We have been in our new ministry at Westside for just under 2 months now. When you are brand new to a place you see things that “insiders” have a hard time seeing because they have passed by it so many times that they no longer see things how a fresh set of eyes see them. What is more, when you are new…the things you see communicate something different to you than they do to someone who has been around for 20+ years.
The reality is every single thing we do or don’t do communicates something. The experience a visitor has coming in for the first time is a wholely different experience than someone who grew up there. A long time member will find things without a sign pointing the way, a visitor won’t. A long timer has no problem dropping off their kids for kids worship or class…never thinking twice about it but a new person may well be nervous about this. Their lack of experience and understanding leads to questions that we have to be proactive about addressing, before they are even asked…questions like, “Where is my kid going to be”, “What are they going to do?”, “Who are they going to be with?”, “How will I find them or they find me if there is a problem?”, and “Are they safe?”
With all the missional conversation going on there is a lot of talk about sending well. But how much have we thought about receiving well?
It is important that we try to see things with a fresh eyes, as if you haven’t ever seen any of this ever before. When you do that several things will happen:
- The facility may look different. You may realize that when you get out of your car, you have no idea where to go or what to do with your kids.
- The worship might feel different. The songs you grew up with will sound strange. The imagery you have sung all your life might not make as much sense as you assumed it once did. “The floods above the sky” and “ye dragons all” of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” or the “night with ebon pinion” will sound very foreign…as will the fist pumping “Many will meet their doom” of “Jesus is coming soon”.
- The worship/class transition may not feel right. This is a hard one to experience as someone people already know. You probably should visit another church to actually experience this one. Missy and I once visited a church early in our married life and it felt like we were a fly on the wall. All of these people were walking past us and no one said a word. I can see how some wouldn’t come back. You can feel rejected very easily, even though that was never intended. Remember, everything communicates something.
- The sermon and class content may not sound the same as you thought it did. Sometimes we use insider language or we use phrases that separate the biblical haves and have not’s. When we say things like, “you all know the story of Mephibosheth…” we separate the insiders and outsiders…the new and the old. There are certain words that we can use that also make that division. These are words like propititation or atonement…even words like Tabernacle and Temple. These are words foreign to our culture.
- Even small groups can be affected by this. There are some small groups that hardly recognize a visitor. Everyone is so busy talking to each other that people can’t break in and feel rejected. You don’t notice this when you are in insider but outsiders take note and may never come back.
Once we start looking at things this way we begin to ask the right questions, the questions someone new is going to ask themselves:
- How would I respond if this was my experience?
- What can we do to alleviate any unneeded tension points?
- How do you balance not losing your distinctiveness as the church, while not unnecessarily throwing new people under the bus? In other words, not everything we do as a congregation is for visitors. But we still need to be mindful of them.
- What personnel and signage can we use to help make navigation easy and obvious?
- What do we need to do to make visitors with small children comfortable with our facility and procedures?
The list goes on. The point is, this is a valuable exercise to engage in if you are expecting to reach new people. Even this still requires them to come to us over us going to them but that doesn’t have to be an either/or…the bottom line is we have to be ready. We have to send well and receive well. We have to think and see like they might think and see in order to reach as many as possible. When God sends people our way, we have to be ready.