I have taken the month of July off from Sunday preaching engagements so that Melanie and I can visit churches. Visiting other churches is spiritually refreshing. The change in routine. The change in worship style. Being with new people. Hearing someone else proclaim God’s Word. All of these combine to bring a spiritual freshness to worship.
Visiting other churches is also strategically enlightening. It is difficult for me to turn off the strategist and consultant switch in my brain. So when I visit another church, I am always looking to see what they do and how they do it. I am always learning. Sometimes I learn what not to do. Sometimes I learn what to do.
This past Sunday we visited a campus of a multi-site megachurch. My first thought was that I would not be able to transfer much of my experience from Sunday morning to the small to medium-sized established churches I most often work with. It is true that everything may not transfer, but what if struggling churches of all sizes took the time to ask the question, “What can we learn from healthy, growing, successful churches?”
So, I decided to visit the church with the worshipful heart of a Jesus follower and the critical eyes of a church consultant. It was only one visit, so there is no way for me to evaluate all that the church is doing for the Kingdom. But I could react to my first impressions. I have written about first impressions and guest services before. First impressions matter. Guest services are important.
I have no idea how the preschool area of this church looked. I know that is an important first impression, but I thought it might be creepy if a middle-aged visitor without children asked to see where the children and preschoolers meet. But I did check out almost everything else. Let me say it again. First impressions matter, and my first impression of this church was exceedingly positive.
First Impression #1: The website was informative and inviting.
Like many (if not most) first-time guests, I visited the church website before I visited the campus. The website was easy to find and easy to navigate. I found the service times and the church’s location, and I was able to get some basic information about church staff. There was also a brief video giving me a glimpse of what to expect. Here was the biggest takeaway from my visit to the website. These people want me to worship with them. If I go, I will not be crashing a family get-together!
First Impression #2: They really do want me here.
We planned to arrive about 10 minutes before the start of the service. I wanted enough time to get a good feel for the church, but I also wanted to remain somewhat anonymous.
The church was easy to find. We had directions from the website, but It is also located on a main highway, so we really didn’t need the directions. The church is well marked with appropriate signage and is easily accessible from the highway. As we entered the lot, a greeter welcomed us. There were plenty of parking spaces, so he did not try to give us directions. He just gave us a friendly wave as we drove through the entrance.
Once we parked I didn’t notice any signs directing me to the door, but I also didn’t look for any. They were not necessary. I just followed the crowds. Someone greeted us at the door. Not overbearing. Just a friendly “Hello” and “We are glad you’re here.” A few steps later another greeter asked if we wanted coffee. More importantly, she pointed out where the coffee was located. When we asked about restrooms, she pointed to their location. Even if she had not been there to show us, there was excellent signage telling us where everything was located.
As a guest, I felt like they wanted me to be there. As a strategist and consultant, I was simply impressed. I know everything was planned and executed according to plan, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt normal. Real. All of the greeters were clearly identified. They guy in the parking lot wore a vest. Greeters at the door and inside wore lanyards with identification badges. The greeters were also located throughout the spacious lobby. There were no holy huddles. All of them were on the lookout for people who looked like they needed assistance or direction.
First Impression #3: I could see myself being a part of this.
Yes, I liked the contemporary worship. I liked that everything was done with excellence in mind. I liked the comfortable chairs. The service met all of “my preferences.” But here are the main reasons I could see myself being a part of that church:
- The preacher taught the word of God. His doctrine was sound. His application was on point. To be honest, I was a bit concerned about the preaching before attending. I had never been to a church service where the preacher was “piped in” via video. More importantly, I was aware that some of these multi-site megachurches appear to be growing by advocating what sounds like something less than the gospel. I heard nothing from the preacher yesterday nor did I read anything from the church’s doctrinal statement (found on their website) that raised any theological questions for me. And the video format was well-done. At times I forgot that I was looking at a screen.
- Those in attendance reflected the community and the Kingdom of God. It was multi-generational and multi-ethnic. I was not surprised that the church was multi-ethnic. I was surprised it was multi-generational. So many people believe contemporary is for young adults and traditional is for senior adults. Please understand. There was nothing traditional about this church. They had no choir. No piano. No organ. I did not see any coats or ties. But I did see senior adults. Plenty of them. I saw white people and people of color. I saw old people, middle-aged people, and young people. I could see myself being a part of that church because the church reflected the community. It also reflected the Kingdom of God.
- The church has an outward focus. They expect guests to show up. They are ministering to the community. They are partnering with missionaries and church planters. They are sending out mission teams. They are baptizing people on a regular basis. This past Sunday they baptized one new believer in the service we attended and were going to baptize three more in the later service. Across all of their campuses they baptized 540 new believers in 2016.
First impressions matter. Whether you are a large church or a small church. A successful church or a struggling church. A contemporary church or a traditional church. You can learn a lot from the church I visited this past Sunday. Let me say it again. First impressions matter!