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Seeing church through eyes of an outsider

About 15 minutes before the Sunday morning worship assembly started, I pulled into the parking lot of a red-brick, tree-shaded Church of Christ in the Midwest.

Through my ministry with The Christian Chronicle, I am blessed to visit congregations all over the nation. Most of the time, though, somebody knows I’m coming, and I receive a warm welcome.

In this case, I had attended an early service with a different group of Christians but decided to visit a second congregation — unannounced — before I flew home.

I had heard great things about the second church and even connected online with the preacher. He had helped me a few times when I e-mailed requests for sources and ideas to my Chronicle feedback list. I thought it would be neat to meet him in person and maybe even grab lunch if he happened to be free.

When I arrived, I noticed a sign for “Guest Parking.”

“How sneaky,” I thought with a chuckle, expecting someone to greet me quickly as I got out of my rental car.

But I made it to the main door without anyone saying anything — and without anyone noticing me, even though I arrived at the same time as a handful of members.

Just inside, a nice, older lady handed me a colorful worship program. She smiled but did not introduce herself.

I walked slowly through the foyer and noticed small groups of people mingling and visiting with each other. After standing by myself for an awkward few moments, I made my way to the restroom and then led myself on a tour of the church building, hoping to run into my minister friend.

Feeling a little invisible, I headed into the auditorium and grabbed a seat at the end of an empty row. A family sat down in the pew in front of me but did not say anything — until another family arrived and joined them. The two families appeared to be wonderful friends, and they enjoyed catching up.

I searched my brain and confirmed that I had showered that morning and even shaved. So it couldn’t be that I was turning off fellow Christians with an unsavory odor, right?

I had ironed a blue dress shirt and black pants and put on shiny black shoes. Could it be that I looked too churchy?

Just before the service started, a woman approached me, and I couldn’t help but think that this might be my big moment. I was actually going to meet someone. My anticipation built.

“Are these seats taken?” the woman asked, referring to the rest of my empty row.

“No,” I said, enjoying the longest conversation of my visit to this 200-member church 750 miles from home.

I finally saw my minister friend when he stepped to the pulpit to welcome everyone to the assembly.

He said he especially wanted the visitors to know how much everyone appreciated our attendance. In fact, he urged us to be sure to go to the welcome desk and receive a free gift.

My minister friend preached an excellent sermon. After the service, I went up to meet him.

He was talking with a member, so I stood beside the two of them, not wanting to interrupt and figuring someone would notice me standing there. But before I had a chance to say anything, another member passed in front of me, stuck out his hand to the minister and told him how much he always enjoys his lessons.

Once or twice, I felt my minister friend glancing at me, but he never acknowledged me or said anything. He just kept talking to the other person. Maybe I really was invisible?

I finally gave up and walked to my car in the visitor parking lot. I couldn’t help but feel pretty disappointed as I drove away.

A few minutes later, I received a much more enthusiastic welcome.

As I turned into an off-airport parking lot to return my rental car, a man with a big smile spotted me immediately and waved me forward.

“How was your trip, Mr. Ross?” a second employee asked as he rushed to carry my bags to a waiting shuttle van.

“Come on in here, and we’ll get you ready to go,” said a third employee who poked his head outside an office door.

Sixty seconds, and three people already had made me feel at home. Next time I’m in town, you can bet I’ll visit again.

The rental car place, that is.

Bobby Ross Jr. is Managing Editor of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].


Is your church visitor-friendly?

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  • Feedback
    Thank you, Bobby, for this good reminder. We all need to do better, even if it means stepping out of our comfort zones or chancing an introduction with someone we should already know. This motivates me to try harder so that no visitor ever has to feel the way you felt.
    Amy Albers
    Graeber Rd. church of Christ
    Rosenberg, TX
    July, 18 2012

    I don’t know of a congregation that couldn’t be more friendly. I know I can do better. Although, I can think back on times in my life when I was traveling and visited some congregation and people not only welcomed me, but welcomed me into their homes. God’s people truly are generous, and these kind brothers and sisters who were so gracious to me remind me to be more hospitable today.
    Kevin Cain
    Katy church of Christ
    Katy, TX
    July, 17 2012

    I’m troubled by the comments that place blame at the feet of the guest. How can we expect all who enter our doors to act like Jesus when they may not yet even know Him? It is OUR responsibility to shine a light into the darkness – we must see every stranger as someone deserving of our time and our attention, expecting nothing in return. Kind of like what Jesus does for us.
    Adelle Gabrielson
    Campbell Church of Christ
    Campbell, CA
    June, 21 2012

    Bobby-How can a christian every feel awkward in the house of the Lord? By nature I’m shy and don’t have a lot of friends, but have never been inside a fellowship of belivers I didn’t meet at least 5 people, I could pray for. I visit churches looking for ‘feet to wash’ and those look forward to be in heaven with. Visit on average 8-10 churches a year, and never been to an ‘un-friendly’ one. Never met a christian didn’t like. The key is to meet them. If they don’t make the first move, I do. Comparing renting a car to visiting a church shows immaturity. Jesus would never have praised a rental car company-who you pay- and spoke poorly of those He paid for on the cross. If you had time for lunch, what was hurry? It’s about the Cross.
    Philip Kitchens
    church of Christ
    Clearwater, Florida
    June, 20 2012

    I have lived all over the country and been a visitor many times at many different congregations. I will introduce myself if no one makes the 1st move. Visitors have some responsibility to reach out do they not?
    In Bobby’s case he shouldn’t have given up so easy especially on a minister who has freely helped him in the past.
    Jeff Smith
    Fair Grounds Rd. Church of Christ
    Troy, MO.
    June, 14 2012

    Teresa Nystrom
    Tucson, AZ
    United States
    June, 13 2012

    This article and the related one about Friendly Congregations – I think you must have missed the geography. I think you were talking about MY congregation.
    Bob McAfee
    Dallas, Texas
    June, 12 2012

    I find these comments to be true. However, when it is a larger congregation, it is sometime embarrassing to see someone,and introduce yourself, only to find out they have been members for years, and sit on the other side of the building.
    Norma Schmidt
    Westside C of C, Bakersfield, Ca.
    Wasco, California
    June, 12 2012

    Exactly, though I often get an introductory but impersonal greeting as I arrive that quickly turns to the next person. If you don’t have a connection in the congregation, it will usually be a lonely experience. Problem with large congregations, most don’t know the visitors from the members. Many congregations provide nametags for their members, but few remember to wear them consistently.
    Clarence Richmond
    Searcy, AR
    June, 12 2012

    I am thankful you reported your experience. The “services” format makes arms-length easy. Acts 20:7
    says Paul “dialogued” with them.
    Obeying 1 Th.5:19-20 & 1 Cor.14:31
    will help any church. Those who belong to God cry to Him day and night, Lk. 18:7. Open hearts are cleansed & changed. Ps.65:4.
    Wayne McDaniel
    Northwest church of Christ
    Phoenix, Arizona
    June, 12 2012

    I’ve had this experience many times as I look for a new church, even in the thick of the Bible belt. I think going in by yourself, paradoxically, makes you less likely to be approached by anyone. Kind of sad, because if you’re on your own looking for a new church, that’s already a lonely experience.
    Norman, OK
    June, 12 2012

    When I was in Tucson, my sister, who was not a member of the church at that time, attended a Church of Christ just like the one you told about. It’s pitiful when so called Christians don’t notice a visitor. We make it a practice here in J’ville to welcome visitors. I’m glad we do. My sister said she’d never go there so I lost her that time. Thank God she found a friendly church and is active now in her Christian life.
    Linda Schwartz
    Jacksonville Church of Christ
    Jacksonville, IL
    June, 11 2012

    I think it is so sad when congregations are like the one mentioned in this article. I have lived in several different states and attended many different congregations myself. I have found this exact thing happening. I have also experienced feeling invisible as a “member” in a congregation. My question is: If we don’t see visitors that come to our buildings are we seeing the lost world? My heart aches when I think of the direction so many congregations have taken. We need to get back to the BIBLE and the GOSPEL!
    Sincerely, Tammy J. Inman
    Tammy Inman
    Ward St. Church of Christ
    Hardy, AR
    June, 11 2012

    Whoa. Indicting. I think part of the issue stems from creating a family atmosphere that sometimes we get so interested in the life of our friends and family that we inadvertently neglect visitors. Hopefully, this article will spur others to be more aware of the mandate for church to be welcoming to all who earnestly come to worship God.
    Jason Goldtrap
    Central Church of Christ Haines City
    Davenport, Florida
    June, 11 2012

Filed under: Inside Story

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