I felt a bit wary as we entered the parking lot of the church. My wife and I were visiting our daughter in Maryland, and we wanted to go to a Christmas Eve service. The church that we chose in 2017 was not the best experience, so this year we tried a different church. We arrived twenty minutes early, and the parking lot was mostly empty. My concern increased as we saw one of the few cars in the parking lot leave.

We walked into the church and saw a few people in the narthex/lobby/hallway outside of the Sanctuary. There weren’t any greeters, and no one reached out to us. Luckily, I’m not that shy in church settings. This turned out to be some of the members of the choir. I talked to a couple of older men to make sure that the Christmas Eve service was at 6:30 PM. They confirmed that we had the right time. We were the first people into the Sanctuary other than two men in the sound booth.

It was reassuring when other people started coming into the Sanctuary. The service started just a couple of minutes late and ended up being a good experience. It was a very nice service. When the service was over, we left quickly. We wanted to get back to our daughter’s house to continue our Christmas Eve plans.

The Saturday after Christmas, my wife and I started talking about where we should go to church the next morning. It was an easy decision to try this church again. Part of the attraction was that it was only nine minutes away from our daughter’s house, and we liked what we saw Christmas Eve. I had also sent the church office a thank-you e-mail, and the pastor quickly sent me a response. Although we preferred the 11:00 AM time slot where they have their traditional service, we got up earlier to attend their 9:00 AM contemporary service. Would we have another good experience?

I was more than a little bit surprised when we walked in and one of the older men that I had talked to Christmas Eve greeted me by name. It feels more like home when someone knows who you are. We had a chance to meet the pastor, and she remembered that my wife needs gluten free elements for communion. A second point was scored! When the service was over, we talked to the people who were sitting behind us. Their names are Able, Della, and their baby Theo (short for Theodore). My Grandmother’s name was Theo, so we talked about names for a little while. Their other son, Levi, wasn’t with them because he was with his Grandmother. The older man who knew my name (I honestly didn’t remember his name from Christmas Eve, and he didn’t mention his name again), walked out with us when we went to the parking lot to leave. I have to admit that I really wished that this church used nametags!

A question that I get asked a lot is: “Why don’t first time visitors come back?” There are a lot of different issues that can impact this decision. As we drove back to our daughter’s house, my wife and I discussed whether we would consider making this our church home if we were in the market. The answer was a resounding “yes”! We liked: the pastor; the service; the diversity of the congregation; the music leaders; and the location. We didn’t have any major objections about our experience with the church. I think that a key factor, though, was that we were quickly establishing relationships.

One of my unproven theories is that if a first-time guest leaves knowing three names, and three church members know their names, the chances of them returning has been greatly increased. I think that churches often over-look the importance of quickly establishing relationships. It appears to me that very few churches are intentional about how they establish relationships. What about your church? It is very likely that we will only get one chance to do this well. That chance might be this Sunday.

Your brother on the journey, Mark

A further thought: This week I had a pleasant surprise. My Administrative Assistant told me that a box arrived for me from Replacements Ltd. at our Phoenix office. I didn’t remember ordering anything and couldn’t imagine what was in the box. I asked her to open the box for me, and it turned out to be a replacement cup for my punch bowl set. In a recent article I talked about this punch bowl set, and how through the past almost five decades it survived in good shape, except for a cup that somehow went missing. What a thoughtful gift! I want to give you a heart-felt thank you (you know who you are)!

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