Thinking Out Loud

March 14, 2022

On the Ignoring and Smothering of Church Visitors

Once upon a time, evangelical church services, usually during the announcements, would include the question, “Are there any first-time visitors, today?”

Some folks would sheepishly stand and then (horror of horrors) be asked to say their name, and perhaps where they were from.

Given the stress people might feel getting up to speak in a room full of strangers, and in the name of being “seeker sensitive,” this practice was scrapped in the 1980s, along with the practice of making them wear a sticker that said “VISITOR” as you might in a hospital or a factory. (Going public wasn’t entirely without its blessings however; given the right church you might get a gift bag with a church coffee mug and a copy of the pastor’s latest book.)

Instead today, we have the practice where visitors can attend our churches with complete anonymity, but then, in churches of over 300 adults in attendance, they leave not having had anyone speak to them at all, for the simple reason that in today’s larger churches everyone figures that someone they don’t recognize is simply someone who has been there before — which is sometimes true — but they simply haven’t met or noticed them before. (Interesting that it moves from not wanting to embarrass visitors to longtime church members not wanting to embarrass themselves.)

After hanging around for five to ten minutes, and perhaps even taking a self-guided tour, many first time visitors eventually give up.

So tell me… how is this an improvement over the way things were?

Many times I’ve heard people say, “I visited that church and nobody spoke to me.” Or the one that really got to me, “The three of us went for three weeks and afterwards stood in a spot by the wall in the lobby smiling, just to see who would be friendly and initiate conversation, and for three weeks, nobody said a word.”

They moved on, as they should have.

Part of this is simply a liability of larger churches. Note that I said “over 300 adults in attendance.” It wouldn’t happen in a church of 50. I can’t see it taking place in a church of 100 adults. I still think it’s remote in a church of 150.

Conclusion: Even as the evangelical megachurch dominates the conversation, there’s something to be said for the smaller church communities (under 100 adults regularly attending) which before the pandemic made up over 25% of U.S. churches and nearly half of Canadian churches. Furthermore, I’d propose that maybe the fallout effects of the pandemic won’t be entirely all bad.

June 30, 2018

Knowledge Churches Assume You Have

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 11:04 am

There’s a place not far from our home where we pick strawberries every year. Our two sons even worked on this farm one summer. Occasionally it’s closed and you have to drive about 3 miles to their other location. That’s what happened on Thursday.

We pulled into the driveway but didn’t see any cars and as it wasn’t my turn to drive, I noticed out the corner of my eye a very small sign directing people to go north another mile and turn left. I remembered this location from the one time we had been there and we found it without difficulty, but this was, after all, our third attempt to get some fresh berries. Further, as we’d already done the majority of our picking for freezing, it meant the single basket we would pick was getting rather expensive vis-a-vis the price of gas.

When we got out of the car and politely told of our journey, the owner was rather indignant. “Everybody knows where we are;” she said. She did confess when we were leaving that a slightly larger sign had blown away — no mention of it being replaced — and had no response when I suggested the possibility that people new to the area might want to pick berries, too.  My wife pointed out that our second stop was in fact the address which appears online. There’s no mention of this one, which she described as “our main location” and the one which is “open every day.”


Do churches do the same thing? I think we do in two different categories.

First, like the fruit and vegetable farm, we assume everybody knows our location, our service times, etc. We can assume that on arrival people know where to park and where to take their kids for the children’s program.

Second, we can assume that people know basic theology. We can get absorbed in ‘shop talk’ or ‘inside baseball’ or even fall into the trap of using “Christianese” which we get but in an increasingly secularized society, few visitors would understand.

Our services can appear visitor-friendly with our neutral auditoriums, comfortable seats, contemporary music and relevant preaching; but when it comes to the actual content were communicating, we can fail to convey our message because for us, the doctrines and narratives we’ve grown up with all our lives have been ubiquitous to the point of being part of our DNA.

Furthermore, if we fail in visitor-friendliness, we are probably also failing to properly educate any children who are sitting in on the adult service.

The cure is to ‘spark it to life’ somehow with both passion and using the gifts Jesus employed such as analogy or parable. This can only happen when we acknowledge –generally, not individually — the spiritual newbies and seekers who may be among us. These teaching methods can actually be helpful to seasoned spiritual veterans, because it may give them some fresh vocabulary with which to engage with their own friends.

If you have any questions, everybody knows how to find me.

Oh, wait… that was the whole point, wasn’t it?

May 15, 2018

What if the Most Seeker-Friendly Thing is Having a Regular Service?

Filed under: Christianity, Church, evangelism — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:58 am

I’ve mentioned before that the problem in the North American capital-C Church is not that some churches are seeker-sensitive, but rather that some churches are seeker-hostile.

Still, as we switch to a greater postmodern context, is it possible that some of our best efforts to be welcoming are no longer necessary?

I’m currently reading Evangelism in a Skeptical World by Sam Chan. This book is literally overflowing with practical application for both churches and individuals. I thought I’d share this very short excerpt with you today (emphasis added).

At our church, we designate February as Friends Month. This is the month we design the church service to be especially accessible to our non-Christian friends. But what does a service like this look like? When we used to evangelize moderns, the strategy was to simplify the service and remove awkward moments from the service — the offering, the prayers and the announcements. The idea was to get to the Bible talk as soon as possible. The idea was also that the Bible talk would be what moves our non-Christian friends to a point of conversion. They would hear the truth of the gospel clearly presented, and they would understand that they had a simple choice: accept or reject the truth claims of the gospel.

But with postmoderns, we look at the whole service — not just the Bible talk — as evangelistic, because the whole service shows how Christianity works. When they see us take up an offering, they will see that we are generous with our money because Jesus himself generously gave himself up for us. They will see that we are content with our money because we trust God to provide. And they will see that the gospel has freed us from the hold that money has on us because God is our security. When they hear us pray, they will hear what a personal relationship with God sounds like. They will see that we have a God who is powerful enough to answer prayers but also personal enough to care about our little needs. They will hear that we love each other so much that we pray for each other in our churches. They will hear our cries for justice for the poor, oppressed and marginalized. And when they hear our announcements, they will hear that we take food to the sick, new mothers, orphans and people who have moved into our suburbs. They will hear that both young and old meet together in small groups. All the parts of the service show that we have a community of believers who are transformed by Christ and who restore our world by bringing Jesus’ love, mercy and justice.


October 29, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Orange Curriculum Parody Poster

Our graphic image theme this week is parody. The upper one is a supplement to the Orange Curriculum, a weekend service Christian education experience for children. You can click on the image and then surf the rest of the web page to learn more.

A bumper harvest this week; get coffee first.

The rest of the week Paul Wilkinson offers you a daily choice between trick at Thinking Out Loud, or treat at Christianity 201.

What a Mug I Have of Coffee

June 20, 2012

Wednesday Link List

The fine print: By reading this link list I agree to actually click a few links and check out the stories, and not just scan the summaries and leave.

April 10, 2012

Fine Tuning Creativity and Relevance

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:12 am

Okay, so now we’re into day six of my being without my own PC, and I have a deeper understanding of why they call them personal computers.  I miss my bookmarks.  I miss my files.  I miss the annoying noise the fan makes.  Hopefully today it returns from sick bay, virus free.  So today we steal feature the writing of Australian Mark Sayers, author of The Trouble with Paris, and The Vertical Self who blogged this a few weeks back under the title The Art of Irrelevance

There are very few people who would disagree with the notion that the Church needs to embrace creativity. One of the great moves over the last ten to fifteen years in Christian culture has been an attempt to close the creativity gap between the Church and the wider culture. Thus a great deal of Church websites are now more pleasing on the eye, our brochures look slicker, Christian bands look cooler, our worship is more experiential, and there are conferences aplenty to serve those wishing to learn more about creative ministries.

Yet are these moves really about creativity? I am not so sure. So much of this movement to make Christians more creative is wrapped up in the quest to make Church more relevant. Which is a kind of short hand way of trying to say that we need to close the cultural gap between the Church and the wider society. That for the Christian faith in the West to remain relevant (note that word) we must be running at the same pace as secular culture when it comes trends and fashion. If we can achieve this, if our music, our images, our worship services look and sound like the wider culture, the doors of the Church will be broken down by the spiritually hungry.

This view assumes that secularism is not the main reason that the Church is marginalised in the West, rather we have gotten our aesthetic wrong. A problem easily remedied by simply mimicking the style and fashions of the wider culture. So our services begin to look like Australian Idol, our Christian indie bands look like secular indie bands, youth ministry websites look like secular websites trying to reach the youth market. In the midst of all of this Christians do get a chance exercise their creativity, through their musical or design based gifting, but is this the kind of creative endeavor that we as believers are really called to? Is this genuine creativity or mimicry?

When we see creativity as simply a tool to aid us in our quest to become relevant, we hungrily seek out those who have crossed over the cultural divide and who straddle the mysterious line between Christian and secular artists. For the last twenty-five years Christians have inquired about the faith status of Bono, now young believes ask similar ‘are they or aren’t they’ questions about The Temper Trap, Mumford and Sons, and Sufjan Stevens. These questions are rooted in the belief that by association with the social currency of celebrity the cultural gap can be further closed.

When we simply mimic the art of wider culture, we become something like gift shops at the art gallery, the real works are inside, and all we offer are mass produced prints and imitations.

I believe that we have to start again. I believe that the mission of the Church to the West will not be achieved by simply becoming cooler, or by mimicking the styles and tastes of the wider culture. Instead the church must understand what it truly means to create rather than to mimic. We only have to look to the past to see that this is possible, there is a whole cavalcade of creatives whose faith inspired them to be at the forefront of cultural creativity. We only have to listen to Handel, to look at a painting by Carrivagio, to walk through a building by Gaudi, or read Dostoyevsky to understand that for these great artists creativity was not about bridging a gap between the wider culture and the Church. Rather faith for these people was the foundation that enabled them to create sublime, incredible works of creativity which speak to us still today.

I believe that we need to return to a biblical understanding of our God given mandate as humans to create. We are created in God’s image, God is the creator of the world, the architect of the Himalayas, the Bird of Paradise and the Andromeda system. God speaks the world into being. We are called to be his ambassadors on earth, to act as he acts; so the ability to create, to imagine things and then to bring them into being is an essential part of our humanity. We are not called to simply mimic, God gives us the ability to create.

When God created humans in the garden he gave us the role of guardians or stewards of creation. When I hear steward I think of someone in a fluorescent vest ensuring that people do not run onto the pitch at sporting events. The Hebrew word used is Shomer, the english translation struggles to capture the true breadth of this word. A Shomer in Jewish thinking is someone who is chosen to look after and guard something of worth, and who is held accountable for their stewardship by a Rabbinical court. The role of the Shomer is not simply to be a passive guard but to cultivate the item in their care.

Thus as stewards we are called to partner with God in his great creative project, the redemption of a broken cosmos. God calls us to be a part of the creative process. Creativity is not a choice it is part of our mandate.

On the Cross we discover a vital element of God’s creative nature. One of the struggles of the artist is to hold together the awe inspiring and the transcendent elements of life, those moments which remind us of God’s glory, with the painful and broken elements of life. Christians tend to do okay at the first part, Christian bookstores are filled with prints of glorious mountain ranges, we love the transcendent apex of the worship song. But we tend to struggle with the broken elements of life, with integrating suffering, lament and loss into our creativity. On the Cross, God intervenes in history with such staggering alacrity and originality we can only marvel at his creativity. In one moment, God’s glory is revealed, Jesus takes sin upon his shoulders and defeats death and evil, yet at the same time, we are confronted with the image of a dying God, a man whose painful screams speak of his isolation from God. The crucifixion is one of those rare moments, where the transcendent and the immanent, the glorious and the earthly, the human and the divine are held together. It is the ultimate template for Christian creatives. Hold those extremes together and you will produce work that no longer is mimicry but which is truly creative.

~Mark Sayers

This article was originally published in Youth Vision Quarterly Magazine

Photo: Woodman Valley Chapel, Colorado Springs

October 13, 2011

Excellence is in the Details

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:49 am

I don’t drink coffee.

Maybe a few rare occasions.  A few sips out of my wife’s cup now and then.  It’s not a Mormon thing, I just have enough trouble sleeping and enough history of digestive issues that I can skip java.

But I respect the fact that some of you find worship services impossible without the fruit of the bean, in fact, The Meeting House in Toronto has cup holders in every seat, and they ain’t communion cup holders.

Still, I’m told some church coffee is fairly mediocre. I know that for sure because of the people who smuggle outside coffee into the auditorium, which up here in Canada means Tim Horton’s coffee cups are the evidence of dissatisfaction with the church’s own product.

So I gotta say I’m impressed with a church that claims theirs is the best coffee in town. Like Kingston’s Café Church which features their own “Trinity” blend of three different coffees. 

Not having been, I don’t know how they rate on worship and teaching, but while they may not have the hottest worship band in town or a celeb preacher, I’ll bet that seeking excellence runs through all that they do.

So…how’s the coffee at your church?

September 13, 2011

Greeters: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone

I can’t think of a worse way to begin a church visit than one we experienced recently.  The greeter at the door had a slimy hand that made me want to head for the nearest restroom, but we were late and I wanted to get a seat. The woman who was his co-greeter was equally dermatologically challenged.

“I think,” my wife said, “This all began with someone who they couldn’t fit into any other ministry position in a church, and so they said, ‘Why don’t you stand at the door and welcome people as they come in.'”

But that was then. The idea of a handshake is become increasingly archaic. My son’s generation does fist pumps. Certainly a tad more sanitary.

I suggested to my wife that we take a small ice pack in our pockets and then reach our hands out of pockets at the last minute.

“They’ll think you’re dead;” she replied.  She then suggested Vaseline, which you would then remove after the critical moment.

I thought if you did this sort of thing for a month, most church greeters are on a four week rotation and you’d eventually get them all to quit.

“You really should blog this sometime;” I said to her.

To which she shot back, “I already did.”

Dodge the Greeter

This week, my family went to visit a large Pentecostal church we used to attend (two of us did, anyway) long long ago in a galaxy far far away.

The more time I spend doing church at the Motel, the more I enter these services feeling like an “anthropologist from Mars.” But it all comes back to you.

It was much as we remembered it, with a few things we’d forgotten about. One of which, for me, was the greeters.

If you aren’t familiar with this particular ministry, greeters are people who stand just inside the main entry of the church building, for the purpose of shaking hands with those arriving, smiling, handing them whatever documents they’ll need and then turning their attention to the next through the door.

If you are a greeter, I’m sorry, but I only consider my visit to your church a success if I manage to avoid you altogether.

It’s a game I play. I’ve developed several strategies over time, which I’d like to share with you.

1. Choose a path that cuts exactly halfway between two greeters. This only works if they’re not working in tandem (married couples, for example) but if there’s room, each will assume the other is going to get you and, before they realize their mistake, you’re through.

2. Assume a facial expression of urgent concern and walk quickly, looking past and over the heads of the greeters. This creates the impression that you’re trying to find someone in particular right now and won’t brook any delay, and greeters will respect your personal crisis, whatever it is, and let you go.

3. Carry a load that requires both hands. For example, a child and a diaper bag, if you can be rummaging through the diaper bag for something as you slip past the greeters. This may backfire if you look like it’s something they may be able to help with, so use this one with caution.

4. Walk side by side with an accomplice and, just as you reach the critical threshold, turn to speak to your companion, heads close together. Try to look like you’re communicating something “in confidence and just for prayer”. This is also effective if you’re a parent and can look like you’re scolding the child walking beside you for having done something unspeakable just as the family was getting ready to leave for church, without actually humiliating your kid in the church lobby.

5. Skirt closely behind a stranger as they are being greeted. Timing is tight on this one, and if someone is standing in your path, you may be delayed long enough to find yourself face to face with the greeter, so plan your route.

So that’s me.

~Ruth Wilkinson

August 15, 2011

The Buzzword Effect

Google Labs has an online app. whereby you type in any given word or phrase, and in a split-second, it scans everything in the Google Books database and tells you, in graph form, the relative recurrence of that word or phrase in the last 200 or so years.

I decided to have some fun with some Evangelical buzzwords, starting with Evangelical itself; if your current window is not restored to full size, you’ll want to click that first…

Next, I tried the phrase, spiritual formation.

Next, just to get silly, I tried the phrase, seeker sensitive

Okay, that wasn’t very productive.  How about social justice?

Of course, there’s no guaranteeing that the particular phrase didn’t appear in an entirely different context.

The system also lets you compare two different words, and so, in keeping with what’s been on a lot of minds this year, I searched Heaven + Hell.

Words matter.  I’m sure some of you can find more meaningful uses for this application in ministry.  Here’s the link one more time.

June 29, 2011

Wednesday Link List

Wednesday list lynx

Christianity Today magazine has found that recent articles on worship resonate with people, and that’s reflected in the first two links this week:

  • People want services to be accessible, but D. H. Williams asks the question, ‘Are there limits to this strategy?’
  • Why did the church embrace the pop/rock style found in today’s modern worship, but not utilize jazz or big band in its day?  Lawrence Mumford looks at the diversity of worship styles.
  • And over at Relevant Magazine — which we’ll return to later here — Adam Wood reminds us that worship involves the participation of both leader and congregant.
  • Ever been stuck in a checkout line where the person in front of you seems to be buying out the whole store?  Pete Wilson was, and he was anxious to get on his way, until he suddenly saw the person ahead of him in a different perspective.
  • I understand a little of where John Shore is coming from.  He’s certainly sympathetic to people who are both gay and professing Christians. [Example]  But does he go too far in one direction?  The blogger known as The Son He Loves thinks so and calls him on it.
  • Castanea, a word meaning ‘Chestnut tree,’ is also the name of a tribal community living together in Chestnut Hill, Tenn, which serves in this USAToday story as an example of what is called The New Monasticism.
  • Dan Kimball writes about Francis Chan‘s Erasing Hell with words like these: “It comes from a heart that is broken about hell. The pages themselves almost weep it is so heartfelt written. I know that sounds kind of corny, but it is true. This is written from a broken heart on the topic and that makes all the difference.”
  • If you’ve got Adobe, here’s the link to the .pdf with the Committee on Bible Translation’s response to the Southern Baptist resolution regarding the updated NIV Bible translation.
  • Also lining up to take a shot at the new NIV — with the accompanying fifteen minutes of fame — is the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.  You can read the .pdf containing the CBT’s response to the CBMW. This best addresses the so-called ‘gender issues’ in the new translation, though it won’t satisfy people who already have their minds made up.
  • Discovered a new blog this week for our “If You Want Deep, We’ll Give You Deep” department.  Check out this treatment of the subject of atonement.  (Full title: …Without the Theoretical Nonsense.)
  • With two potential Mormon Republican presidential candidates, not to mention a Broadway play, here’s ten things you may or may not know about the faith of your LDS friends.
  • And speaking of cults, Darrell at Stuff Fundies Like thinks that the proponents of the kind of faith he blogs about are actually a bit of a contradiction.
  • There’s a Christian Game Development Conference.  Who knew?  But never underestimate the popularity of computer gaming.  By the way, for bonus points, visit their site and try to find clues as to where the conference is taking place.
  • Yet another CT piece; this one on how in their zeal to expand, multi-site churches with satellite campuses are now crossing state lines
  • A Pew Forum survey shows that Evangelical leaders are less concerned about Islam and more concerned about creeping secularism.
  • Jon Acuff has four reasons why people ditch church in the summer.  (Reasons not really good enough.)
  • Finally one more from Jon Acuff and his article on Christian satire for Relevant magazine, where we find today’s closing image:

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