A friend of mine and his wife went to a neighborhood (strip mall) church this week and the story kind of ticks me off. They were looking for someplace close to their house and thought they would give this one a try. Forgive the venting. I am sure the people there were nice and well meaning. My buddy is basically a “type B+ personality with occasional spurts to AA”, so that needs to be taken into account. But I know I can certainly learn from what happened.
This particular church “plant” is an offshoot of a mega-church mothership that prides itself on being a haven for people who feel uncomfortable with traditional church as they don’t know the “code”. When to stand, when to sit, what to say, when to say it, etc. This “plant” has been around for years, but is still less than 75 in attendance. Small, unintimidating neighborhood church. Should be perfect for this family. They were told service that night was “meet in the Sanctuary(seats about 150), then men go out in the lobby for bible study, women stay in the sanctuary for study”. Ok, letting new people know what to expect-good.
When my friends walked into the Sanctuary, they found keys, purses, bibles, newspapers, etc on most of the seats indicating either:
A. people were saving the seats or
B. the Rapture had happened and they had some SERIOUS theological errors.
Turns out it was A. This is a very small room so the feeling of being lost can get magnified with “all eyes on you” so for them, blending in to the new environment quickly was paramount.
They found a row that had two seats saved on each end and five open in the middle. Figuring this was their best bet, they tried it. When the guy who was saving two of the end seats came, they asked if he needed them to move down one more to which he replied “Actually, this whole row is saved.” Now they are embarrassed AND confused AND have to move.
No clear place to sit because now they KNEW they didn’t know what seats were saved. Being the patient sorts, they decided to just wait in the lobby until everyone split up into the two groups. Turns out it was “everyone in the Sanctuary for a half hour of worship THEN split into the two groups”. The ushers forgot that point. So this couple politely waits, certainly afraid to try to walk back in and make more of a spectacle of themselves.
When they finally break into groups, turns out the guy who made them move was the leader of the men’s group. Everything went fine from there so they decided to come back Saturday night. This would be where my buddy’s “B+” personality type comes in. He is a better, more gracious man than I. I’d have been dialing the pastor’s cell phone by this point.
Side note: There was no more than 40 people total there, yet there was no clear way to tell what an open seat was for all the car keys, purses, etc.
They get there to find the same thing. Bibles, keys, purses etc. So they find a row and a half (ie: 15 seats-remember, this is a small room) completely open. As they walk into it, NOW the usher pops up and explains that “those are saved for children. You can sit somewhere else, and if no children come, you can move to these.” What are these? VIP seats at a hockey arena? Ps-No signs.
As I understand it, a discussion was then had in the lobby between my friend, who I am sure went into his AAA mode, and who he said the usher deferred to. I am sure it was not a happy discussion. I can bet they were instructed on the finer points of signage if the church is going to reserve a section. Whether or not they will take the information he gave them, I don’t know, but I am sure he gave them a lot to consider. Glad I wasn’t on the receiving end.
So here’s the takeaway for me:
1. You can do whatever you want with “First Impressions”, name tags, coffee, free food, smiling happy people (I recommend not having compulsive huggers as greeters. Another error they made.), whatever. But if visitors can’t navigate the waters from car door to pew or seat comfortably and without feeling like a freak, they won’t like it. And it is all they will remember.
2. The “Culture of the Pew” is something that I know I need to take a look at. I wonder if what happens around people is directly influenced by senior leadership. If not, it should be.
3. It is obviously very easy to trade one set of “codes” for another.
Whether my friend will try church again is iffy. He’s pretty hot. And like I said, he leans toward the mellow B+ side…..