This weekend, I had an interesting experience that put my job in a whole new light.
Most of my work consists of working with churches to help them understand how they can reach people more effectively. I spend time with senior leadership and run focus groups to find out why people come, what were their first impressions, what made them stick, etc. But this time I was able to experience the role of a new guest firsthand.
A close friend of mine decided it was time she started going to church again. Her kids are small and she wanted to instill a strong foundation. It was important to her that she plugged into a church close to her home so there wasn't a "temptation to not go because of the distance," and so her kids could get connected with others in her neighborhood. She had visions of plugging in at a meaningful level, volunteering and attending every week.
She checked out several church websites and decided to try one billed as, "relevant, contemporary & relaxed." They had a band [which she was happy about] and the website said the sermons related to everyday life. So this past Sunday, we went together.
When walking up to the church we were greeted with, "Where are all the men?" by the pastor. Perhaps it didn't occur to him that she might be a single parent [she's not] or maybe she wanted to check it out first before bringing a reluctant husband [she was]
It was a very small church, which doesn't ordinarily bother me although it does magnify the "outsider" feel when stared at. No one wanted to sit in our row. No one offered to give us the inside scoop.
Her 6-yr old daughter wanted to go with the others to "children's church" when the kids were dismissed, which made my friend a little uncomfortable. We had no idea where this was [in the basement] or what they were doing. The message was long, felt self-serving and was difficult to follow.
"Free choice" communion was at the end of the service, although each and every row got up and went together. My friend was a bit confused on what was going on and if she was supposed to do it or not. I tried to explain quickly in hushed tones what was going on, that she shouldn't feel pressured and I would stay with her if it helped. But the idea of sitting in our row [alone] while everyone continued to stare and possibly wonder exactly what kind of heathens we were became too much for her. So we went.
"THIS IS NOT WHAT CHURCH IS ABOUT"
I honestly wanted to cry.
My friend hadn't been to church since she was little. She was excited about the possibility of going again for her kids and had initially agreed to visit a few to find the right fit. But this experience turned her off to the point that she's reconsidering the whole idea.
Please hear me. I'm not against small or traditional churches. I've been working with churches of all shapes and sizes for fourteen years now. There's some amazing things going on for the Kingdom.
But experiencing the role of a first time guest through her eyes made me wonder how often this scenario is played out every week. And it broke my heart.