There was a time in our lives when my wife and I were on “the great church hunt.” We spent about nine months visiting eight different churches. We visited most for at least three weeks, though there were a couple that we couldn’t leave fast enough! We generally attended Sunday School when the church had it. We always filled out the visitor cards, even after the usual “first-two-visits” requirement. Almost all of the churches were Southern Baptist. Almost all were contemporary churches that emphasized being “missional” and “outreach” and “connecting” and the more traditional “evangelism,” and all stressed their emphasis on “community,” and we heard those things often in the sermons. Most had very good worship (passionate, engaging, contemporary), and the preaching was generally good. The worship service often left us with a hope that “this might be the place” where God was leading us.
But what we found while visiting these churches discouraged us and concerns us as well. My wife and I are professionals (and my wife is very attractive), sociable, friendly, clean, don’t smell, and even carried Bibles. But you’d think we had a sign on us that said “H1N1” or something. For all the talk we heard about missions and connecting and outreach and evangelism and community, we always felt like outsiders. As we entered each church we were usually handed a bulletin or at least got a handshake from a greeter. We were then left to find our way to the “worship center” and sit down (often walking past the coffee counter where members talked with each other). While waiting for the service to begin people would walk past us (we always sat on the end) and some would smile. But rarely would anyone stop to greet us or ask about us. During the usual “welcome time” in the service some people would come around and shake hands and introduce themselves, then quickly move on to chat with their friends. Now and then someone would ask where we were from (so they did know we were visitors). After the service we would make our way to the door, shake hands with the preacher, and walk to our car.
For all that talk about “what defines us” as a church, nobody seemed to take any real interest in us. Nobody invited us to their Sunday School class or small group gathering. Nobody offered to introduce us to the pastor or staff ministers (and the pastor or staff ministers didn’t seem to make much of an attempt to meet us either, though we knew they were busy). We visited one church for four Sundays and on the last they were having a dinner that evening. They announced it during service but as we left the lead elder, who greeted us at the door, simply said “thanks for coming.” If he had just said “come back tonight,” we would have and might be members there now. And it goes without saying that not one pastor or staff member of those churches made any attempt to come and visit us in our home, though we did get a couple of calls from a pastor or staff member asking if we had any questions.
My point is not to complain about how neglected and mistreated we felt – we readily acknowledge that it is “not about us,” and we are grown-ups. The point is that for all the talk about “connecting” and “mission” and “outreach” we heard, we really didn’t see any of it in action. I mean, to be honest, if a pastor (who should lead the way by example) is not even following up with people who take the initiative to visit his church, does anyone really believe he is out there on the street sharing Christ with “hardcore” sinners? If the church leadership won’t even go after the “low-hanging fruit,” is it any surprise that church members don’t witness or invite their friends to church?
It seems to me these issues are not limited to contemporary churches, much less traditional ones. I want to encourage churches (and particularly pastors) to think about how visitors experience their church. I believe that God still does lead non-believers to wander into churches seeking after him. If we had been non-believers, particularly hurting people seeking hope, we most likely would have written off church and Christianity. Jesus didn’t call us to talk about mission or outreach or connecting or evangelism or community – He called us to do it and be it.
I have talked to many people who have had similar experiences. It seems to me that if you want to be the church that everyone’s looking for (and perhaps the one with which God is pleased), it probably isn’t really that hard. You probably don’t need a church growth plan from the latest guru or the best-selling megachurch cloning manual. Maybe it’s just a matter of getting a few simple things right and trusting God to do the rest. Start by just being friendly. (Greg Danaha and his wife are laity living in Ozark.)