As anyone who knows us is aware, Beth, our kids, and I are in the process of finding a new church home. With the closure of the Canopy, we have found ourselves in the awkward stage of life where we are "homeless" when it comes to church. It is truly a new experience for us, and not one we are enjoying very much.
A number of factors are aggravating our search, and more specifically, our actual ability to settle into any particular congregation and call it home. More about that (perhaps) another time.
Last Sunday was an interesting experience for our family, especially when, during lunch, we compared it with Jim and Pam's experience. (For those who don't know, Jim is my best friend, and was the lead pastor at the Canopy - they are walking through a very similar journey as us in trying to find a new church home). I'll start with our experience.
We went to a church in the city where we know the pastor, but no one else. The tone of our visit was set when we arrived. We were just on-time because of my need for coffee combined with horrendous service at the near-by Starbucks. As we pulled into the church's parking lot, I headed up towards the door and arrived just in time for the vehicle ahead of me to take the very last (clearly marked) visitor parking space, right next to the door. I dropped my family off and headed back out into the very icy parking lot, and took a space quite some ways from the door and down a significant hill - did I mention the ice?
I went into the church, found my family (not too difficult, as the service was starting and there were very few people in the foyer) and discovered that the person who had taken that last, precious, visitor space (did I mention that it was clearly marked?) was one of the ushers, obviously arriving late for his post!
Now, all of the above wouldn't mean a whole lot except that, as I stated at the start, it really set the tone, or more acurately, reflected the reality of the rest of our visit. People run late, the service was already starting and one wouldn't exactly be expecting newcomers to be showing up by this point, and it was icy and reasonably cold out, so it's understandable that you would want to let your family out near the door. I can really understand why the tardy usher would be tempted to take the visitor parking spot. And I would have hardly noticed, except that, as visitors, we were as equally ignored as the visitor parking sign had been. And this isn't a large church where you are never sure if someone is a visitor or not...
When we entered the foyer, and started to make our way to the auditorium/sanctuary, I had to go looking for a bulletin (which, ironically, I received from the aforementioned usher, but only after asking). At the end of the sermon, when we were all invited to use a response card which was supposed to be in the bulletin, we discovered that we didn't have one.
The service was ok - the worship team was stronger musically than they were vocally - the sermon was excellent and memorable and practical and the congregational sharing/prayer time left the impression that these folks genuinely cared for one another. But when Beth took our daughter to the kids' church program, she was ignored by the adult (who was busy informing one of the kids there that it wasn't his turn to teach) standing by the door, she was ignored by the adult who literally pushed past her to speak to the teacher, and she was ignored by the teacher until she finally asked, "Is this where my daughter is supposed to be?"
The response? "Oh, yeah, just pick her up here after the service."
After the service, while our son and I waited for Beth to get back, we were spoken to by exactly two people: a lady who invited us to come back some time (no introductions, no other interaction), and an older gentleman who asked my name (not my son's), shook both or our hands, and then walked off, without ever telling us his name! We were completely ignored by everyone else. When my wife arrived and the four of us headed through the foyer towards the door, we walked out of the church un-greeted, un-welcomed, and un-invited to return.
The cumulative effect of all of these little experiences was the distinct impression that nobody cared that we were there and that nobody would care if we ever came back or not.
Oh, yeah, the sermon topic? It was the introductory sermon to a 40 day church-wide focus: 40 Days of Love, and was all about becoming a community, a church, that is known for it's demonstrated love for one another and for those around them. The irony was not lost on us, neither was the need for the focus.
Now, Jim and Pam's experience:
Not having been there, I'll simply paraphrase Jim' recounting of their experience as newcomers at a different church. The church they attended did the best job Jim has ever experienced of greeting them, showing them where they needed to go, directing them to the children's program (the usher accompanied Pam and their kids to the next-door building, walked Pam through the sign-in process, and stayed long enough to ensure that someone there was helping them!), and directing them to where they could sit! The down-side? Jim stated that the sermon felt like "Dr. Phil with some scripture passages thrown in."
Now, are we being overly picky and sensitive? Possibly. Are we looking for a place that will replicate our Canopy experience and setting ourselves up for disappointment? Potentially. Are these representative of our experiences elsewhere? Actually - not really.
But they really stand out because of their antithetical nature. One church had an excellent sermon and one provided an incredible focus on newcomers - oh that they could learn from each other. And at least as importantly, oh that the church we attended (and many, many others) could be as visitor-aware as the church Jim and Pam attended! Hopefully few are as visitor unaware. And hopefully, we caught them on a bad day... though I suspect not.
Maybe we should go back in 40 days and see if anything has changed...