I got a nice email from a pastor in Australia that set me to thinking. He writes:
I found your blog by accident and started reading it regularly, but for a time I thought you were having me on. I thought it was a joke site, because of the outrageous things you sometimes print — like about preachers lying and studying the Bible not being important — but then I read comments other people write. Lordy, it makes me realize that there is a whole world out there that I don’t know anything about. I can’t believe there are people out there thinking like that. I love your blog (even if you are a Methodist) and thank you for showing me the world through a fresh set of eyes.
“Fresh set of eyes,” is a nice, gratifying description of what I do, but it is an important concept for our churches seeking improvement and growth. When I did the research of the healthiest churches in United Methodism, one of the striking characteristics was the reliance on mentors, coaches, and resource people from outside the congregation. For those of us immersed in our own environment, we often become blind to what others see. In a time when our church is so desperately seeking growth and attempting to grasp “radical hospitality” and has added “witness” to its list of membership expectations, it seems interesting that we don’t do more to foster congregational and connectional self-awareness. What we do and how we present ourselves is as important — perhaps moreso — than what we say.
I’m going to try to be very careful here to talk only about things that don’t cost money. Many of our buildings are in sad disrepair and often ministries are understaffed and under resourced. To change these things takes money, and money becomes our primary excuse for not making improvements. I am going to focus on ways we can improve our ministries at absolutely no financial cost (so we will have to come up with other excuses not to do them…)
One of the great opportunities I have in my current work as a Director of Connectional Ministries is to visit different churches on a weekly basis. Most of these churches I have never visited before — each one is a totally new experience for me. There are immediate impressions I get everywhere I go. How easy or difficult is it to get in the building? What are the first things I see when I enter a door? How easy is it to find my way through the building? How cluttered or neat are various areas? What kinds of messages are on the walls and windows? What congregational values are reflected in the space? These are not insignificant questions. They are the core data upon which most visitors will form an opinion. I know of a number of churches that regularly interview visitors about their impressions. They listen to hear what people think of the property and how well it is maintained. Weeds, trash, clutter, plants in need of attention, signage — these all speak volumes about how much people inside the church care about it. They listen to people’s opinions about cleanliness, clutter, and chaos. They listen to opinions about communication — what’s on the walls, windows, bulletin boards, literature racks, tables, and what it actually communicates to outsiders. They listen to people share stories about navigating the sometimes labyrithine corridors and hallways. They hear what people think of restrooms, nursery and childcare space, and public gathering areas. They even invite people to look in the kitchen, the office, the library, the parlor, the youth rooms, etc., to say whatever goes through their minds. They listen to people say what they see through a fresh set of eyes.
But they don’t just ask people of their impressions of the physical plant, but the emotional and spiritual spaces as well. How does the church make people feel? Is the atmosphere cheerful, somber, bright, subdued, lively or dead? Do the various spaces feel welcoming? What is the worship experience like for them? Have they experienced a class or small group, and what was it like? What was meaningful? Confusing? Exciting? Boring? What makes them want to come back? What makes them feel unlikely to return?
Pastors ask people to critique their leadership and their preaching. Worship leaders ask honest appraisals of the various services. Teachers invite people to give feedback about various classes and groups. People are asked to share impressions of fellowship and service opportunities. How is what we offer in ministry and service perceived by others? We benefit from a fresh set of eyes.
Even within the existing congregation we can invite those outside of our core groups to come in and observe. It is a healthy, though sometimes painful, reality check to see how we are viewed and understood by others. All levels of our church can benefit from critical analysis. There is no such thing as a dangerous question in a healthy system. Where mature leaders seek to faithfully serve, honor and glorify God, they need all the help they can get. Fresh eyes are all around us, and they come to us unbidden. Let’s make better use of them, and ask those who see us anew to tell us what they really think and feel. By God’s grace, with this kind of candor and honesty, we can only improve.