Our experience was not good. Not only would we never go back, we could not in good conscience recommend the church to anyone else. They weren’t overtly mean or unkind. I’m sure in their minds, they were just fine—friendly even. But let me tell you what it looked like from a guest’s perspective. Here are a dozen things that would combine to cause us never go back to that church again.
- The website--I realize that not all churches have websites, but yours should. The website is the first place a person under 50 will look for information about your church. Have a website or at least a Facebook page, and make sure the information is up to date and accurate! If you have changed your service time to 10:45, don’t say it starts at 11:00 on your website.
- The parking lot--As a pastor who has worked with many pastors, maybe I’m overly sensitive in some areas. But visitors to your church should not have to park in the back of the parking lot—especially when there are reserved staff parking spots right next to the door.
- The directions--Good signage should be one of the easiest things a church can get right. But it is obviously one of the most overlooked. See your church through the eyes of a person who has never been in church—much less your church. An unchurched person might see an arrow pointing to “The Sanctuary”, but how do they know that’s where they’re supposed to go? Where are the bathrooms? Where do the kids go? Do we all go to the same place? Oh yeah, and nobody is around to follow because we’re 15 minutes late since the time on the website was wrong. HELP ME!!!!
- The greeters--A good greeter is more than just a here’s-a-handshake-and-a-bulletin person. Here’s a quiz for you: When a greeter sees a family with children, what should he do? A) Pretend to not see them, B) Offer a handshake-and-a-bulletin to the mom who is already holding the baby, diaper bag, stroller, car seat, snack bags and the hands of two other kids, or C) Stoop down, greet the children, and let the parents know of any children’s programs that occur during the service. I would hope the answer is self-evident—but it really isn’t. It’s also a good idea to have friendly people available to escort parents to the nursery, children’s church, etc. If you don’t have separate children’s activities during the service, provide coloring sheets with crayons or activity bags for them.
- The bulletin--I know, it’s not hip to call it a bulletin anymore. But just because you change the name to “Worship Folder” doesn’t automatically make it worth the life of the tree it once was. Unfamiliar experiences are uncomfortable. Use the bulletin to take away some of the unfamiliarity. Write it for an unchurched person (what the heck is a doxology?!?). Give the what and explain (as briefly as possible) the why. Here’s a clue—if your bulletin says nothing about Jesus, then your guests will probably not expect to meet Him there.
- The bulbs--What do you think it tells a visitor if you have burned out bulbs in your worship center? What about dirty windows? Overgrown hedges? Junk in hallways and common spaces? Let’s be honest—when we “live” somewhere for a while, we quit noticing neglected maintenance and increasing clutter. But visitors notice—especially visitors with children. Do you think a protective mother wants to leave her child in the nursery of a church with clutter out in the open and burned out light bulbs?
- The Meet and Greet--At the church we attended this past Sunday, we missed the meet and greet time (see #1), but the vast majority of churches I have visited include some kind of “welcome” time. The intent is honorable, but I have never seen it work as intended. No matter how you orchestrate it (standing, sitting, some stand while others sit, singing, walking, etc.), it is ALWAYS unpleasant for the visitor. Even the best-hearted church members feign friendliness with guests then immediately turn to genuinely love on fellow members. There has to be a better way!
- The dishonesty--I’m all for being positive and energetic. Few things bother me more than down-in-the-mouth commentary from people on the platform. But at the same time, people need to be honest. Don’t talk about what a great crowd is here when there are more empty seats than full ones. When we walked in the church on Sunday, they were in the middle of singing Hillsong’s Church on Fire (see #1). Great song—if the church is really on fire. If unchurched people walk into a gathering and hear people singing, “The Holy Spirit is here and His power is real,” what will they think when they look around and see people looking half-dead? Somebody’s lying somewhere.
- The selfishness, part 1--When visitors walk into a church for the first time, do you think they want to sit in the front or the back—especially if the service has already started (see #1)? Yet in most churches, the back rows and aisle seats are the first to fill up. In many churches, those seats are already “reserved” by personal cushions or left behind Bibles. I have visited churches where people in aisle seats actually shifted their legs to “allow” me to scrunch past them to a middle seat, rather than simply scoot over to give the guest their seat.
- The selfishness, part 2--Of all the churches I’ve attended, something happened Sunday that I’ve never experienced before. Since we were not made aware of any children’s activities, and probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable leaving him if there were (see #6), my 4-year old grandson sat with us during the worship service. I am unashamedly biased, but he really is a good boy. But even really good boys make some noise during church. Not nearly enough that would warrant taking him outside mind you—just some 4-year old boy noises. Apparently 4-year old boy noises were too much for the older couple who were sitting in front of us. In the middle of the service, after glaring back several times, they got up and moved. How do you think that would make a visitor feel? Welcome or unwelcome?
- The people--It is easy to like people who are like us. That’s not what church is supposed to be. When the service was over, my 66-year old mother received warm greetings from the older ladies behind us. My wife and I received a few cordial handshakes from some others. My daughter, son-in-law and grandson were not spoken to. Here’s a tip: love the children first. The parents, grandparents and great-grandparents will follow.
- The preaching--I know I’m really particular about preaching. I am a systematic, expositional preacher and particularly appreciate that kind of preaching. I understand that everyone isn’t like me, but if a message is going to be topical, it needs to at least be biblical. And no preacher should ever stand in the pulpit (or platform, or music stand, or whatever) and fail to present the Gospel. We must preach the Gospel, or else we just flap our gums and waste people’s time.
I hope my bad church experience will cause us all to think about our own churches. We say we want to reach the lost. We say we want unchurched people to come to our churches. We say we want to see people saved. But do we show that we really mean what we say?