Some people have a phobia towards snakes, spiders, dark places, heights, or clowns. I’m okay with all of those. What do I hate and fear? People singing the happy birthday song to me. It may sound weird for a preacher to say this, but I hate drawing attention to myself. It makes me feel like crawling into a hole.
My phobia escalated when I was ten and my Aunt Bev worked as a waitress at the Red Lobster. My parents took me there for my birthday, and Aunt Bev called me before the meal started and said, “Teddy, I have a surprise for you at the end of your meal tonight.” I froze with fear because I knew what was coming. Dinner was miserable. I sulked through the whole thing. When the waiters and waitresses gathered around the table to sing, my mom pretended it was her birthday and asked them to sing it to her. I was fine with that. She is one of the most socially alert individuals I know. She took the hit for me. Thirty years later, when we’re out for my birthday, she insists that the servers do not sing to me. To this day, I’m the loudest voice when singing that song to others, but loathe it sung to me. Give me a clown playing with snakes any day of the week.
My fear of the birthday song affects the way I process our guest experience at church. What does a non-Christian think and feel when they walk into Woodland Hills Family Church on Sunday? What does the non-Christian fear about the church facility and service? He is there because a friend invited him. She is there with her relatives that are visiting from out of town. Neither one of them have been to church in years. The last time they were there it was for a funeral or a wedding
Here are a few considerations for making your environments and experiences more comfortable and less threatening for guests:
Greet guests in a friendly, non-overbearing way
Not every person coming into your church wants a hug from a stranger. Smiles and a friendly “Hello” are great. Sometimes smaller churches pounce on guests. This can be quite overwhelming. Give folks some space. Be kind and gracious, without being weird. Pastor Rick Warren often shares the story of visiting a church during his seminary years, and halfway through the service everyone stood up and sang a welcome song to him. I’d rather have someone sing me the birthday song.
Explain the service
My friends at Northpoint Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia and at Mission Community Church in Gilbert, Arizona do this well. It eases uncertainty for first-time guests. It acknowledges that they’re in the room. It’s more personal than an order of service in the bulletin, and it gives non-Christians a better understanding of expectations when you say, “We’re going to sing a few songs and then have a message from the Bible by our pastor.” This is simple, yet it’s a great courtesy to guests.
Recognize guests, but let them hide
The church I grew up in was small, and our pastor would ask in every service, “Raise your hand if this is your first time or your first time in a long time.” That last part always cracked me up because it was a non-subtle way of calling out backsliders. After a show of hands, we slapped a visitor sticker on them and invited them to the potluck.
Without calling them out individually, here are a few ways to recognize guests throughout worship and the message:
“Welcome to our church, we’re so glad you’re here. We’ve thought a lot about you this week as we planned this service.”
“If you have your Bibles, turn to Psalm 19. It will also be on the screen for you to read along.”
If your church has Bibles in the pews for guests: “To find Psalms, open the Bible in the middle and go slightly to the left.”
“If this is your first time reading Hebrew poetry, here’s what the writer is saying …”
Preach God’s Word with passion this coming weekend. May the repentance of sin and placing faith in Jesus get our utmost attention. Let’s remove every unnecessary, uncomfortable distraction from the proclamation of Gospel.