I was reading Martin Salter’s latest blog post, which you can read here. Martin considered the three most important minutes of your service (probably) for visitors, namely the time immediately following the end of the formal worship. In essence, I agree with him. I am sure all of us have experienced the awkwardness of sitting in a church not our own, waiting for someone to speak to us and put us at our ease, only for no one to do so. How likely are we to return to such churches? Some of us might be big enough and brave enough to return if we thought the teaching was good enough. But the average visitor won’t and, to be honest, even Mr Reformed McReformerson from Reformedville might give it a miss regardless of how good the teaching was.
I think Martin’s comments were bang on for those running traditional service formats. That is, for a service beginning at 10:30, most the church pile in no earlier than 10:25. You are greeted with a cursory handshake at the door, given some paper to read through and – before you know it – the service is starting. In such setups – what we might call the ‘standard setup’ – Martin is absolutely right. Those first 3 minutes after the sermon are absolutely key if you are going to get that elusive return visit.
There is a practice that we employ, however, that makes those three minutes a little less crucial. That’s not to say they no longer matter, they do. It’s also not to say if we don’t talk to folk afterwards we can expect them to return. It is simply to say, we have found our approach makes those three minutes following the service much less crucial. Actually, not only does it make that time less important, we have found it simultaneously makes it less likely to become the ‘dead time’ that visitors so often find awkward and off-putting.
Our small, and not especially outlandish or insightful, change is to have our tea and coffee before the service. Instead of everyone piling into church at 10:25 and barely acknowledging one another, we get to church for 10:30 and have a chat over refreshments. The benefit of this approach is thus.
First, it makes our welcome more welcoming. Whilst we do have someone stationed ‘on the door’, we have done away with a cursory handshake and ushering into the meeting area. Instead, we give new visitors a welcome card and walk them up into our coffee lounge and introduce them to one of our members. This means every visitor is immediately brought into conversation with one of our regulars.
Second, this approach makes the three minutes after the sermon less significant. Most visitors will already have been in conversation, over coffee, with someone from the church. Much of the small-talk finding out about who they are, where they’re from, etc has already taken place. Conversation after the service can more helpfully centre on the content of the service, and sermon, itself. It is far more natural to ask people what they thought of the sermon when we’ve been in friendly conversation with them already.
Third, this approach to the welcome makes the three minutes after the sermon more likely not to end in ‘dead time’. For one, if you have already been in conversation with somebody over coffee, chances are – unless you have a specific reason you must sit elsewhere – you will probably sit somewhere near your new friend. Of course, if you have already been in friendly conversation before the service, it is more likely you will pick up and resume your conversation afterwards. For those that feel they have run out of small talk in the pre-service chat, the visitor can easily be introduced to another member they haven’t yet met.
I wouldn’t want to say this approach means that three minute post-service window is rendered utterly inconsequential. Clearly, it is still important to speak with people after the service too. But it does make the little three minute window a less vital, more natural and, counter-intuitively, less likely to lead to the awkward ‘dead time’ we all want to avoid.