Several years ago, I found myself living in a new town eager to find a church in which I could participate. I visited several churches before I found the one I wanted to call home. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. If so, think back to the moment you knew you’d found the church you would call home. What was it that drew you, that made you feel comfortable, that connected you to God? For me, it was another worshipper, a random person in the congregation. It was before the service formally started. I was a graduate student, sitting alone in a pew about near the back of the sanctuary. And as I sat, awkwardly looking at the families around me, a lady walked over to where I was. She said “Good morning. I’m not sure we’ve met. What’s your name?” I gave her my name and she gave me hers. Then she asked, “Have you been here before?” It was my first Sunday, but I was actually relieved it wasn’t obvious. Or if it was, this kind woman made me feel welcome by not assuming I was first time guest. This church was the first church I’d visited where someone asked my name and truly made me feel welcome. I didn’t get a bulletin handed to me at arm’s length and the kind of stare that says, “You’re new here.” Instead, I met a person who asked about me before she started telling me about the church. As a result, I made that church my home while I lived in that town. It wasn’t the music or the preacher or the programming that drew me to the church, it was the way I was treated before the worship service really began.
This year, it rained on Easter Sunday. Not scattered showers or a fine drizzle, but a steady, soaking rain. People wore rain boots instead of dress shoes. We had expected a large crowd and prepared to make room for guests, out of town visitors, and family members who might come since it was Easter. We began to worry the rain would keep people from getting out. But in faith people would come, since it was Easter after all, some of our volunteers decided to go buy umbrellas. And our greeters stood out in the rain, in the parking lot, with the umbrellas, escorting people from their cars to the lobby. This simple, thoughtful act was one of our most talked about moments at our church.
Technically, people introducing themselves to each other isn’t part of a worship service. Neither is being escorted under an umbrella through the rain. However, both of these acts created an atmosphere for worship. Because I felt personally welcomed in a new church, I felt comfortable singing hymns and was more open to hearing the word proclaimed. And I’m confident the fact people were dry on an incredibly wet Easter morning helped them engage in worshiping the Risen Lord. They weren’t distracted by getting soaked, and they felt welcome having been greeted and served in the parking lot, before ever walking in the door of our church.
I’ve come to believe that if people are offended or distracted in the time they’re at our church, before the worship service formally starts, they are less likely to engage in the worship service. We try to think about what it feels like to walk into our church, to be greeted, to sit in the auditorium before the service begins. Are we making people feel welcome and at ease? Are there distractions that draw attention away from worship? Might guests feel awkward or singled out?
I encourage you to also think about what it feels like to walk into your church, to be greeted, to take a seat before the service. Is there anything about the experience that might distract people from thinking about worshiping God? Does the experience help guests feel welcome and at ease? If you’re not sure what this experience is like, since familiarity makes us blind to some of these things, ask a friend who doesn’t go to your church, or better yet any church, to come one Sunday and give you some feedback on how they felt to walk in and wait for the worship service to start.
If you want to read more on these ideas, check out Chapter Nine, “Creating Irresistible Environments” in Andy Stanley’s book Deep and Wide. We’ve found that book helpful for how we think about when and where our worship service starts. Not only that, but it’s helped us teach and train our volunteers. Stanley says “The sermon begins in the parking lot.” We’ve internalized that idea, and believe our worship services begin well before the formal welcome or call to worship. Our worship service begins when people walk from the parking lot into our doors. We try to do all we can to make people feel welcome and comfortable. And we pray this helps them engage God in a positive way, creating an atmosphere for worship.
Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 157.