The Church In The Fridge
There’s The Church On The Ridge in Pietermaritzburg, KZN, South Africa.
There’s The Church By The Bridge in Sydney, NSW, Australia.
Is there The Church In The Fridge in a suburb near you?
I visit well over forty churches a year in the deputation work I do with Anglican Aid. Although I’m usually the guest speaker/preacher, I turn up as a bit of a stranger and am rarely recognized at the door as being anyone with a special reason to be there.
It gives me ample opportunity to experience, first hand, what it would be like for a visitor or newcomer who may be checking out a new church or making their way back to church after having ‘dropped out’ for years or decades. My first impressions are therefore likely to be not dissimilar to theirs.
I suggest that there are three areas where most churches need to do some remedial work on their relational factor.
There’s a church that I visit from time to time and almost always I am greeted, just inside the door, by a welcomer’s back. Yes, I said back, not pack. I am left to fend for myself with whatever smorgasbord of literature scattered across the Welcome Table that I think I may need. There are assigned welcomers but they get caught up in conversation with their friends and forget that there may be newcomers behind them.
The solutions to this problem are many and simple.
• Roster more welcomers.
• The welcomer caught up in such a conversation can move their friends away from the door and chat on the side so that the door and table and fellow-welcomers can cover the next walk-ups.
• Run some training in Welcoming, Hospitality and Relationships 101. There are some helpful courses around on this.
• Get the right people on the welcoming roster. It is one of the most crucial processes.
I still hear stories, and wince every time, of people who came as newcomers to a congregation I ‘inherited’ back in the 80’s and the welcomer, an older man, called every woman ‘sister’ and gave them a hug. It takes nerves of steel to turn up a second time after a greeting like that. This church wasn’t a fridge. It was a furnace! I suspected it was an effective growth strategy - for surrounding churches.
• Use brevity and a little creativity in the opening words when the actual service or meeting starts. No long pedestrian preambles. Rather, strong and snappy. Get over the need to trot out the tired old liturgy, “Can I welcome everyone to our church today, and if you’re here for the first time, can I say a very special welcome to you. We are so glad you are with us.” Just say, with an open stance, a warm smile, good eye contact and a strong, sincere voice, “Welcome to church today. It’s great to be together.” Vary it but keep it to ten words or less. Don’t dribble!
I was the guest speaker at a church meeting in a retirement village and the leader’s opening gambit was, “Well, friends . . . . ” I looked around and naughtily thought, “He’s not talking to anyone here. They’re all on multiple medications, including me.” I have a fear that tele-journalism in this country has become lazy. Most news reporters commence every sentence with, “Well . . . . ” or worse, “Well, look . . . . ”
We have all developed bad habits from poor models.
Timing may not be everything. But it’s much more important than we give it credit for.
• Start the service on time.
• Train the congregation to get to church early so the newcomer, who usually comes a bit early or on time, doesn’t walk into a mostly empty building that’s as cold as a fridge. Getting to church early and starting the service on time is a ministry - an important ministry!
• Attend to the ambience for newcomers who come on time but discover theyre early! Every building, no matter it’s architecture, can be warmed up with some live or canned background music and some attention to small touches of interior decorating.
• Preach shorter sermons. Shave five minutes off the service. Think less is more. Have people going home with the thought, “I wish that had gone on for longer,” rather than the other way around. This refers to the preaching, the singing, the prayers and the announcements - especially the announcements.
I have just come home from a service where we were encouraged to sing the line, “It is well with my soul,” more than twenty times. I’m all for repetition for educational and encouragement goals. But five times was more than enough!
The farewell can be as critical as the welcome. I know I am going to sound incredibly old-school here (probably have already) but the main man (or woman), the ‘Senior Whatever’ if not shaking hands with people as they leave, should be hovering thereabouts and catching people who may be doing the bolt and not staying around for refreshments.
• Always serve something to create a catchment area and make it as close as possible to the straight line between the exit and the car park.
• Training ‘crowd-surfers’ as well as training ‘welcomers’. Don’t ignore but don’t smother either. Find people and fine tune them to be relationally sensitive, to have a nose for who wants anonymity and who wants connectivity (did I really just use that word?). This is a high level skill but it needs to be honed.
A man said to me after a service once, many years ago, “Don’t think you’ll open me up like a can of drink with your policies of forced fellowship, aggressive evangelism and invasion of personal privacy. Ouch, I guess I misread that guy?
• Always have on offer an easy-entry small relational context on the go for newcomers. This could be an orientation evening, set of evenings, a Q&A evening, or a fortnightly M&M (meet the minister and some members) over pizza (or whatever).
You know I’m not talking about your church or mine. We have all this stuff done and dusted and our retention rate is in the high 80‘s. Hmmm, maybe or maybe not.
The church in the fridge is the church next door. Ours, on the other hand, might be in the freezer.