After 25 years living in Wheaton, IL, where I served on the faculty of Wheaton College, my wife and I moved to Grand Rapids where I now serve on the New Testament faculty at Calvin Seminary. It has been a long time since we changed cities but we knew that we’d face the usual move-in challenges. What grocery store do we use? Meijer or D&W? Where do you get a haircut? What about a doctor? A dentist? And then there is figuring out the streets. Long-time residents here seem to make an art out of avoiding the traffic on 28th street. I discovered how to use 29th and Burton and Cascade and now feel like a pro.
In all of these explorations to places like Fulton Market and Meijer Gardens, we knew one decision loomed in front of us. Finding a church. We have been active in a worshipping community for most of our lives. We know how to do “church.” But there is something remarkable about trying to find a new one. This summer it made me think that each of us needs to do this once in a while. Drive up to a church, park, walk in, and join the congregation for an hour or so. And stay for the coffee.
You learn immediately what congregation is truly “welcoming” and it makes me think that in some manner, they have been socialized to watch for the visitor. We’ve found an enormously warm welcome in most churches and that has been encouraging. We’ve also found ourselves standing alone at the coffee hour waiting to see if anyone walks up. Sometimes I cave and initiate an introduction myself. Sometimes people come up and talk about themselves the whole time. You never know what will happen. My new theory is that there is a formula here somewhere: the smaller the church, the more visible you are. The larger the church, the more invisible you feel as a visitor.
You also learn if a church is equipped to be discovered. We study the website first — and at church we look for a visitors’ table with literature. You can tell the places that are ready for visitors: well-done website (with a section called “I’m new here”), interesting brochures, clear signage, clear children’s program, and a person staffing the welcome table who has strong social skills.
And then there is worship. In some cases, the liturgy isn’t self-evident. I can figure it out but it makes me wonder about someone who doesn’t know church culture. Like the number 399 after a hymn name means you have to reach for the red hymn book tucked under the chair and find page 399. One church was fantastic. Before every service, the same directions were given on how to use the program and the worship books. I often wonder too about sermons that presuppose theological vocabulary. What about that unchurched visitor?
I have a new friend who is launching an intriguing startup in Grand Rapids called The Local Church. They already have over 250 people (millennials mostly), and clearly, its leader has done his homework. The website is spot-on (localchurchgr.org), they have a compelling FB page (plus Twitter and Instagram), the staff and volunteers are watching for newcomers, you get coffee on your way in, signage is everywhere and you could settle in without any church culture in your back pocket. You have to like worship bands and dramatic graphics on screen of course. But it made me think: here is a place that knows its audience and knows how to welcome them and keep them there. I think I saw more tattoos that Sunday morning than I have in ten years. This model isn’t for everyone but we could learn a few things there.
All of this has been exhausting but the work has been good. And it has raised some entirely new questions for me about the church, the unconscious cultural hurdles we put up, and how it feels to step in as an outsider.