On Sunday I attended a church in our community for the first time. My wife and I are new residents in the area and want to be part of a church in this community. My wife was working (the joys of retail), so I pulled into the parking lot by myself about 10 minutes prior to the beginning of the Sunday worship service.
My overall experience was positive and encouraging. As a former pastor, I try to be a regular Joe when I am visiting a new church. I want to experience the day as one who is totally new to the whole church going thing. At the same time I cannot help but pay attention to certain aspects that might escape the notice of others.
Hopefully this article will be of help to others who might be considering attending a church for the first time. Church leaders might also glean a thing or two about their own churches. Rick Ezell has penned a helpful article for church leaders, 5 Must-Know Facts About First-Time Guests. His section about friendliness is right on target.
As I entered the building, I received the typical warm greeting from those distributing the church bulletins. As I walked toward a seat the pastor briefly greeted me. I then sat down and visually took in the worship room and read through the bulletin. After the bulletin person and the pastor, nobody greeted me until after the service. Most of the regular people appeared to be coming in just in time for the start of the service. I later learned that coffee was being had down a hallway in the fellowship hall. Leaders, perhaps it would be wise for some of the regular members to be in the location that new people will arrive.
When the service began, I was able to join other believers in a wonderful time of worship. About 200 or so folks joined a small band (2 guitars, piano and a drum) in singing. The songs were rich in theology and the sound was perfect. I am not sure whether it was good acoustics or joyful singing on the part of the congregation. It was probably both and I had no problem joining in song.
Prayer also played an integral part in the service. They clearly desired to communicate with our great God. The pastor preached a 45 minute sermon that was solid and helpful. I heard the gospel clearly explained and applied with passion fitting the personality of the preacher.
The service was not without a couple of awkward moments. These were no big deal and did not distract from the purpose of worship. The first happened during the singing phase of the service. Like many churches, the words of the songs were displayed on two large screens at the front. (Better lighting would have made reading the screen a bit easier). One of the songs was not properly formatted to the screens. This is the phrase that was intended to be on the screen:
I will sing forever…
However, the words were aligned to the right of the screen and not all of the letters made it onto the screen. Instead of the intended phrase, this was the displayed phrase:
I will sin forever…
I had to chuckle to myself. Even if the theology of man’s depravity had been intended, I would hope that we would not be celebrating it.
The other awkward moment came during the offering time. If church leaders knew how much awkwardness happens during this time, they would come up with a better way of receiving the offering. I had my guest information sheet completed and was ready to drop it in the offering plate. I was sitting in the middle of a section with empty seats on either side of me. As the lady on my left was jockeying with the usher to get the plate to me, the lady on my right was ready for me to take her offering plate and pass it along. The lady on the right finally said, “Here” as she made sure I did not miss the opportunity to be holding two offering plates at one time. I dropped my sheet into the first plate and tried to be inconspicuous in getting the plates back to their respective ushers on each of the two aisles.
As the service ended, I was deciding whether to stroll quickly out to my car or linger and perhaps meet a person or two. My decision was made for me when a lady tapped me on my shoulder and asked, “Didn’t I see you at my garage sale yesterday?” Indeed she had. I had bought some nice things from her and had a conversation about college football. You know, the whole Oklahoma and Florida thing.
She told me about her experience as a church member and communicated a deep affection for the church. She introduced me to her mother who was likewise warm and welcoming. They told me that some of the people stay after the service and have lunch together in the fellowship hall. It is kind of a brown bag thing. She told me her husband had left to get KFC (I’ll refrain from any church and chicken jokes). They invited me to stay and eat of their food. I politely declined. Then the mother told me to plan on staying next week and she would bring food for me. I don’t think I can resist that offer.
As I was leaving, this lady wanted to introduce me to the pastor. He was kind and we chatted for a few moments. He did ask me if I had completed the guest information sheet. When I confirmed that I had, he asked if we could get together soon. I suggested coffee and he said he would call me on Monday.
I know pastors are busy. I was one for years. But I still haven’t received that phone call. It is not a big deal, but let me encourage leaders to follow through with these things. This is the second time in the past few years that a pastor has made a similar statement to me and has not followed through with it. It will not effect my decision to return or be a part of the church, but it might for some people.
Again, my experience as a first time guest was very positive and encouraging. I am looking forward to taking further steps with this body of believers.
Has your experience as first time guest in a church been positive or negative? What made it so? Any awkward moments? I would love to read your comments below.