I mentioned yesterday that I was preaching at a different church on Sunday. It was really nice because it is a church of people I knew 25 years ago when I went there as a little lad that more recently had a small influx of people, a fair proportion of whom I knew at university. Couple to that the fact that I was preaching, which inevitably means more people come up to talk to you after the service than might otherwise (I’m sure the church I was at wouldn’t ignore others, I’m just conscious it’s always different when you’ve been the preacher), it was altogether a really nice time for me and my family.
In your home church, it is very easy to acclimatise to the way things have always been. The stuff we do is just normal. We know when to stand for the hymns, what bit of the service is coming next, why we do the various bits and pieces. It is all second nature to us and we may have even been involved in the decision to start doing things that way, with whatever logic there was behind doing it. We just so quickly forget that others (particular visitors) don’t know, and weren’t part, of any of that.
I had a conversation with somebody recently in which we shared funny stories of when we were cutting our teeth in preaching by serving different local churches in need of support. We laughed about some of the funny quirks that we encountered. We also shared some stories of places that were, at the time, something of a nightmare in one form or another but – I think if we’re all being honest – we enjoyed going if not for the fact that we can dine out on the anecdotal value of what happened for years after. But one thing we gleaned from such places was how we would definitely never copy some of their practices because they were so awful for us as visitors (and we were naturally inclined to them as believers coming specifically for the purposes of serving them).
This is much easier to think about for a church like mine because we do have such an influx of new visitors all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we’ve never had any weird, or visitor unfriendly, practices at our place (we definitely have!) but we are able to think through how we do things and how it will come across to visitors helpfully because we do frequently have visitors. Sometimes thinking these through in a church that doesn’t seem to have vast, if almost any, visitors through the doors with any frequency feels a bit odd and contrived. The problem is, if you don’t think these things through before you get a visitor, those things that we’ve always done – no matter how reasonable and sensible the original decision to have them was – will now seem utterly weird as you cringe your way through a service in the shoes of that family who wandered in for the first time.
Some advice I heard a while ago (I must admit, I forget where from, just know it wasn’t my clever insight) is that your service should always behave and be structured as if there are visitors in the room. It may seem tiresome to the regular membership to hear yet another statement of where the toilets are, to please turn off your phones, that there is/isn’t a Sunday School and there is where you do/don’t go for it. Telling guys who have been Christians for over half a century where to find the really well known book of the Bible you will be reading from might feel like you’re teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, but these things really are important.
First, and most importantly, it helps you to avoid the problem of a visitor coming in and having no clue what is happening and why. This is the principle thing you are trying to avoid. By acting as though that visitor is already there, you can mitigate any feeling that what is going on is total gobbledegook and so alien as to be meaningless.
Second, and almost as importantly, it helps your members to be on the look out for visitors. If you act as though visitors might be there, it is a reminder to the regular members that visitors might be there! If you continually act as though there are never any visitors in the room, you can’t be that surprised if all your members act as though there are no visitors in the room, even when there are!
Third, it sends a message to your members that you would like visitors in the room. How are most churches going to get visitors? Whilst there may be strange churches (like mine) that really do get visitors wandering through the door for almost no reason, most churches will get them because their members bring them. But, of course, members won’t bring them if the entire service is going to be so off-putting to their friends, so utterly alien, that they don’t want to bring them. Moreover, if everything in the church is clearly geared up with zero thought for new people, it isn’t an unreasonable on the part of your members to presume you don’t really want visitors. That isn’t to say the service exists to serve those who might come in – it is primarily for the upbuilding of church members – but we ought to have an eye on those who are new and visiting if we have any hope of them coming again. Giving the impression to your members that you want and expect visitors by the way you lead your service may help them to invite people on the grounds that you do actually want to see them.
Whether your church has a huge turnover of people or not, whether you see swathes of visitors every week or not, make sure you act as though there are visitors in the room.