It wasn’t that long ago that my wife and I were visiting churches after having moved to a new city. Before moving, we were part of a church where almost everyone knew us, and everything about the Sunday services felt familiar. So it was odd to suddenly be strangers in a meeting that used to feel like home.
We finally settled down at a church and things began to feel normal again, but the experience of looking for a church home stayed with me. It made me realize that most rational people would rather stay home than go through the awkward experience of visiting a church service.
The ways to make a visitor feel uncomfortable are endless, and part of the reason is that most of them walk into services already feeling insecure and defensive. As a result, through no fault of the church, it’s already an uphill battle to make guests feel at-home. But anyway, if you’re interested in taking your church service experience and making it even more awkward for visitors, here are a few suggestions that will probably do the trick . . .
1. Leave the visitor alone.
Here’s how this works: church members should have an unspoken agreement that they only talk to those people whom they recognize. It’s that simple. Now on the other hand, if you happen to be one of the more outgoing members of your church (or a full-time staff member), you may also consider doing one of the following: (a) introducing yourself and maintaining a conversation with the visitor for no more than 60 seconds; or (b) briefly making eye contact, moving your lips in an inaudible smiley-whisper while passing the guest, and quickly moving on. Regardless, it will leave the visitor feeling like they stepped into an awkward social interaction at a new high school.
Note: if you decide to go with the 60-second conversation option, only ask questions that relate to how the visitor learned about the church and where to find the bathroom.
2. Dress up – way up.
Nothing says “you don’t belong here” like people who are dressed like they just came from eating brunch at the country club. You see that young couple that just walked in wearing blue jeans and t-shirts? They went to your website, and it had a photo of your pastor wearing a golf polo, so they assumed it was casual. Silly them! As it turns out, it’s more like Downton Abbey casual. Oh well – maybe they’ll learn their lesson and show up in proper clothing next time (don’t worry – there won’t be a next time).
3. Three words: Meet-and-greet
“Fellowship time” is a great way to easily crank three awkward minutes into your service. During this forced social interaction, it gives church members a chance to run around and speak to as many people as they know. As they’re doing so, visitors are just standing, standing, STANDING THERE (good gracious, make it stop); and the only relief they get is when the occasionally-friendly church member comes over, briefly introduces himself, and after 11 seconds, gets absorbed back into the greeting mob. So anyway, greeting time may actually only last for three minutes, but to the visitor, it feels like an eternity in awkwardness.
4. Sing lots of wordy melodies from Christian radio.
One way to make someone feel awkward – really, in any situation – is to break out into group singing and leave your visitor out of the experience. That’s going to be harder to do in a church situation, because lyrics are usually available to everyone.
So here’s how to ambush guests with musical awkwardness: make sure your praise band sings lots of multi-syllable songs that are only familiar to regular listeners of Word 95.5 FM. Your visitor might try to mumble-sing along for a verse or two, but don’t worry – they will give up. And then they’re just going to stand there, feeling awkward.
5. Make your announcements last at least ten minutes.
Visitors usually don’t know anything about your church, so taking an especially long time to do announcements is particularly effective if you’re trying to make things awkward for them. Here’s why: it inundates them with new information they probably can’t do anything with. This leads to visitor boredom, which leads them to wonder what their kids have been doing for the last hour and 15 minutes, which eventually leads them to fall into a low-grade panic over the fact that they left their kids with strangers in the nursery. And at that point, they just want to leave. Congrats.
No healthy church wants to make things awkward for people. But unfortunately, most of us church members wouldn’t know if things were awkward for visitors anyway, because we’ve been around too long to recognize our churches’ quirks.
I’m not saying we need to make our services so seeker-sensitive that it’s even awkward for church members, but we might consider regularly bringing in outsiders to walk through the experience and tell us what it’s like for a visitor. It might be painful to hear the feedback, but it probably won’t be nearly as painful as it is for guests to endure the awkwardness of our church services.