Looking for a New Church ~Part I

This is the first of three posts I’ve made about our adventure in church shopping. You can see the other posts in my “Neil on the Loose” category of posts. I posted this first post after visiting 3 churches. We’re now up to 6, so I’ve updated this post a bit since then. Being both a minister who spent eleven years “up front”, and over a decade since then worshipping from the pews and getting to “church shop”, I think I bring some unique perspective to the “About Visitors” subject.

UPDATE: Since writing about my experiences, I have pulled together some research and led a seminar.  View the highlight and research here.

I would never pick or discount a church based on one visit, but I think that’s what many ‘regular’ visitors do. First impressions matter. I hope the following helps your outreach to visitors.
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My wife and I are looking for a new church, ….again.

Having recently moved from St Croix to Sarasota Florida, we have been attending local churches in search of a church home. Several years ago in this blog, I wrote about the uncomfortable reasons why we left a former church (that post is in my “Neil on the Loose” category). Then in 2008 I wrote about finding our new home church on St Croix. Both were imperfect churches that we fell in love with, which as imperfect people meant they were a good match.  But each experience has helped sharpen our sense of what we’re looking for, and what we want to avoid. Having now made a permanent move to Sarasota Florida, we are on the hunt again, and needless to say, it has been interesting and enlightening.

Point of View:
Not only do churches want and need visitors, but my wife and I are also probably the kind they would really appreciate walking through their door. Why? Because WE ARE READY TO THROW OURSELVES INTO YOUR CHURCH –if you can get us to come back.

I am a Presbyterian minister doing a publishing ministry, and my wife is a former elder in the Church. I love to do C.E. and she loves fellowship and study. When we join a church, we come regularly, we sign up for stuff, we say “yes” when asked to help, and we give. We don’t expect a perfect church (see my comments about that below), but we are admittedly impressionable, attracted by friendliness, expecting to be reached-out-to in some way after we visit, are on the look-out for dysfunctions we’d just as soon not discover too late, and we do have some basic expectations.  So we are visitors with our radar up, and I imagine this is true of MOST visitors.

INITIAL OBSERVATIONS

The FIRST THING we did to LEARN ABOUT your church was go to your website. In fact, I first looked them up on my iphone. Do you know how your church website looks on a smartphone? Many don’t look that good. We googled churches in our area. Does yours show up high on the list? If it doesn’t, then we might not have seen you.

At only once church did they ask us “how did you find us?” In retrospect, that’s a good question each church should have asked. When we told them “via the web” they acted surprised.

We then did a weekday “drive by” of your church. Weird, I know, but it’s all part of the process. How’s your church look in a drive by?

Next, we checked your site to see if you had a children and youth ministry, and adult education offerings.  I personally consider the existence of such basic ministries A SIGN OF A HEALTHY CHURCH –even though our own kids are grown. This may seem like an obvious thing for a church to have, but I kid you not: TWO of the churches we have attended did not have a Sunday School, and none of these were small churches. In fact, in two of the churches we saw zero children.

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We also read your  online “ABOUT US” statement.

I can’t imagine a visitor wanting to waste time visiting a church that will make them wince. But it’s more than just beliefs… we’re reading your tone and personalityand beginning to form an impression about you. You can tell A LOT about a church by the way they describe themselves.The “about us” statements I’ve been reading at many church websites often read like a conservative catechism (oy!) or seminary exercise (double oy!).  You are welcome to BE those things I may disagree with, but please BE SOMETHING MORE than just a pile of theological words. Preferably, PLEASE SOUND INVITING and ACCESSIBLE, –and leave off the boilerplate and flowery language, –unless you want me to conclude that this is how you really are.

(For more of what I consider to be a “better church website” go to posts in this blog at http://sundayresources.net/neil/category/churchsite/)

Next….we looked at worship times.
Seriously, 9 am for Worship?  8:30 AM for Sunday School? Who are they kidding. My wife works nights and some weekends. Not all of us like to get up early. 10 am is our “visitor” starting time, and begrudgingly 9 am –once we become members and get hooked.

ONLINE SERMONS MATTER, but…
I skimmed the pastor’s online sermons at four of the church’s we’ve visited. One didn’t have any.  Disappointingly, I didn’t read ONE that I thought was that good in writing, that is, until I clicked the “audio sermon” option on one site. It made me realize how important the AUDIO SERMON is to the quality of the content and judging  “the voice” of the sermon and pastor. With one of the pastors, I’m glad we heard them in person because their online content didn’t do them justice.

In our last church home, I did the website and wondered if anyone listened to the entire audio sermons. I THOUGHT it was important that they did.  Now I realized I WAS A LITTLE WRONG about that.  As a visitor this past month perusing your websites, I just wanted to get A TASTE of the preacher’s voice and demeanor. That was enough. Didn’t need to hear the whole thing. Word to the wise.

WALKING IN

All the churches we’ve visited so far did a nice job of greeting us as we walked in. And I have to admit, it felt good to be stopped and greeted.  One, however, immediately asked us to fill out a “hello” nametag rather than just talk to us. We put them on, then noticed that NO ONE ELSE in the congregation had a nametag, –not even the greeter at the door. The people did notice us during the passing of the peace and glanced at our tags. However, immediately following the service, NOBODY SPOKE TO US —except the pastor in the receiving line.  And neither my wife nor I can remember anyone at that church greeting us with THEIR NAME. (In subsequent churches this improved a little bit, but not much).

At one particular church they did an awesome job of greeting us. Several people came up to us, and I noticed one greeter get the pastor to come over and greet us. This pastor’s welcome contrasts to the huge mistake I used to make when I used to pastor a church. I hid out in the wings just prior to worship, making a few last notes, etc, –when I should have been out greeting people.

That same “awesome greeting church” also gave us a “Visitor Bag” –and I have to say, that impressed us. It had a colorful plastic cup with the name of the church on it, a newsletter and very nice brochure about the church. That was also the church where the pastor greeted us BEFORE worship and After, and emailed us on Monday. By contrast, in two other churches we visited where they did an ‘ok’ job of greeting us, –one had a visitor’s booth that waited for us to go up and get stuff, and neither of those churches ever followed up on our visit.

That “awesome greeting church” was also the only one of six that MADE SURE they had our contact info. After worship, one of their greeters asked us to write down our contact info and stayed to get it from us. Of course, now wondering if they’ll follow up on it in some way. See my suggestions about GETTING VISITOR CONTACT INFO in POST II on this subject at

WALKING OUT

Of the six we visited, only in 3 did people really try to engage us after the service. We joined the exit line to greet the pastor and most people just smiled. At two churches AFTER worship we stood around wondering what to do rather than just leave. Neither had anything planned other than coffee immediately following the service. The class “one-half an hour later in the parlor” at one of the churches doesn’t count because as visitors we weren’t going to stand there for 30 minutes. Had there been a group discussion a few minutes following, we would have walked in.

After worship in one church I had a GOLDEN INSIGHT.  In that church after worship only one person spoke to us as we milled out of the service. He was welcoming and enthusiastic about the church for a minute or two, but then as we entered the narthex, he left us to go talk to his friends. (Should have taken us over to introduce us around, IMHO, but I digress).  We stopped for coffee on the way out and accidentally bumped into a lady who immediately chatted us up. It gave me two good ideas…

1)  EVERY CHURCH should put a “greeter” by the coffee (not a server) to watch for visitors. Indeed, being greeted AFTER worship is as important as being greeted as we first entered your church. In sales, I supposed they would call this “sealing the deal”. We had questions and impressions AFTER worship and it would have been interesting to engage someone. But few churches engaged us after worship, and the line leading to the pastor, and pastor him/herself is a bit of a hog-wrassle.

2) Coffee should be strategically located between your visitors and The Exit, and clearly marked.  As a visitor in many churches over the years, there’s this golden minute or so of “what should we do now?” as you exit worship.  If we make it to the door without an invitation, we’re probably gone. And in a crowd, the coffee table is not so easy to find.

“PEOPLE LIKE US”
After the first couple of church visits, it became apparent to us how IMPORTANT the congregation’s demographics were to us. In the first three churches we visited, we were some of the youngest people in the service (and I’m 52!) In one church, my wife and I were definitely the youngest. Granted, we are in Florida, but there are plenty of un-retired folks living in the neighborhoods around those churches. Somehow, those congregations had driven themselves into a demographic hole. In one church they volunteered to us that they wanted to attract young families. They had a new minister and had just built a new million dollar sanctuary. But the minister appeared to be in his late 50’s, and they had no Sunday School. We wondered what dysfunction had allowed this to happen, but decided not to go back and find out. (The cost of their new sign would have paid for a part-time family ministry and new members pastor, …but I digress.)

I feel like I should say it again that we are not looking for the perfect church.
We are looking for one that “feels right” to us. One with an authentic air; one that seems friendly,  -one that has a “family feeling” in worship and not stiff, -and a message that comes across as heartfelt and hand-crafted, and not book-crafted or bland. We are looking for a minister who doesn’t put us to sleep -but also isn’t in a rush.

Now About the Ministers

All the ministers we’ve met have been nice, and each has been interestingly different. I’m sure I would enjoy hanging with each of them.

All the sermons we’ve heard have been interesting, though many lacked a bit of what I call “self-story”, disclosure, i.e. “what it means to me in my life” –that moment when the preacher because the listener.As visitors (and members) we can’t separate the message from the messenger. We’re listening for how YOU connect. This goes to our overall impression of your authenticity and approachability, and how we feel about coming back for another visit. Some of you did well on this score. Others need to work on it. (I make a few suggestions in subsequent posts here.)

Seems like many ministers I’ve known have two personalities: Public and Private. I find it disappointing when personable pastors put on their “holy formal” demeanor when they get up front. Noticed that in several churches we visited.

It would have been nice to be contacted by a church after we visited.
Only two of the eight pastors in the six churches have done so, –and they did it via email. No pastors have called. None have asked to visit. And we haven’t been contacted by any volunteers either. I found this odd because one of my jobs as an Associate Minister was to call/contact/visit the visitors, and several of the churches we visited expressed the importance of welcoming visitors in their liturgy, print materials, and website.

So Here’s a Tip:
Give us a “hello call” Sunday evening. Then send us a personal email on Thursday or Friday saying you hope to see us again on Sunday and mentioning what’s going on. As a visitor we begin discussing “where do we want to go THIS Sunday?” late in the week, and often on Saturday. A well-timed invitation might help us come back.

When asked about my background, or what I did for a living (which was rare, and usually I volunteered the info), I identified myself as a minister on the loose, and my wife and I said we were looking for a new church home. Many of the congregations here in Florida have retired ministers in them (though I’m not retired). I don’t know if that’s why they didn’t follow up on us. But why should it matter? (I realize these pastors are busy busy people with lots of mouths to feed. But reaching out to ALL potential new members in even a simple way would seem like an easy and important thing to do.)

I haven’t mentioned it yet, but the church music a major feature of any visitor’s experience, has been “okay” in each of the churches we’ve visited. One was really well done, but sounded a bit “high-church” for us. In several services we sang off of projected screens, which was new to us, and I have to admit it felt a bit strange and disconnected as a visitor who hadn’t previously experienced that.  In Post II, you will read more about how much the VISUAL impression of the choir loomed large in several church (and not necesssarily in a good way).

More to come…!

See all three posts on this subject at my Neil on the Loose category of posts

The Ten Commandments CD from Sunday Software
Learn more about Neil’s interactive lesson software about the Ten Commandments at www.sundaysoftware.com/tenbrief.htm
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