A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 22, 2013
Romans 12:9-13 NRSV
Chuck Lawless tells of his first visit to a new church. The first thing he noticed when he entered the church foyer was that the welcome center was empty. There was no one there to welcome visitors. After several minutes of standing around, a staff member finally came through and asked if he needed help. Lawless asked if there was a small-group Bible study he could attend. The staffer’s answer surprised him: “Do you want to visit a friendly one?” “By all means,” Lawless replied. He was then taken to a large, empty room, where he deliberately sat next to the door, which meant that every person who entered the class would have to pass right by him. Approximately 60 people did so. “It was a wonderful class, with a real sense of community,” Lawless reported. “Members shared what was happening in their lives and some people shed tears as others prayed for them. That was really nice.” However, Lawless went on to relate, “Not a single person spoke to me or asked what I was doing there. And this was their friendly class!”
You see, Chuck Lawless is a professional “church spy” who works for a church consulting firm. It is his job to visit a church incognito in order to get a feel for what other first-time visitors to the church experience. Consultants who do such church spy work know that outsiders rarely receive the warm, friendly welcome that congregations think they are extending. “Apathy is the norm in many congregations,” consultants say, “and their leaders—ordained or among the laity.” Church spies are instructed to be alert from the second they arrive in the church parking lot until they return to their car to leave. They are instructed to count just how many people intentionally seek to interact with them in a truly, friendly manner.1
Well, what if there were spies among us? Spies here in our congregation, I mean? How would they be received? What would be their first impression? What information would they gather? Would their visit be such that they could write a positive review and recommend our church to others?
Pastor and author Anthony B. Robinson tells a similar story of going to visit a church one Sunday morning when he was free from pastoral responsibilities. He parked on a near side street and walked to the front door of the church. He put his hand on the knob and pulled, but it would not open. The door was locked tight. It was time for the Sunday service to begin, but he could not get in. He knocked on the door and waited. After a while, an older member of the congregation pushed the door open and invited him in saying, “We usually don’t open this door; everyone knows to come in through the back door.” Robinson observes, “Well, this arrangement was very cozy and friendly if you were part of the ‘everyone’ who made up the aging and shrinking congregation. If not, you hardly felt welcomed. The message was clear: members only. The congregation’s members were oblivious to the message of the locked front door as well as to the implications of their confidence that ‘everyone knows to come in through the back door.’”
The locked door that Robinson speaks of can be both literal and figurative. “Locked doors” are many and varied, and can be any challenge or hindrance that first-time worshipers encounter from the second they pull into our church parking lot and until the moment when they get in their car to leave. There are many attributes of the church building, worship service, interactions with members of the congregation, and so on that can become like “locked doors” to newcomers.
And so, I thought this Homecoming Sunday, a day when we are thinking about past members and visitors coming here, would be a good time to ask some questions about our own church. What if a church spy were to visit here? What would he or she find?
As he pulled into the parking lot, would there be an empty “Reserved for Visitors” parking spot waiting for him so he didn’t have to park near the Alexander Inn Guest House and hike all the way up the hill?
Would he find other people arriving for worship to be friendly and eager to show the way to worship, or the Nursery if he happened to have an infant?
If he had an infant, would he find our nursery to be inviting and adequate, and would he feel good about leaving his child there?
Would the spy’s first impression of our Sunday school rooms, especially if he had young children, be positive?
Would there be adequate signage to show him the way to the Chapel, restrooms, fellowship hall?
If the spy happened to be in a wheelchair, would he find all of our facilities to be handicap accessible and easily manageable?
Would more than one person greet him during the announcement and greeting time at the beginning of the service?
Would the spy be impressed by the quality of our service, the enthusiasm with which we sing the hymns, and the relevance of the sermon?
Would someone invite him to Coffee Hour and show him the way? And would several members introduce themselves to the church spy during Coffee Hour, or would we see him standing alone at the edge of the room?
As he started to leave, would someone be sure to ask him to come again?
Now, the answer to all of these questions rightfully should be “Yes.” And the good news is many of them could be answered “Yes,” I believe. But could all of them? We are currently working on several areas so that more of the questions could be answered “Yes.” Matthew, the Choir and I have been conferring about different ways to put a little more enthusiasm into our 10 o’clock congregational singing; things like utilizing both the red and black hymnals during the same service so that I can choose the more familiar version of a hymn, which hopefully will make the hymns easier to sing; Matthew leading the congregational singing; the choir singing the first verse of a new or very unfamiliar hymn; and so on.
Suzanne has done an excellent job in launching a new rotation model Sunday school program for our children that includes art, music and drama, and science and engineering in reinforcing the Bible story of the month. She has spent a good amount of time organizing and seeking to update our upstairs Sunday school rooms to make the rooms more appealing, functional, and child friendly, and more of the same is in the works.
And our Property Committee is always working hard to keep our building and grounds attractive. Have you noticed the newly finished floor at the front of this Chapel?
Our Fellowship Committee is working hard to make Wednesday night meals and programs and Sunday morning Coffee Hour and fellowship events more successful. These are just a few examples of the ways we are trying to answer more of the questions above with a “Yes” answer.
In a day when traditional churches are struggling to maintain their membership, it is even more imperative that all of us go the extra mile to make the experience of newcomers positive in every way. Recent data in the Christian Century magazine noted that within the past ten years many mainline denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church, United Church of Christ, and so on have lost members upward to twenty percent. Now, we are not a member of any of those denominations, but theologically we are sort of in the same bracket. So it is imperative that we do all we can to welcome newcomers. The truth is, many visitors who get up the nerve to walk through the doors of a new church do so because there is some kind of transition or crisis in their lives. Many come seeking companionship and a safe community. Chuck Lawless concludes, “The last thing you can afford to do is leave [newcomers] standing there alone wondering, ‘What in the world is going on?’ You have to welcome them and let them know that this is a safe place to find fellowship and help. But it’s also important not to scare them off.”
Church consultant Herb Miller tells another story of a pastor who traveled to Egypt to visit an ancient Coptic desert monastery. The pastor was astounded by the welcome that he received. The monks treated him as if he were the one and only important guest they had been awaiting since the monastery had been established in the 12th century. They served him a fine meal, showed him to a very comfortable room, and brought him a a bouquet of fresh flowers. Then the abbot of the monastery, Father Jeremiah, came by to welcome him personally. “Wow!” exclaimed the pastor, “you sure know to welcome visitors.” Father Jeremiah replied, “We always treat guests as if they were angels, just to be on the safe side.”
As Paul so eloquently put it in his letter to the Romans, we should strive to “outdo one another in showing honor. . . and [be careful to] extend hospitality to strangers.”
We happen to be in a time of transition right now and a period when we are trying to make some positive changes so as to better meet the needs of people of all ages, but especially young families. So, what if an angel were to drop in to visit us? Or what if a church spy were to visit to do a study of our church? What would he or she find? Would they find a welcome home here? May such be a thought to take home with us on this Homecoming Sunday. Amen.
1Taken from “’Spies’ report on unfriendliness, apathy in churches” by Terry Mattingly, News Sentinel, Saturday, September 7, 2013.