather then call attention to a visitor from the pulpit, it’s better to have individuals in the church simply talk naturally to newcomers.
• The right to no pressure: Studies have shown that people going through a major life event or life trauma often find their way to church. Houses of worship were packed after the events of 9/11. But more often, these events are intensely personal — the death of a family member, the birth of a child, a broken relationship or trouble at work. Pastors or members who grill a new person as to “What brings you to church?” are sure to make them uncomfortable. Pressure also comes in other forms. In my home congregation in the bay area, I watched in horror as a member asked a newcomer if they wanted to join the church choir. Unbelievably, I also have heard of a member who tried to get a visitor to pledge to a fund-raising effort.
The first three of the Church Goer’s Bill of Rights are about newcomers having a comfortable, welcoming, first-time experience when visiting a church. If they do not, it is very unlikely they will return. And it is certainly unlikely they will have a chance to “get” anything out of a time of worship. Only after the first hurdle is passed and a visitor is made to feel welcome, can they begin to experience the joys of being part of a community of believers. In the weeks ahead, I’ll write about what I perceive to be the rights of established church goers.
Rich Ehrheart is pastor of Mountain of Faith Lutheran Church in Tooele.