Looking for a new church ~ Part III

This is article 3 of 3 about our “church shopping” experience here in Sarasota Florida. You can read those at two previous posts. My point of view includes the fact that I’m a minister who used to pastor churches and has some experience with these issues both as an insider and church shopper. My wife and I have now been to six different Presbyterian churches here, –a couple of them several times.
UPDATE: Since writing about my experiences, I have pulled together some research and led a seminar.  View the highlight and research here.

All six churches we’ve been visiting have had a good message and authentic worship, and I realize that picking a church shouldn’t be just about “appearances” and first impressions. But here’s the thing: a lot of the things we experienced are probably things they would change if they could, …assuming new member outreach is important to them. And more typical visitors might be put-off by some of the things we experienced, and never coming back.

I know from previous church experiences that once I fall in love with a congregation, I start to ignore some of the negatives. We all do that, but that’s not necessarily a good thing for those trying to attract new members. Some visitors don’t get past the negatives, and many of those negatives can be easily negated! I hope these posts help you do that.

I usually don't wear my hat to church.

Do you know what is it like to worship as a visitor in your Sanctuary?

You’re probably so familiar with it that you don’t really know. Surprisingly, the CHOIR has loomed large in the “visual impression” we experienced in all six churches.

In our last three church homes, we didn’t have a choir sitting up front. Yet, four of the six churches we visited featured rows of be-robed people sitting behind or next to the chancel/communion table.  That’s new to us, and let me tell you, in some of those churches, watching people stare blankly back at you is not that appealing. It can feel –cold. This is especially true if the choir is mostly older folks staring blankly back at you, -as they have in several of the churches we visited. Old faces can look “dour” due to gravity. It’s simply an unfortunate reality, and as you can see by my photo above, I’m not immune to gravity.

But here’s the thing: Some of the choirs were more visually prominent than others, and thus, their appearance left a major impression on us sitting in the pews. In one church they dominated the chancel area, and thus our field of view for 60 minutes.  And many of these prominent folks looked particularly dour. It left an overall impression of an “old people’s church.” The bland matching robes probably didn’t help. As a visitor, I have no connection with those people, so I don’t know how wonderful they are. In two of the churches, the choirs were tucked away.

The appearance of the chancel (front) matters. It’s what we visitors form a strong visual memory about because you have us looking at it for an hour. It’s colors and textures tell us a lot about you. Some churches are trapped by their architecture. But we all know there are things that can be done to affect it. I’m just saying that it is IMPORTANT to US VISITORS who don’t know your congregation yet. When I think of each of the six churches, I see the chancel.

What you can do
1) Talk to the choir members about their unique visual role.
2) Improve the demographics of the choir, such as, adding some young people.
3) Be careful about designing worship space that features the choir at the center.
4) Give the congregation OTHER INTERESTING VISUALS to look at up front.
5) Make sure you liturgy, movement, and demeanor projects what you want it to project, especially if your building sends another message.

The Pastor Up Front
Like it or not, visitors are watching the pastor, –intently. I know this because I have been a pastor-in-the-pew for over a decade ow, and we are on our third town and church shopping experience. The pastor is a major impresssion, not only how they act, but how they appear and move and interact.

Five of the six churches we attended had pastors who presented a “friendly moving target”. One seemed frozen behind the pulpit or in their “talking spot out front” for the announcements. One in particular seemed happy and natural in his movements. Others seemed a bit stiff or uncomfortable or professorial at times. One had some ‘stagey’ moments, –movements that looked a bit theatrical rather than authentic. As we have shopped for churches, my wife and I realize that “how the pastor was up front” also matched our opinion of the church and desire to go back.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, I also liked the sermon of the “natural moving target” pastor the most. It felt more authentic and personal. Moving around as you speak, btw, has the added benefit of causing people to focus, -it’s a brain thing. Suggestion: As the pastor, you probably don’t know how you come across. Ask someone to video tape your next two worship services, then watch it with some trusted friends. If you discover you’re not what you should be, get some professional help, -there are people who train teachers, sales people and CEOs to give presentations. Every pastor could benefit.

Sunday Software, New Tools for a New Generation

The “appearance” of the pastor mattered to us
I was kind of surprised to see ministers in robes in all six churches. Was sort of expecting to see some in suits or sleeves -especially after being part of an island church for the past several years. Pretty ‘formal’ still up here in Florida. Wonder why? Some of them acted like they were in robes too… a bit stiff. Now let me get even more ridiculous about the pastor’s appearance….

In all six churches they wore robes, though not all black. I was MOST intrigued by the “stoles” some of them wore, as some were bright and very creative. And not having seen such regularly for the last couple of years, it’s something that definitely catches the eye and creates an impression. In general, I would say that the TYPE of stole they wore did indeed reflect their worship style and message. Also have to say that the pastor in the blue robe and two who wore white robes caught my eye the most. Blue is nice, and so is white as long as it has a colorful stoll. I’m laughing as I type this…. these are things I didn’t think I’d didn’t think I’d notice as a visitor.  But yeah, I noticed how you were dressed. A lot of little things, including sub-conscious things, go into forming the visitor’s impression, and FOR US plain-ness apparently isn’t appealing!

I enjoyed the services, though some more than others. The pastors all seemed relatively approachable and pretty good at being in front of people. But that’s not the same as ‘personally reaching out’ to potential new members like us. Like it or not, pastor, we visitors are trying to make a connection with YOU as much as the rest of the church. That means YOUR SERMON is a major factor. As visitors, we’re trying to figure out if we “can stand listening to this person every week.” If that weren’t so sad and impossibly true, it would be hilarious. I liked the pastors who moved around and shared some of their own life experience in the sermon. But I winced when they went back into “boilerplate theological language mode” during their sermons, as if their seminary professor was grading them.

This isn’t the post to talk about their sermon “styles”, but suffice to say, they were all interestingly different, and that means that WE as Church Shoppers are being presented with some interesting choices. For you in the church, it means you have some interesting competition.

Our experience meeting the pastors AFTER worship was an important moment, and I addressed that in my previous “Part II” post here. I would recommend every pastor read it.

What does your church “SMELL” like?
It’s something we noticed. We walked into one church and it smelled like a funeral home. Could be due to the flowers or to someone’s over-use of perfume, but back in the car after worship both my wife and I mentioned it as a turn off.  I have dust allergies, btw, and that makes my sinuses sensitive to certain floral smells. Hyacinth make my head close down.

Recently, my wife and I walked in a local grocery store that smelled like rotting meat. The next time it still faintly smelled like rotting meat, …and we stopped going there. There now exists a huge amount of research data on the importance of ‘smells’ in how people perceive things. Retailers everywhere are treating the air their shoppers are breathing. Churches take note. (Add: my wife and I are even comparing the lighting and natural light between sanctuaries. In our last church on the island of St Croix, we didn’t have pews and the sanctuary was also the fellowship hall, so it’s not that our standards are high. In one of the churches we visited here, there was almost no natural light. What I’m saying is that we are comparing YOUR facility to the others we are visiting. And if yours lacks light, or ambience or some modicum of attractiveness, it is probably working against your outreach. Just saying.)

In my software ministry, I made a fun game for kids about the reasons why we should worship and go to church, and the excuses we use to avoid connecting! Click the image to see the program.

Church Building, Signage and Website
As visitors, we first checked you out by visiting your website. And I have to say that the style and quality of the website did indeed match our opinion of the church after visiting. That’s not a good thing for some, as in some cases the website and signage reinforced our visitation experience. I’ve written a lot up here about “making a better church website”, and our visitation experiences here simply confirm my advice about freshness and great photos.

In 5 of the 6 churches, we also did a weekday DRIVE BY before coming on Sunday. That seems kindof funny to me, but I guess we really were “trying before buying.” I really don’t know what we were looking for… perhaps just a sense of “can I see myself walking in there?” What do people see when they drive by your church?

As people relatively new to the area THERE WERE TWO PIECES OF INFORMATION that we really needed:   A map and worship times. I’d make sure those were CLEARLY MARKED on your church’s homepage and not buried in some crazy drop-down-slide-over menu that takes you two tries to figure out. Because we drove by your church, worship times out front are also helpful. In three of the six churches, it would have been nice to have more clear parking signage (as in “more parking back here”).  And in four of the six churches, the “campuses” were complex enough that we weren’t sure where everything was when we decided to explore your campus after worship. Yes, we wanted to see your classrooms and fellowship areas. Probably trying to imagine ourselves in there.

Here’s an interesting point:
I’ve signed up at three of the six church websites for their email newsletters. The other three sites didn’t have this feature. If I were in charge of visitation at those churches that DID have email newsletters, I would be paying attention to who was signing up, and contacting them personally. I’m sure the pastor doesn’t know how to check subscriptions, so I’m going to suggest they find out! One EZ way to set this up: have the webform send a copy of every new registration to the pastor’s email address. Or give the pastor a link to check the subscription list. Better yet, call the visitor and offer to sign them up yourself.

Things we heard….

The Liturgist and Scripture Readers
In our last two home churches most of the scripture readers weren’t very good. Many of them stumbled through the scripture like they were reading it for the first time, misprounounced words, and read the text like a horse heading for the barn. In the six churches we’ve just visited, some readers fared better than others, but most I’d generously give a B-.  This includes some of the pastors who did their own reading. They tend to make it all one run-on passage, and voice every phrase and line and character like the next. As a visitor comparing experiences in various churches (let alone for the members!), this is something that attracts or distracts.

Why should scripture be read with any less preparation and PASSION than the music, prayers and sermon? One church did better than most, and it was the one with the Associate Minister doing the reading. We heard some “better than usual” lay readers, but there was plenty of room for improvement.

The Prayers in all six churches were decent, though some were better than others. It’s hard to “pray the list” of everything everyone thinks is important. I could easily tell who was “reading” their prayer, and who was “praying” their written prayer, and who was “making it up as they go” praying. I prefer to hear someone who has crafted a good written prayer and knows how to “pray” it aloud from the heart, rather than “say it” out loud from a piece of paper. (Note: It should be a heartfelt prayer and not a thesaurus-infused sermonette.)

My best advice for all six church liturgies is to SLOW DOWN (and drop the seminary language). You’re excited up there, but we have been sitting still. You have put us in a contemplative mood. Don’t race, and don’t try to fit it all in. Not only will this minister appreciate you losing the boilerplate religious language, but so will your seekers who are looking for something different than their parent’s church.

Speaking of hearing…
The music in all six churches has been of varying quality but all within “okay”. That was a surprise, though in one of the churches, the playing of the organ/piano seemed a bit overwrought and overly loud. I’m not a big fan of church-y choir or organ music, so I’m not going to pick a church based on who has the best choir!  (as long as it isn’t hideous)  I’ve come to appreciate that the choir is a way for the musicians and singers to express THEIR faith, so I focus on how THEY are into it, if not me. Please however, see my comments above about “how you look up there.” Several of the churches offered a contemporary service and we’re looking forward to exploring those next. One church choir sang to recorded music with backing vocals. It felt strange to us. One church played some soft music “under” the prayer, and that seemed out of place for our denomination…. kind of like “the way they do it on tv.”

Two of the six churches used projectors during their services. As a media guy, I was intrigued by my response –having never regularly experienced media in worship. It was “just ok”. I still like to hold the hymnbook. One of the churches used the screen to show announcements before worship, including a prayer list. Liked that a lot.

Some final observations…

We don’t have young kids, but we think they are a sign of a healthy congregation. In three of the churches we visited, we saw very few signs of a healthy kids ministry, very few kids (almost none in two churches), and when we went looking for classrooms we were rather disappointed in most. Yes, we’re in Florida, the land of retirement, -but all these churches had neighborhoods around them. It made us wonder “what’s wrong?”

After sorting out our impressions about worship in these churches, we are also looking for adult education and fellowship opportunities. Each of the churches we visited offered something somewhere in their calendar, and in two churches we were actually invited to come to a fellowship meal. We haven’t gone yet, but that invitation DID mean a lot to us. Worship is the place we need to feel comfortable in first, and if we don’t, your program won’t matter. One church had a visitors booth attended by a smiling couple with brochures on various ministries. That was impressive, but strangely enough, they didn’t ask us for our information. The one that gave us a Visitors Bag was also the most proactive about greeting us before and after the service, and asking for our contact info. Fortunately for us, the rest of the service and pastor also seemed pretty good, so we’re definitely going to give that church a LONG LOOK.

I hope you’ve found my 3-part “Visitors” discussion helpful, and pray that something in it helps your church’s outreach to visitors. I realize there are different churches for different folks, but in all my church shopping experiences over the past 12 years (yeah, we’ve moved three times!), I’ve often thought, “do they know how they come across?” and “you know, if only they would ___________.” Mostly, I realize HOW LACKING MY OWN LEADERSHIP has been in this area when I served in the pastorate. It’s been instructive seeing it from the pew, and some of the fixes are thankfully easy. I hope my experiences and suggestions stimulate discussion in your church and help your ministry.

We’re really excited about connecting with a new church home, and that’s the goal of all these posts…. to help churches turn visitors into members for the Glory of God.

<>< Neil MacQueen
www.SundayResources.net and www.sundaysoftware.com

Elijah and Jonah CD is an awesome piece of software I designed for Sunday School. Click the pic to check it out or go to http://www.sundaysoftware.com/Elijah-Jonah
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1 Response to Looking for a new church ~ Part III

  1. Neil says:

    Had an Episcopalian priest contact me and invite me to HIS church here in town! How did he know we were looking? He read this blog post. How about that!

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