First Impressions

I drove past a church sign last week (I am happy to say, NOT United Methodist) that proudly proclaimed, “Christ is Rised! Jesus is Load!”  Now, this might have been a mistake, though the church also has a banner outside advertising “Sevices 9 & 11.”  I don’t think these are cases of vandalism — no letters are moved around out-of-place, and they are all uniform.  So, the question, as I drove on was, “What is the meta-message being sent by such a sign?”  Do misspellings and poor grammar influence our decisions about whether to “try out”a church or not?  It started me thinking on a whole host of issues related for a church enamored with “radical hospitality.”

I have had the opportunity to worship in hundreds and visit thousands (literally) of different churches of all shapes, sizes, ages, and locations.  In my consultant role, I made it a normal practice to arrive early and walk the community, inspect the church inside and out, and poke in corners, closets, and behind closed doors.  What I found most often is the church equivalent of what retailers call “store blindness” — a wide variety of clutter, decay, mess, and disrepair that we simply become blind to over time, but that jumps out at first time “customers.”

Now, I want to be clear up front.  I’m not talking “big-ticket,” costly changes.  The number one defense I have heard over the years for our saggy, sorry, stricken state is that we don’t have money.  This won’t fly.  Some of our prettiest, best kept, most attractive and appealing churches have few paid staff and extremely limited resources.  The care of the local church depends not on money, but a sense of ownership and pride on the part of the congregation.  This truly is a case of many hands making light work.  It is nothing more or less than the answer to the question, “How much do we care?”

Some illustrations, from the simple to the, well, basically still simple:

  • weeds, branches, leaves, dead plants, etc. around the property
  • broken signs, chipped paint, dirty windows, dirty carpets, memorial dust from the 1970s
  • in one church, I sat and counted 63 dried fly carcasses on a window sill
  • bags of “stuff” stacked around the narthex
  • inadequate or non-existent signage
  • one service I attended invited me to “enter the sanctuary in silence to prepare my heart and mind for worship,” but when I sat down I was treated to twenty-minutes of worship leaders frantically trying to get the DVD player and projector to work.  The research in this area is overwhelming — it is better NOT to use technology than to use it poorly.  Those who it most successfully report that they use Saturday for rehearsal — Sunday morning is NOT the time to work out problems.
  • doors in poor condition — it is a fact of human nature, people don’t like going through ugly doors.  It lowers their impression of the whole building they are entering.
  • Sad, tattered, faded “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” banners.  They were beautiful when we put them up, but they’ve been up so long we don’t even see them anymore.  Guess what?  Other people do see them and they wonder why we leave them up when they are in such sorry condition.
  • cluttered chancel areas — I’m still wondering about a single, muddy boot that sat on the edge of the altar table through the entire worship service in a small church I visited a few months ago…
  • “stuff” in hymnals and pew racks — I recently opened a hymnal to find copies of old bulletins from October, January, and February tucked in strategic locations.  Out of curiosity, I picked up another hymnal at random, and found similar treasures.
  • “secret code” — the sign on the door read: “T.N.T.- sanc., UMW – S. Wesley, Men – Gr. Chap., Circuit – Comm. Rm.”  What possible chance does a visitor have of knowing what the h%#!  is going on here?

Believe it or not — right or wrong — these things make a huge difference.  How do I know?  I asked people — for years in my survey work with the General Board of Discipleship.  I did a specific study of visitors to United Methodist Churches who chose not to come back, to find out why.  The short answer is simply that we made a very poor first impression.  We unintentionally communicated a variety of negative messages: that we don’t know what we’re doing, that we don’t care much about our church, that we’re sloppy, that we’re careless, that we’re lazy, that we’re low-class, that we’re ignorant.  Many of these impressions and opinions may be unfair, but perception is strong and these are all perceptions that people shared with me over the years about our United Methodist Churches.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, the old saying goes.  There is a deep truth to this for churches.  79% of visitors visit a church only once (this includes those who come for baptisms, weddings, and funerals).  In our pursuit of “radical hospitality” we need to understand that this is not just about how we act and what we say.  It is not just in helping people be more welcoming, but also in making our spaces more welcoming and attractive.  A person does not feel welcome if they do not feel comfortable.  An important aspect of hospitality is to be mindful and intentional about eliminating those things that make visitors and guests uncomfortable.

In 2008, we United Methodists added a “witness” to our membership vows.  But what is our congregational witness in the community?  It is a complex blend of what we say, what we do, what we give, how we serve, and the impact we make on the lives of those we come in contact with.  Our witness is how we are known by others — it is our reputation within the congregation and beyond to the community and world.  How we are seen by others matters.  It may be worthwhile for each of us to take some time to reflect on what kind of first impression (and second, and third, and fiftieth, and hundredth…) we are currently making, and see if there isn’t anything we might do to make it better.

5 replies

  1. What about smell? There is a very distinctive church smell – a sort of un-aired laundry, old-folks home, damp basement smell that only decades of lightly used Sunday School materials hoarded under stairs seem to be able to generate. You can walk into a church and know instantly that they haven’t opened the place since last Sunday. It speaks volumes to visitors.

    • It is incredible how much odor one fifty-year-old felt board can retain… You are spot on (unfortunately).

    • When we moved into this building, that smell was everywhere, especially the office! I try to leave open all the doors to the rooms when I’m working, although air circulation isn’t the greatest. It is improving!

  2. Amen.

    One challenge I’ve faced as a pastor committed to making a positive impression and removing unnecessary obstacles to Christ and his Church is the sense that my saying, “That really looks awful,” is an unloving condemnation of something that someone (unfortunately) finds attractive. This includes gangly plants, Christmas trees left up all year and photos of church related things (prohibition league, anyone?) that are extremely out of date and/or ugly.

    I’ve also wondered: how can church leaders point to little things that make a big difference (doors, etc) without seeming petty or becoming “small-souled” (i.e. the opposite of magnanimous).

    Suggestions?

  3. Well, I tend to agree with Dan, tho I am Chief Among the Messies. My office/study was pretty much off-limits on account of my piling system.

    OTOH, I served a small rural congregation and was always delighted to meet with laughter as I entered the small country chapel each Sunday morning. It was the genuine sense of welcome that most anyone (I think) received from the folks there that may have counter-balanced the “memorial dust from the 1970s” and any number of fly carcasses (and Ladybugs–never forget Ladybugs).

    Casey T: ISTM that two ways to point out the sort of things that guests notice and regulars don’t might be to just say so–and why, and maybe to point out such things to those who have some sort of informal influence within the congregation, so that they will then bring up the matter from the inside in order to get it taken care of.

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