Recently, God has chosen to move us 1800 miles away from a church I really love and all the friends, who are as close as brothers and sisters to me and my family. The process of finding a new church is daunting, especially since the church we left is the ONLY church in which I have been a member and the ONLY church I have attended with any regularity. I am acting on faith that God will bring us to a church where we not only feel comfortable and loved, but will also be a church where we can do His business in our own, unique style. Until then, we are left trying church after church and gaining experience as “the new people”. As I go to each church, there are a myriad of etiquette questions I am trying to figure out, and I thought I would share with you the questions that have come up so far:
1. Do I really have to fill out a card with my personal information if I am really just visiting for the first time? What if I decide after filling out the information that I really don’t want to attend the church again? By that time the information is in the offering plate and can’t be taken back! The church knows where I live!
2. What do I say to the people who are following up with a call to see how I liked the church if I really didn’t like it? Jesus was gentle and humble in spirit. Yet he also engaged the Pharisees in a “Whose yo’ Daddy?” debate. So if I have just been to a church where no one except the Children’s Ministry workers said a word to us, should I mention that fact if they ever decide to call me back?
3. If the follow up call is made while I am gone and the person leaves a message, and I have no intention of darkening the doors of the church ever again, do I ignore the call or call back and say, “Please remove our names from your list. I don't think your church is a good fit for us.”.
4. What do I say to the friend of a friend, who invited us to her church which she really loves when I didn’t share her rapturous experience? Can we still explore potential friendship if I handle it right?
5. Why would a Children’s Ministry worker ask us at the beginning of the service if we want to permenantly sign our children on their roster when we have just told them that we are first time visitors? This happened at one church which required you to sign your children at each location, rather than having a central "processing" area. When we dropped each of our four children off in their respective rooms, we were asked that question each and every time, so I can only assume that it is a standard question in their repetoire. Puh-lease! How many people know within the first five minutes of stepping into a church that this is the church for them?
6. If the girl just assigned to be “friends” with your child rolls her eyes and sighs as she drags her feet over to where your child is standing, is it proper etiquette to turn to the teacher in charge and say, “Could you please find a new ‘friend’ for my child because this one seems defective?”
7. How can new people give clues to the regular attenders of a bigger church that they are new and would like somone to come up and start up a conversation short of stepping right in front of their path (or tripping them), smiling widely as you hold out their hand and say “Hi. My name is ______. I am new here What is your name?”. Apparently making eye contact and smiling isn’t enough these days. More people than I care to admit have looked me in the eye, smiled and walked right past me without saying a word. Today, I tried holding the special gift bag that I received as part of being a first time visitor VERY prominently so that someone would notice and maybe come over and start a conversation. It didn’t work. At my grandmother’s church, when you sign in as a visitor, they put a little sticker on your clothes so that people can tell the difference between the regular attenders they don’t know and visitors. Many people have come up and spoken with me without my grandmother dragging me over to them. I call this the “tag-and-bag” technique. I have visited other churches in the distant past where the regular members wear name tags which simultaneously let them know that you are new and let you know who they are so you can go up and say “Hi Bob! My name is _____ and this is the first time here.” To which Bob would reply “I know, because you aren’t wearing a nifty name tag like me. Welcome! How are you?...” I call this “The Country Club” approach. Both are ways of making someone feel welcome, if maybe a little conspicuous. However, none of the churches I have attended have implemented either of these techniques. I am thinking about making shirts emblazoned with the following sentence on the back in 50 point font: “Hello. My name is ______. I’m a first time visitor. Please show God’s love for me by saying ‘hello’ and starting up a conversation.” I have Hallmark Card Studio AND iron on T-shirt paper, so it can be done! I know what you are thinking, that maybe we should try to attend smaller churches because they are most likely to notice new people (like our old church, sniffle). We are trying to find them, but I think that in our area of the country, all of the small churches have been swallowed up by the bigger ones.
8. Is it REALLY okay to let the offering plate pass you by as first time visitors? That is the philosophy that our old church espouses. First time visitors are guests and don’t need to contribute to the church. That is the regular member’s joy. Sometimes it does feel weird to let the plate pass and I wonder if the people surrounding us know that we are visitors or just think we are welching on our commitment to the Lord?
9. If I don’t intend to return to the church and they have given me a “goodie bag” for being a first time visitor, should I return the bag or consider it as payment for making it through the service?
10. What has happened to the “Before you sit down, why don’t you turn to greet your neighbor.”? I thought that was standard church reptoire, but I guess in my new ‘hood, the churches haven’t heard of this “new” way to welcome people. Or maybe their time schedule doesn’t allow for it because they have to get the first group out the door in time to prepare for the second group. The “greet” system may sound corny, but it is a way to ensure that someone new will have someone say “hello” to them and acknowledge their existence sometime between entering the chapel and leaving it. As an added bonus, it ensures that the regular members talk to someone else at least once during the service ;-).
If anyone has advice for me other than "let it go and keep searching for the church that God has divinely appointed for you.", I would welcome it. We actually have been attending a small church plant meeting in the evenings that has possibilites. At least most people say more than 'hi' to us and the kids have become very friendly with our kids. That is a big plus. If you read this and are a praying person, please pray that God will either give us the green light with this church or help us find His divine appointment soon.
And if you are a member of a church, whether it be big or small, please make sure you seek out people you don't recognize and say "hi" to them on the off chance that they are visiting for the first time.