Attending a Church for the First Time

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.

The Entrance

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.

Solid Worship

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.

Awkward

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.

The Exit

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.

Your Experiences

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.

 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Jo Ann Baker

    WOW! I think your experience was terrific. Much better than mine since I’ve been up north. Church at St Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville was a part of our lives forever. So when I came up here I decided I needed to find a church. Well..I’ve been to several and found them all to be severely lacking in my expectations. Maybe I need to teach myself to go with NO expectations. First of all tried the Baptist church. Very small and not southern!!!! Just couldn’t go back. Next tried the Methodist church. Emily, Brett, and the children went with me. Everything about the physical church was great. (I have to accept that churches in my area are going to be much smaller than what I’m used to.) The sermon was very good and we discovered the “preacher” was the associate pastor as the senior pastor was on vacation. We completed the visitor cards and later that week did receive a post card in the mail welcoming us and inviting us back. I’ll tell you now, that’s the last we heard from them. We returned for the next 4 Sundays, finally met the senior pastor, and never heard another word from them even though I had “checked” the box on the visitor card requesting more information. Also I must note here that when I spoke with the senior pastor and thanked him for including several “Baptist” hymns in the service that day, he laughed and said “Well, you know we (Methodists) wrote them.” That was it for me. Have not visited any other churches in the area but am considering the Catholic church which is the largest denomination in the area. The Catholic church in my town is called “Cross in the Woods” and is a shrine, a tourist stop to see the largest outdoor crucifix in the nation. (Check it out on the internet. It’s spectacular!) And Catholics aren’t really Catholics like I remember from my growing up years, are they? Maybe a priest with have pity on me!!!!

    I do listen to the sermons at SMBC, Dr. Greg Barr, as they are available on their website. I really need to find a church! Good luck to you and let me know how next Sunday goes. Praying for you and Suzi! xxoo

    • Jo Ann, thanks for sharing your experience. It is probably even harder for you since you were at SMBC for so long. If I were in your area, I would probably try one of the “Reformed” or Dutch Reformed churches.

      Since your background is in sales, it probably is as hard to understand as it has been for me that a hot prospect is left to dangle.

      I hope you find something. As always it is great to hear from you. I often think about the joy you brought with you to work. Thanks for making that job so enjoyable.

  • Judy Woodall

    Frank, thank you so much for sharing this! I was very curious when I saw your Facebook check-in at this church so it’s nice to read about how your visit turned out. 🙂

    I’ve had some conversations with some of the ladies at FBCWPB about a church’s responsibility to welcome newcomers and really reach out to them. I’m starting to understand it more and more.

    • Judy, thanks for stopping by. Glad the article was helpful.

  • Frank, followed your link from Churchm.ag and I gotta say, great write up on a first visit! It is so easy for us pastors, leaders, church regulars to get accustomed to how we do things that we forget who we are reaching: Guests.

    I appreciate the reminder to go into service tomorrow with a fresh set of eyes. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Justin. I hope you will see great things as you look around your church.

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  • Hi Frank, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m not totally certain if this article is meant as a criticism or encouragement. It’s rather hard for me to picture it as the latter (maybe its me or the way I’m reading it).But my perspective, is that we shouldn’t be too critical and more especially towards other believers. No church is or will ever be perfect. Had the issues you shared been real ethical, theological or moral problems, then yes, we should deal with those. But these? Every church, and every pastor needs help. Hence Jesus said we should continually pray for help. There is so much pressure on pastors and churches to do things a ‘certain’ way, various techniques, ideas and ‘eureka’ solutions on how to do church. So much so that sometimes we get up in the real reason church exists. As a loving member of the body, when we see lack (not sin), I think we should step in and help, rather than criticize. Let’s try loving the church body as it exists first (both visitors and members),and see what happens. That’s what God demands from us, the rest is up to Him. The church is a body (the people who make it up), and even that body needs love, compassion and care. People don’t become perfect just because they are saved or are the church. So people also need to learn how to ‘bear’ with the church and bear with the pastors.

    • I’m sorry, my statement “So much so that sometimes we get up in the real reason church exists.” was meant to read as “So much so that sometimes we get up in these and forget the real reason church exists.”

    • Thanks, Tega, for your comments. My article was certainly not intended as criticism. It was simply an attempt to share my experience. I thought my perspective might be helpful since I spent years as a pastor. During most of my life, I rarely “visited” a church for the first time anonymously. I was usually the prospective pastor or guest preacher, and was treated in a certain positive manner.

      I do understand the challenges of being a pastor. I can only imagine what some first time guests thought when they showed up in a church in which I was serving. I usually tried to ask so that I might be aware of things that regulars had taken for granted.

      Since leaving the pastorate, I have spent most of my time in hotel management. In that industry, we were constantly receiving feedback on all things major and minor. When I stay in a new hotel, I always take a look at certain things that tell me how the hotel is being operated.

      I have continued attending this church and will be taking steps to become a member at the next opportunity. I love the theology of this church and the members have demonstrated a gracious and loving spirit.

      I love the bride of Jesus, and I love pastors. I pray regularly for many of them. I’m not expecting perfection from either my pastor or my fellow believers.

      That being said, we should be open to a set of “fresh eyes.”

      Thanks, again, for your comments. They are a reminder to make sure that my words are gracious.

  • tanya

    I think that perhaps finding a church in your area should start in prayer. God will place us where He would like us to serve, and where we can grow spiritually. As you may know, growth and servitude are not necessarily the most comfortable postures.

    If a church is contrary to a personal preference of ours, perhaps we need to grow out of old expectations and learn to not be easily offended. And if a church is lacking, perhaps we have been placed there in part to eventually be a help in supporting the body. These 2 aspects are very rarely NOT hand in hand.

    Thank you for this article. I do think we need to remember to warmly surround those who make their way to our church ‘pews’ on Sunday. It’s our love — genuine, godly love — that will touch people.

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  • aimee

    Thank you all for posting God has really spoken to me through these comments and I shall attempt to let Him work through me at Church. I am 17 and want to be a Vicar do you have any advice?
    God bless

    • Aimee, thanks for your comment. I pray that God will use you mightily in your church. However, the Bible teaches that the pastoral office (vicar) is for men only. I hope you will search the Scriptures and pray to see what God would have you do.

    • Tanya

      Hi Aimee:
      I love to hear that a heart is encouraged towards service of our awesome savior.

      Firstly, the word VICAR is not per se found in the Bible. However, the word itself is Latin, and is meant to imply “instead of Christ” or “representative of Christ.”

      As believers in Jesus, and since the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us once we are born again, we are ALL called to be representatives of Christ.

      2 Corinthians 3:2-3 says (NKJV):
      You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.

      Also, to know more about what the Bible says about women in ministry, I encourage you to read the following scriptural study:
      http://www.amazon.com/Why-Not-Women-Biblical-Leadership/dp/1576581837

      (Perhaps, Mr. Gantz, you’d consider giving it a read as well.)

      • Tanya, I concur with you in loving to hear of those encouraged towards service.

        I am familiar with the book and have read all sides of this issue since my college days. I still believe that the Bible teaches that all Christians are called to ministry, but not all to the pastoral ministry.

        I do love your spirit and your encouragement. You are always welcome here.