The first thing Chuck Lawless noticed when he entered the church foyer was that the welcome center was empty, which made it pretty hard for a newcomer to feel welcomed on a routine Sunday morning.
After several minutes of hanging around trying to look conspicuous, a staff member at this particular Pennsylvania congregation approached him and asked if he needed help. Lawless asked a perfectly normal newcomer question: Was there a small-group Bible study of some kind that he could visit?
Unaware that Lawless was a trained "church spy" who was there conducting research, the staffer gave a surprisingly candid answer: "Do you want to visit a friendly one?"
By all means, said Lawless. He was then taken to a large, empty room, where he deliberately sat next to the door. This meant that every person who entered the class -- approximately 60 in all -- had to walk past him.
"It was a wonderful class, with a real sense of community," said Lawless, who is an evangelism professor and the graduate dean at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. "People shared what was happening in their lives and some people shed tears as others prayed for them. It was really nice. ...
"Not a single person spoke to me or asked what I was doing there. And this was their friendly class."
Later, while preparing his confidential report, Lawless asked one of the church's leaders why the class members were so unfriendly. The blunt answer: "That's just our culture around here."
Actually, consultants who do church "spy" work know that outsiders rarely receive warm, friendly welcomes when they visit most American congregations, said Lawless, who does most of his work on these issues through the Society for Church Consulting in Louisville, Ky.
Apathy is the norm in many congregations, and their leaders -- ordained or among the laity -- tend to fall into other predictable traps as well, which he included in a recent online essay entitled, "Eight Confessions of Church Spies." But everything starts with whether or not church people are friendly and welcoming.
"We tell our church spies that we want them to be alert -- from their arrival in the parking lot until they walk out the door -- to just how many people intentionally seek to interact with them in a friendly manner," said Lawless in a telephone interview. "We tell them to count everything except for that moment in the service when the pastor tells everyone to turn around a greet visitors. If the pastor tells people to do something, then it doesn't count."
Other consistent problems include church websites that are boring, broken or full of out-of-date information, as well as church facilities that include few if any signs to help visitors find their way around.
Lawless noted that many churches seem to have no strategic vision for how to help newcomers, other than one or two people at the front door with "greeter" badges pinned to their chests. Some churches don't have clearly marked guest parking. Many are poorly equipped to promise parents that their children will be safe and secure.
Way too many boring, abstract, Bible-deficient sermons? Check.
Music ministries that show a lack of effort or, just as bad, feature worship-team leaders who are hamming it up like they're on a TV soundstage? Check.
"We tell our spies ... that if it seems like they have walked into an 'American Idol' show, then they have to include that in their reports," said Lawless.
In the end, the most important thing clergy and laypeople must realize is that many visitors who dare to walk through their doors are there because they are experiencing some kind of crisis in their lives. They are seeking help and a sense of community, said Lawless, but they are also afraid of being ambushed and smothered.
Most newcomers and seekers are "afraid of being asked questions that they are not ready to answer. They're afraid of being embarrassed," he said. "They are afraid and they are confused and the last thing you can afford to do is leave them 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."
(Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)
(EDITORS: For editorial questions, please contact Kendra Phipps at email@example.com.)
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