Thinking from the Outside In
There he was, sitting just an arm’s length away. More precisely, the stranger was slumped over in the chair directly in front of me, sobbing uncontrollably. Tears, heaving sobs, snot bubbles. The works. He was, as they say, a hot mess.
I could feel my discomfort level rising by the millisecond. Thoughts began to rush through my head:
“Did someone close to him die?”
“Is he having a ‘special moment’?”
“Maybe he just found out he won the lottery?”
“Is someone going to, like, help him?” (Lord knows I wasn’t going to.)
“Gas pains,” I finally settled. “It’s probably gas pains.”
It was my (second) senior year of college and I was visiting a new church for the first time. I had been around churches my entire life, yet this experience was completely different from my Lutheran upbringing: People crying – everywhere – men, women, and children parading through the aisles with flags and tambourines; folks keeling over while receiving prayer; the pastor speaking in tongues from the stage.
I had never seen anything like it.
I spent the majority of the service trying to figure out what to do next. Everyone seemed in on it but me. Like a religious flash mob. As you can imagine, I didn’t go back.
As I reflect on the experience, I’ve come to appreciate the unique way this church expressed faith in Christ. I was filtering this worship service through my own (very Lutheran) life experience. I’d imagine someone who isn’t familiar with Lutheran culture would have a similar experience as me if the shoe was on the other foot: robes, stoles, pipe organs, hymnals… infant baptisms (gasp!). We have our own insider language as well.
I’ve since come to appreciate the different ways churches express themselves spiritually.
Whichever side of the ecclesiological extent you find yourself on, hopefully you have a process in place to ensure new visitors know what to expect. Here are three caution points to ensure new people are properly communicated to, feel welcomed, and prepared for – so we can perhaps keep them from an experience like mine.
Caution Point 1: The First 10 Minutes
When I was on church staff at Lutheran Church of Hope, our senior pastor, Mike, would tell us visitors determine whether they will return within 10 minutes of a first-time visit. Before the message, before worship, before offering – most people’s minds were already made up.
Do you know what makes the single biggest impact on people coming to church – perhaps for the first time? It’s how they’re treated when they first come in the door. Were they greeted warmly and directed properly? Or were they left to fend for themselves?
Think about the last time you went to a social event where the majority of people were unfamiliar. How did you feel? Even the most outgoing extrovert experiences the normal emotions of fear, anxiety, and “I-don’t-want-to-do-this-I’m-hiding-in-the-car-all-night.”
Now wrap those feelings in the baggage of religion. A squishy subject (social anxiety) gets even squishier.
Make it easy for new people to walk through your doors. From the parking lot attendants to the greeters (you have those, right?) to the ushers, treat others the way you’d want to be treated. (And for the super introverts who say, “I just want to be left alone! Not badgered! Leave me be!” I respectfully respond with, “I don’t believe you.” While “helicopter greeters” are a legitimate concern, everyone – everyone – needs friendliness, regardless of personality type.)
Caution Point 2: Insider Language
In college, when I first started following Jesus, I used to tell people I was “blessed in the Lord” when asked how I was doing. Target employees, my roommates, professors, classmates – like, everyone.
Keep in mind, I lived in a fraternity house and had spent the majority of my college days living out the movie “Animal House” with great specificity. I had a profound life-changing experience my senior year and “saw the light”, as they say. You can imagine the confusion my about-face caused. Putting down the bong and picking up the Bible was a jolt many of friends couldn’t handle.
Responding with “blessed in the Lord” was well-intentioned. Honestly. My desire was to faithfully live out a life spent with Jesus. But it was also very, very weird.
For starters, what does it even mean? Sure, you and I may have an idea (sort of), but to the Average Joe who has no foreknowledge of anything church-related it’s confusing. I know because I’ve watched the perplexed look on people’s faces when someone literally cannot stop talking in coded, insider language (a.k.a. Christianese). It’s painful to watch:
Average Joe: It’s raining out. Our picnic will be ruined!
Christian: Oh, don’t worry. God’s still on his throne. (*Crickets chirping*)
Average Joe: I’m not feeling good. I think I’m sick.
Christian: You’re covered in the Blood of the Lamb. No weapon formed against you shall prosper! Here, let me grab my healing oils to anoint you…
Average Joe: I’m feeling sad today. I didn’t get the job promotion I wanted.
Christian: God had preordained foreknowledge of this event. Don’t complain, instead give him glory!
Our churches run rife with insider language. For instance, take a look at your church website. Do you see the following formula in play anywhere?
Obscure Bible reference + Noun or Number = Ministry Name
Is your youth ministry called “Jericho 51”? No one but the youth pastor understands what this means (and he’s not sure, either). “Nehemiah’s Wallbuilders” is a great band name, but isn’t well-suited for your men’s ministry.
Speak plain English. If you’re having an outdoor church-wide event with food, call it a picnic, not a “community fellowship gathering”. Call “tithes and offerings” what they actually are—donations. Pastors are “leaders”, not “spiritual architects”. And here’s one to push the envelope: “small/community/life groups” are actually “forced attempts at planned fun between strangers”.
This may come off sounding cynical, but I promise it’s not. Our language serves as a barrier more often than we realize. Do the hard work of cultural translation and your church will become a resting place for new people.
Caution Point 3: Explanation of Rituals
As I mentioned, my background is undeniably Lutheran. We Lutherans love rituals. Love them. We have rituals to celebrate baptism, communion, liturgical seasons, and potlucks. (Okay, maybe not potlucks. But if you’ve never eaten a carrot-and-orange Jell-O mold, you’re going to need some instructions. Trust me.)
Rituals are a powerful way to quicken a shared spiritual experience. The best actors are the ones who memorize their lines so they can truly engage the character. Not having to worry about the script allows actors to ask, “How would my character feel about this situation? How would they respond? Not just with her words, but with her nonverbals?”
Similarly, rituals allow us to “memorize the lines” so we can truly engage the purpose behind them. If you’re thinking about what word comes next in the Lord’s Prayer, you’re not able to draw on the richness, simplicity, and power of it. You’re preoccupied about not messing up.
The dark side of ritual is assuming everyone knows what to do. They don’t. Spending a few moments beforehand to explain what is about to happen can go a long, long way. People still may have no idea what to do, but at least they are aware they don’t know what to do. They are prepared and, instead of feeling stupid for not knowing what to do, can absorb the ritual and, eventually, participate themselves.
Had the church I visited in college decoded their language and prepared me for their ritual, I may have been back. How many people are saying the same about your church? See through the eyes of new people and make it easy for them to answer the question, “What is happening here?”