Sunday, August 22, 2010

Church Mystery Shopper (Read this if you are a pastor or church member)

I am on an extended stay out of town and so I got to be a church visitor this morning. I chose my place of worship based on the church's website (Take note, pastors. This is how people choose a place to visit in the 21st century. Your church website will be one's first impression.). It had a clean, professional appearance, and I figured their style is probably as up-to-date as their calendar of events. Another selling point for me was that they offered a coffee-and-donuts hour prior to service (because face it, people need to talk, and food has facilitated talking since the beginning of time). I put on my jeans and drove in a torrential rain to a place in the country that looked like Cracker Barrel. It was a flat-roofed warehouse with cafe tables set up outside that I imagined were used in good weather. I've been alone for almost three days, so I was looking forward to conversation like it was a plate of Homemade Chicken n' Dumplins waiting in there for me.

What I found were four school-age boys sitting against the wall in the only chairs available while their parents rushed around making preparations for the service. The coffee lady welcomed me with a "free-for-visitors" coffee and donuts commercial and walked away. I helped myself and soon realized that I had hydroplaned across flooded intersections to stand in the middle of a room caffeinating myself alone. When one of the boys got up I took a chair and read through my bulletin. The word "community" was scattered all over it, like little C-shaped grubs curled up to die. By the fiftieth checking of my watch the saints came marching in, about ten minutes until starting time.

The doors to the sanctuary opened and I took a seat in the middle, in front of some ladies that looked promisingly conversant. No one greeted me. For a moment I wanted to leave and drive back into town to the church with a steeple, vespers and senior citizens. But then I looked across the aisle and saw a young woman sitting alone--the only one in her row. Her hands were folded on her lap and she looked down. I had a horrifying thought: What if she's a visitor too? I walked across the room faster than Bill Hybels and introduced myself. "Mary" was a sweet, shy twenty-something girl with a welcoming smile revealing teeth that hung like yellow stalactites. She'd been a regular there since the church's beginning.

Announcements dragged on for twenty minutes (Apparently the congregation is illiterate and needs someone to read their bulletins to them).  When the people were told to "greet one another in that wonderful love of Jesus" I rushed to the ladies' room to pee out my Dunkin' Donuts and make it back to my seat in time to be welcomed by someone. I didn't miss anything.

The music was fresh and invigorating--an acoustic guitar and bongo drums backdropped by the rain falling outside the open windows. The preaching was even better--perhaps the best I'd heard in years. Conviction was so heavy I felt like crawling down the aisle and laying myself at the altar. Take James McDonald with a sweet dash of Billy Graham and turn him loose in a 40 x 80 warehouse and that's what you've got.

This place should have been bursting at the seams. Instead it had grown to a whopping sixty people in fifteen years, trying to be seeker-friendly while forgetting how to be people-friendly.

After the service, a middle-aged couple asked my name and where I was from. They were sincerely interested in getting to know me. Thank God they showed up. Otherwise, the overall feel of the place was that no one really cared about visitors beyond the obligatory, "Hi, how are you?" For all they knew, I could have been on the brink of suicide. I hate to admit it, but if I had been a non-believer visiting there this morning, I may not have walked into another church for a long time, if ever.  

Pastors, laymen--this is a wake-up call.

(Note: If you are not a believer and are thinking, "I knew it. They are no different than anyone else"--well, you'd be right. Romans 3:10 says "There is none righteous, no not one." Jesus said that a physician comes for the sick, not the healthy. The church is made of sick people in recovery; we are in the process of recovering from the fall to become the original loving selves we were meant to be (i.e., Jesus-like). Some are further along on the journey than others.)