Monday, December 1, 2014

The Visitor Book...Why every long time member of a local church needs to be a visitor somewhere else.

In the last 15 years I can count on both hands the number of times I've not been in my pulpit on Sunday morning.  Sometimes it was for retreat, once because I was sick, and three for vacation.  This past Sunday was one of those.  The first lady and I needed some time away.  It had been over 3 years since the two of us had been able to get away as a couple (and to my clergy colleagues...DO NOT underestimate how important this is for your marriage.)

We planned our trip, made the reservations, and I made preparations to be gone on a Sunday.  The weekend was great, with the exception of a little vehicle trouble, but even that worked out.  Sunday morning rolled around, our last day on the trip, and I said to my first lady; "I think we need to check out the little UMC in town this morning."  I knew that it would be nothing like we were used to but I felt the need to worship, especially after the events of the day before. 

Neither of us packed "church clothes," so there was no small amount of trepidation as to how we'd be welcomed in jeans and sweatshirts.  In fact, there was no small amount of trepidation about the whole experience, and here's why.  We've had our fair share of church changes, but the difference for me is that when I walk into a new church, I don't walk in as a visitor.  I walk in as the one in charge, the resident elder.  This time was different.  I wasn't going to tell anyone I was a pastor in a different Conference of the same denomination.  I just wanted to be, and see how we would be welcomed.  Part of that, I admit, was critique.  I wanted to see how this particular congregation practiced radical hospitality. 

As we approached the front steps, they were beautifully decorated for Christmas.  It was a quaint little building with that small town charm that so many fall in love with.  There was a smiling face at the door to greet us and hand us a bulletin.  (Score)  The sanctuary was starting to fill up so we chose a spot that could have been someone else's seat and I wanted to see how they'd react.  Within a few minutes the pastor came over and welcomed us (Score again) and asked if we were local or visiting (It is kind of a seasonal town).  Within a few minutes we were welcomed again by the obvious matriarch of the church and evidently got her approval.  There was a lady sitting behind us who had been ringing the Salvation Army bell at one of the local businesses the day before and she remembered us and spoke (Score again).    A couple other people spoke, but for the most part folks left us alone.  Since my anxiety level was already elevated, that was actually fine with me.  They were welcoming but not suffocating.  Then it happened...

...One of the sweet little ladies of the church walked over to us with this God awful huge folder in her hand and said..."We kind of dropped the ball since we have been decorating for Christmas but usually our visitor folder is on the table by the door.  Would you sign in please?  We don't want phone numbers or addresses, and we won't come to your house, we just want to know where you're from." 

As a pastor, I totally get that.  I want to know our guests at Grace Church as well, but between that huge folder and the pastor calling us out from the pulpit to welcome us, I was beginning to break out in a cold sweat.  I just wanted to be.  I just needed to worship.  Thank God he didn't ask us to stand so folks could welcome us.  This was enough.  Turns out we were the first visitors in that little chapel in over 6 weeks and I expect that they were genuinely tickled that we were there.

As the service progressed, it was time for the Hanging of the Greens and the pastor told everyone to stand up, come down front, take a Chrismon ornament, and hang it on the tree.  OH, HELL NO!  Folks started getting up and making their way down front and we just stood there...until folks started noticing that we were standing there.  Then one sweet little lady behind us broke me down..."It's ok.  Come on.  You're part of us today." 

Now, here's why I'm writing today.  In my pulpit this would be the "big so what."

If you are still reading this, and if you are a long time member of your particular body of believers, it will be a great help for the Kingdom, your congregation, and your pastor if once a year you visit a church where you know no one.  Don't go to your friends' church, or your sister's church.  Go to a different town, and find a congregation where the only people you know are the ones who rode with you.  Why?  Because it's easy for us in the Church to become "visitor blind."  We forget what it's like to walk through our doors for the first time.  We underestimate the anxiety people feel when they finally make the decision to visit us on a Sunday morning.  We don't recognize the things we do, or don't do, to our guests and/or how those things make them feel. 

It takes a huge amount of guts to walk into a church for the first time.  I'm a 43 year veteran of the church and an elder in full connection, and it still made me almost physically ill to climb those steps yesterday.  Imagine how it must feel for someone who doesn't have that kind of experience in the church and is just looking for that peace, hope, and healing we're always talking about. 

So, from our experience this weekend, and from observations I've made over the years, here's a short list of things we can do to make our guests feel more welcome.  Some of these we are already doing at Grace Church.  Some of them we need to work on.

* DO have someone with a smiling face at the door to greet them.
* DO have that person introduce themselves and ask if they can help your guest find a seat. 
   Perhaps they know someone and would like to sit by them.
* DO have signs directing your guests through the building...restrooms...nursery...etc.
* DO ask them if there is anything you can do for them while they're there.
* DO have EVERYONE wear name tags if you ask your guests to
* DO have EVERYONE sign in if you ask your guests to. 
* DO welcome them often but DO NOT call them out from the pulpit.
* DO let them have your seat.  Let me repeat that one.  DO let them have your seat.  If they sit down
   where you've sat for 30 years, deal with it and find another spot.
* DO NOT use language they don't understand (Grace Church we need to work on this one)  Instead
   of saying UMW for example, say our "United Methodist Women."
* DO embrace the fact that they may just want to worship and aren't ready to interact much.
* DO NOT force them to do anything.. 
* DO welcome them back, but DO NOT be pushy. 
* DO offer them the opportunity to encounter the Divine at their own pace and in their own way. 

Now, if you're a long time member, and haven't visited a church where you know no one in the last few years, give it a try.  Print this little list out, see how the congregation does, and how the things they do or don't do make you feel, then take that experience back to your own congregation. 

There's much truth in the fact that no matter how well we do things, there is always room to do them better. 


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