I love visitors at our church. Thankfully we are in a season of seeing dozens of visitors each week. It excites me.
Through the years I’ve observed church visitors and how they go about discerning the right church for them. There isn’t a “system” for doing this…and I don’t think there should be…but I have developed some suggestions for people based on what I’ve observed.
With that in mind…
Here are 10 tips for visiting a church:
Check out the website – Most churches now have a website. It’s the first place people seem to go to when checking out our church. Look through it as your discerning whether or not a church fits your family’s needs. The pages that seem to get the most attention are the staff page, age-graded ministries and anything about what we believe or what to expect when you arrive. Pay close attention to the schedule of services or activities you plan to attend.
Plan your route – On a first visit, you’ll feel uncomfortable being late, so figure out ahead of time how long it will take you to get there. By the way, it’s more uncomfortable for you if you’re late than us, so come in anyway, but avoiding doing so will make for a better first visit.
Arrive early – Plan to arrive at least 10 to 15 minutes earlier than the service starts. You’ll want to find the best seat. You may need to get your family situated in their respective areas. You may want to read some of the printed information made available before the service starts. You will be better acclimated to the room and more comfortable when the service begins.
Pre-register if an option – Lots of churches now allow you to register your children before arriving. It saves time and makes the check in process smoother once you arrive.
Don’t leave immediately – Some of the most dedicated volunteers and usually the staff are still hanging around. You’ll get a chance to interact on a deeper level and ask questions. Plus, you can learn a lot about the fellowship of a church by whether or not people linger.
Dig deeper – Hopefully the church is conscious of their first impression and trying to put their best foot forward for visitors, but this is not always true. Some great churches miss it with first time visitors. Give them a chance beyond that. Who knows? You may be there to help them improve that experience for others in the future.
Make the most of your visit – It can be uncomfortable, but if you really want to experience the church, attend a Sunday school class or Bible study if offered. Find out about discipleship opportunities if they happen elsewhere. Figure out how people get plugged in and serve. You’ll need these activities for any church to ever truly feel like home.
Ask questions – Don’t assume. Ask. Many times something you don’t understand has a valid reasoning behind it.
Consider where you can grow and serve best – Church should be selected based on more than whether you liked a worship service. That’s certainly part of it, but where can God use you and your family best? Where will you best grow?
Consider a second visit – Don’t mark a church off unless it were obvious why you’re doing so. Sometimes it takes several visits before you know if a church is right for you.
Those are my suggestions. Obviously, you should do all this in a spirit of prayer. What suggestions do you have when visiting a church?
We had a situation recently where a staff member felt the need to make a change in his area of ministry. It would save the church lots of money, is more in line with our vision, and would have a greater Kingdom impact. Sounds like a no-brainer to me.
It’s the best decision.
Problem? It’s changing the way something has been done for years and something that is very popular.
We are a 104 year old church. Every church acclimates towards a defined structure…an established way of doing things…some traditions. Even if that tradition is continual change (which this church is not), every church (and every organization) forms a unique DNA of how things are done. In our setting, it’s developed into a highly structured environment of systems and procedures, which makes change more difficult than in some churches. This is not atypical of an older, established church.
We talked about what would have to be done in order for this change to be successful. Who to talk to. Which committees need to weigh in. Who the influencers are in this area of ministry. Part of being an established, highly structured church.
His statement hit me hard. It’s one I think we often confuse in making organizational changes, probably especially in the church. (Which is often very slow to accept change.)
He said, “I just hate having to be so political in making what we know is the best decision.”
I completely understand his concern, but it’s in that statement that exists the confusion.
I said to him, “You have already made the right decision. That’s what we will do. We just have to be strategic in the implementation.”
And that is what it takes to make disciples…to grow a church…to stop stagnation.
Make the right decision.
The best decision. Use collaboration not control, but do what is best for the church or organization.
Not the one that makes you popular, or even the one that causes the least conflict, but the wisest, most promising decision. That’s good leadership.
But be strategic in the implementation.
Take your time. Establish trust. Build consensus. Talk to the right people. Even compromise on minor details if necessary. Accommodate special requests if possible and if it doesn’t affect the outcome. Be political if needed. It’s part of the process, especially in a highly structured environment. (Does that describe any churches you know?)
Structured environments shouldn’t keep you from making the right decisions involving change. They just alter the implementation process.
Knowing this difference provides freedom to visionary pastors and leaders in highly structured environments. You can make the change. You can. You’ll just have to be smarter about how and when you make them.
Do you understand the difference in decision making and implementation? How does that shape your process of making change?
Here is an example of a common question I receive:
My church is not growing. People come but they do not stay. We’ve analyzed all the majors and feel we are doing what we should but they do not stay. Any thoughts please?
I receive something similar almost weekly. I wish I had answers every time. I don’t. Most of the time I know many times they can’t afford a consultant (or don’t think they can, but should consider the investment), so I try to give them a few suggestions, in the limited time I have, to think through their issues.
Here is an expanded version of my typical answer:
It’s hard to diagnose here without more information. I do believe God wants the church to grow. We are to make disciples and part of discipleship is make more disciples. That in and of itself is growth.
A few quick comments first:
- God is in charge of the numbers. People can disagree with me (and do) when I say I believe healthy churches are growing. Some grow in different ways. Some internally and some by raising up people who go outside the church to make disciples. Regardless of how growth occurs, all of us must agree God is ultimately in control.
- The Holy Spirt grows people and therefore the church. We aren’t without responsibility in doing our part. We’ve been given an assignment to be a body with many parts, but we don’t ultimately grow people or churches.
- Churches go through seasons, just as individual believers do. There are seasons we grow more than others and seasons we are simply maturing to grow later.
- There are no cookie cutter answers. Just as God makes people unique, churches are unique because they are comprised of unique people.
With those clarifications, here are a few quick thoughts to help you discern your particular situation:
1. Do a survey of anyone who visited in the last year. Ask them why they stayed or didn’t stay. Ask them for ideas they have to improve a visitors experience. Ask them how they found the church. Be prepared for some hard answers, but you may discover things you aren’t seeing.
2. Do a church wide/or leadership wide half day brainstorming session, depending on the size of your church. You want enough people to have a wide range of ideas, but not so many that you never get anything accomplished. I’ve done this with 12 and I’ve done it with 100. That’s getting a little large, but you don’t want to exclude people who are genuinely concerned and want to help the church. I prefer people who have positive dispositions, but you need a range of thought. You might even bring someone in to facilitate this process. Many times there are answers in the room that come from collected thinking. Ask, why aren’t people staying and what can we do?
You may need to do a second half day, perhaps with a smaller group, to summarize and make conclusions from the feedback of the larger group. In my experience, you will produce some key thoughts from an exercise like this which will spur momentum, in addition to creating renewed energy among these key leaders. (But you’ll have to act on some of the suggestions.)
3. Pay a community member (or a professional consultant if you can afford it) to “secret shop” your church and give you honest feedback. You can often find someone to do this free of charge simply to help the church, but there are professionals who know what to look for in a church visit. Many times we can’t see what’s missing on our own.
The bottom line is that you’ll have to do something intentional to get the answers you don’t have. There are good church consultants out there if you want to take that step. Let me know if you want some names and contact information. But, keep asking the questions you’re asking. Our mission as a church hasn’t changed, but the culture around us is changing rapidly. We must continue to grow as church leaders in order to continue to make new disciples.
Praying for you.
How would you respond?
As you may know, I recently entered into a season of church revitalization. I’ve done something similar previously in ministry. My first church was similar.
Then I assisted in the planting of two churches (as a senior leader of both) and fell in love with the energy I saw in starting something new. At the same time, I continued to be concerned for churches like the one in which I was raised. The church that has seen better days. I became more convinced that we need new energy in both.
So here I am again. And, this experience is giving me the opportunity, fueled by this platform, to speak not only to church planters (who I still love by the way), but also those who are attempting church revitalization. In the process. I’m learning some things. There appear to be some vital elements for a healthy revitalization to occur.
Granted, the Holy Spirit must show up and God must be glorified. That can admittedly happen with a room of donkeys, but in general terms, working with normal church people (whatever that means ) there are components which need to be in place to see a church revitalize.
Here are 7 vital components in church revitalization:
Admitting you need to revitalize – That’s hard isn’t it? Recently a senior member of our church visited another church that has undergone revitalization. She saw the excitement and came back with a new understanding. Her comment to one of our staff members was, “We have to change some things, don’t we? We don’t have a choice!” The church as a whole must come to that level of understanding.
Letting go of right to control - This is what makes or breaks revitalization in many churches. If the “No Change Allowed” sign is hung…or even the “but not that change”…on issues that aren’t even Biblical, then revitalizing the church will be very difficult.
A vision of something better – What’s next for this church? Where are we going? How are we going to get there? There must be a compelling vision, such as loving a community for Christ and clear avenues for people to be involved in reaching that vision.
A history worth revitalizing – This will be the toughest part of this post. There are some toxic churches that seem to have never been healthy. They’ve run off every pastor they’ve called. Many of these churches wouldn’t follow Jesus well either. They are stuck in systems and personal agendas and aren’t going to budge. (I realize that’s a cruel statement, but it’s a sad reality.)
Leadership willing to lead change – This is more than the pastor. In many cases, the pastor is only the figure head of vision and change. Change is hard. It requires trusted leaders within the church willing to step up and lead along side the pastor. I wrote recently the difference in trust and popularity as a leader. Read that post HERE and understand the difference. It’s what makes collective leadership that much more important, especially in the early days of revitalization.
The tenacity to weather storms – It won’t be easy. It’s far easier to start something than to try to grow again after a period of decline. Some pastors, leaders and churches have the patience. Some don’t.
A few committed people – You need some people already established in the church who love the church more than their personal agenda. These might be leaders or might not. Many times newer people attracted during times of change don’t have the roots or credibility to do this. As great as they are…and even with them as a primary focus…the church needs longer term people to embrace a new future. These people have to support the pastor, speak up for the changes and create an atmosphere conducive for growth again.
Well, those are my candid observations. They aren’t based solely on opinion, but they certainly aren’t a product of extensive research either. They are derived from hundreds of conversations with other pastors and personal experience.
What do you think?
I believe the church is to be a cultural change agents in our communities, but the truth is that many coffee shops have taken some of that responsibility. Starbucks supposedly began trying to be the “Third Place” for the community. Borrowing from a sociological theory by Roy Oldenburg of everyone wanting a place besides home and work in which to feel welcome, Starbucks has become the “Cheers” place where if I come often enough everyone knows my name. There was even a sign in Starbucks recently inviting customers to serve the community with them. The church I pastor has a Gather, Grow and Serve strategy of discipleship. Starbucks appears to capture two of those attempts.
Regardless of whether you believe coffee shops can change culture, the newest one in Lexington, KY raises the bar in a coffee shop experience. And, frankly, I believe they are better engaging the community with their mission than many churches are with theirs.
And personally, I believe…
Can learn something from this coffee shop experience.
A Cup of Commonwealth opened recently in Lexington. I frequent a lot of coffee shops, but I was out of town the week they opened. I caught them in their second week. Wow! They blew me away with the excitement and energy they have rapidly created. Owners Salvador Sanchez and Chris Ortez impressed me greatly.
Here are a few observations:
They know their stuff – Coffee 101 not, this is coffee expertise at work. One of the owners, Salvador, (Most folks seemed to call him Sal, but he introduced himself to me as Salvador. Probably because he saw me as old enough to be his parent.) told me he had been Central America to tour coffee productions. They spoke the coffee language (which I don’t, but many do).
They created an experience – It was an enthusiastic atmosphere. The place was enjoyable. They joked with customers. They had unique offerings. Apparently things have changed just since they opened with some of their decor. (And will change weekly)
They have vision – It is clear they want to provide exceptional coffee in a way that engages the community. (The picture above is painted on their wall.) Nothing appeared to distract them from this vision.
They acclimated first timers – Every time someone entered the door, if they didn’t know them, they took them through a mini tour of the experience. It wasn’t a canned presentation, but it provided the basic information one would need to understand the uniqueness of this place.
They engage comfortably – They made everyone feel welcome, but they seemed to interact with you depending on your level of interest. If you simply wanted a cup of coffee, they learned that soon enough to leave you alone, but if you wanted someone to talk to, you got that also.
They followed through – The next day they connected with me on Facebook. They actually “liked” some of my posts.
They provided quick entry to feel a part of the vision – The most unique item was their “Pay It Forward” board. A large, handwritten piece of paper hangs on the wall. (See picture below.) It contains drink orders prepaid for future customers. You can take one or add one. You can make up unique requirements for the type person you are looking to bless. (An attorney. A homeless person. Someone willing to sing a song. Etc.) I bought a large cup of coffee for someone besides my own. In 10 days, I was told they’d been through 4 of these large pieces of paper.
It was interesting to watch how quickly customers were engaging in something exciting…something unique…something they felt gives back to the community.
Of course, the key to all this will be whether or not they can sustain this energy. Apparently when I entered, 10 days after opening, the two owners are the only employees. They are new and excited. If they can, however, I believe they have a very successful business model.
But, I’m not in the coffee business. I am a church leader. I always want to be learning how I can do what I do better. And, honestly, I learned some things from this coffee shop experience.
Anything jump out at you that could improve what you do at your church?
(Okay, I have been blogging long enough to already anticipate the push back on even my logic behind this post. Some don’t think the church should or even can learn anything from the secular world. The Bible is our guide. I hear that. I’m a Bible guy. Cover to cover. But, let me ask you…where did you learn how to write a church bulletin…or even to have one? Who taught you how to register kids in preschool? Please quote chapter and verse if you choose to answer.)
The calendar indicates a year has past since I began my new ministry position as pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church. You can read about it HERE. I left the church planting world to pastor a historic, 104 year old church. People ask me all the time how it’s going. Recently I was talking with a friend and he reminded me of an old saying, “You’ll accomplish less than you thought you would in a year and more than you thought in five years.”
That’s probably true, but, by God’s grace, we’ve accomplished a lot. It’s been a whirlwind. In some ways it seems we’ve been here forever and other ways it seems we just arrived.
I’m asked consistently how it’s going. Here’s a quick recap. If you read my blog often, you know I’m transparent. I have the opportunity to share with literally thousands of pastors daily through this medium, so I try to share honestly what I am experiencing.
We’ve had an incredible year. It’s been amazing to see God at work. Cheryl and I have “mostly” enjoyed the experience. There have been some hard days. Change is hard. Sometimes anything new is hard. But, overall it’s been good.
So for some quick reflections…
Most exciting parts
- Making new friends (and we’ve made many quickly)
- Celebrating incredible growth
- Increased baptisms
- Seeing a stellar staff develop
- New families attending and joining
- Meeting budget
- Seniors who love seeing the church grow again
- Renewed enthusiasm and momentum in the church
- Strategic plans that are coming together…to make more disciples
- Embracing a community
I’ve never been one to sugar coat an issue, but let me be clear that every negative leadership post this past year has not been about my time here. Most have had little or no direct relation. But, it’s been a challenge at times. Even frustrating some days.
Most challenging parts.
- Fighting battles that don’t matter in an eternal sense
- Gossip or indirect conversations
- Limitations caused by structure or traditions of men
- Getting people to think beyond what’s always been done
- Redeveloping trust
I realize these are “normal” issues in churches. I’m not complaining. Just reporting. God is moving and I’m happy to be a part of what He is doing “for such a time as this”.
Finally, I’m excited about the potential in the days ahead. There was a part of us that questioned whether we could lead a church this age to better days. And, a year is probably not yet a good indicator, but if this year is a precursor of days ahead…we are in for an exciting time.There are many potentials in the days ahead.
- A few major projects yet to be announced
- Community involvement
- Men’s and women’s ministries
- Discipleship opportunities
- The best days are still to come.
That’s my year. Anything specific you’d want me to expand upon in other posts?
Tell me about your past 12 months.
I recently wrote 7 Ways a Leader Has a Better Weekend. Read that post before you read this one. The most repeated response I received to that post, however, was “Where is the one for pastors?” or “Can you write one for pastors?”
Actually, I thought I was writing for pastors too, but obviously I need to add a little clarity. So, here goes. (By the way, I previously wrote 7 Ways I Protect My Sabbath.)
How does a pastor have a great weekend?
Here are 7 ways:
Plan ahead – Sunday is coming. It comes about the same time every week. And, so should be your Sabbath. It should come every week. I know too many pastors who wait to the last minute to get prepared. They may let everything else distract them during the week, and at the end of the week they have no choice but to cram for a message. I plan my week knowing I’m going to take a day off at the end of the week.
Delegate – Equip people. Lead leaders. This is so critical if you want to disciple others and be effective in your own pastorate. When you believe you are the one who has to do things, or has to know everything, you’ll be married to a ministry more than your spouse. Your schedule will be dictated by ministry needs, which are endless, more than by ministry objectives, which builds disciples.
Entrust people – This may appear the same but some need to hear it again. The fact is, many who think they know how to delegate actually don’t. They assign tasks, but they never delegate responsibility or ownership. In the end, they end up being just as involved in a project as if they’d never delegated. If you think you can do it all or you’re even supposed to you’re going to eventually hit a brick wall. I realize your church sometimes puts undue pressure on you to be everywhere and know everything, but you may have to learn better how to lead the church to a healthier (and more Biblical) reality. You may certainly need to learn to protect your family and your Sabbath.
Write your sermon all week – Get the main idea. Just one. Put it in your schema. All week build on that idea. I use Evernote and I’m consistently adding thoughts to the file for messages. I may have messages I’m building upon that won’t be preached for six months. It makes writing a sermon much easier when I have notes already in place that were spurred from my heart and mind through daily living.
Be willing to say no – It’s amazing how many pastors resist my encouragement on this one. They think they have to be everywhere, even on the weekend. Every social. Every invitation. Everything the church does. I’ve even had church members say “that’s what I’m paid to do”. They want me available when they want me available. I know pastors who agree. The problem is this isn’t practical for my personal health or the health of my family, especially longterm. Which ultimately is not health for the church. Pastor, if you would teach your church to honor the sabbath then shouldn’t you lead the way?
Listen to your spouse and family – If you are not sure if you are protecting your family or personal time…ask them. Give them the opportunity to speak into your life. Ask them if they think ministry gets in the way of your time with them. Ask them to be honest, but to tell you which they think you love more…them or your ministry. (Wow…will you really ask that?…even I’m not sure you should. Actually, I think you already know the answer…whichever it is.) Before I get the emails, let me be clear I’m not talking about your love for Christ. That always comes first. But, love (or devotion) for ministry doesn’t always originate out of love for Christ. Many times it originates simply out of a sense of obligation that’s man made not God inspired. Make sure you’re following Christ more than traditions of men. And make sure your honoring your family over any other human relationship.
Have a true Sabbath – Your weekend may not look like everyone else’s, but you can have one. You can do a Monday and Saturday combination or a Friday and Saturday, whatever works best in your setting. Again, don’t be ruled by what society says is a weekend. Just be ruled by the truth that you need rest. I work six days most weeks. I don’t recommend it unless you’re wired that way. But on my day off…I’m off. It is rare for anything to interrupt that day, except for unavoidable occurrences, (which obviously occur in ministry or outside of ministry). This sounds so harsh to some people, but I don’t mean it to be. I didn’t make up the idea of a Sabbath. I’m just trying to actually live it.
Those are my suggestions. I’m not trying to add more pressure to already stressed out pastors. I love you guys. I’m one of you. I just know you need your Sabbath. You need your rest. God seems to think so too. If you want to last for the long run…honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Pastors, who enjoy great weekends (great Sabbaths), what would you add?
A recent conversation on a Sunday went something like this:
Staff member: Where is everyone?
Me: It’s summer.
Staff member: But, it still seems low, even for summer.
Me: This is still up percentage wise well over last year…
Staff member: But, it doesn’t feel like it.
Me: No, it never does.
The next day I received an email from a church staffer at another church. His question prompted this post. He wondered how to handle the long days of summer, when church crowds are smaller, budgets are tighter, and volunteers are harder to find.
Honestly, it can be disappointing if you focus on attendance alone. And, anyone who says they don’t is simply much more mature than I am. You recently celebrated the crowds of Easter. One of the highest times of attendance is followed shortly after by this…the dog days of summer. (I know some churches that are equally impacted seasonally, but at other times of the year.)
The fact is the time to prepare a summer sermon takes as long as sermon preparation does in September. Or it should. But fewer people may hear it. At least in person. If you are not intentional it can be discouraging.
What should the church do during the summer months?
Here are a few thoughts:
Plan and budget accordingly – Recognize the obvious. People are going to be traveling more. The lakes will be full of boats. If your church has them, this will include paid staff, but certainly volunteers. You know it’s coming. Plan for it. Intentionally.
Find ways to stay in touch – Emails are even more important. Facebook, church newsletters and websites become even more valuable. You want people to hear from you and know what is happening even when they aren’t always there. Information helps people feel and remain connected.
Enter in with lower expectations, not lower presentations – Less people may be with you Sunday, but the people who are there shouldn’t suffer because of it. What they receive may be different. You may not have the volunteers or staff to pull off a full schedule of activities, but what you put together shouldn’t suffer in excellence. The fact is people will visit in the summer, sometimes even more so than during the fall or winter. Churched people aren’t the only ones out of their routine. Unchurched people often have more open schedules and are open to visiting if they are invited.
Plan for flexibility – Realize last minute trips will occur and people you thought would be there may quickly decide not to be. I like for the summer series, for example, to have a central theme but each week be able to stand alone. (This is not a bad idea anytime of year, because people who attend less regularly are more likely to return if they aren’t intentionally made to feel they missed something. Ideally there should be a encouragement to want to be there next week, but not a slam for missing last week. That’s a delicate balance.) Something is likely to come up with me also and someone else might need to preach. This makes it easier. We sometimes preach through a book of the Bible or some theme from the Bible. This summer we are doing Bible stories of adventure…people who took risks for their faith. If anyone preaches for me this summer, there are plenty of stories from which to choose.
Carry this flexible attitude throughout all ministries of the church during the summer. It could be, in children’s programs, that you plan more large group activities for when teachers are on short supply. You may need to pull volunteers from one area to help in another area. However it works for your church, just create a summer culture of being flexible.
Do a few special events to boost averages – Special occasions build excitement and sustain momentum through the summer months. Ice cream socials. Outdoor baptisms. Pizza parties and swim parties for youth. Dinner on the grounds. Vacation Bible School. One day concerts. They serve a purpose. We are doing a high attendance emphasis this summer. It’s really just a branding emphasis to “invite a friend”, and obviously the goal is lower than a similar day in the fall, but the hope is to boost attendance for a day. I hear from teachers frequently that they lose ground with students over the summer. It can be that way with churches too. Plan some opportunities to keep engaged.
Use the time to prepare for Fall – People will return from vacation. School will start back. People will return to church whom you’ve been missing. Will you be ready? Rest up. Plan. Prepare some exciting changes to implement. Relaunch.
Remember the vision – Again, it can be discouraging when less people are around for the summer. You simply miss getting to see some of the people. That’s a natural reaction, but remember your vision is for when two or more are gathered. The number isn’t as important as the mission being fulfilled. Celebrate what is happening and whoever comes if they are growing in Christ.
Summer can be a special time if you use it intentionally. And, remember, time flies. Fall will be here soon.
What ideas do you have for churches to “weather” the summer months?