Churches keep complaining about not having enough visitors. They (we?) complain about not retaining the few visitors that come by every now and then. Mainline churches in particular, keep whining about the lack of interest in the church that some younger generations have. Every single recent research shows the decline in membership of the mainline churches.
Now, imagine that you come by on any given Sunday, ready to explore the church community you have heard about. You woke up early after having spent Saturday night with your friends. Drove a few miles to the church. Parked at the space that read “PARKING RESERVED FOR FIRST CHURCH IN MY CITY.” A nice person with a welcoming smile welcomed you and handed you the program for the day. You sat and, more or less, enjoyed the service. After the service was over, you tried to sneak out unnoticed, just because you are not quite sure if this is the right faith community for you. Now, when you come to the parking to pick up your car… WHAT? There is a ticket on your windshield!!!
“Why?” you wonder. “Why is there a parking ticket on my windshield if the parking was reserved for the church and I was attending the service?” Well, it turns out that the parking is for the church, and you are not part of it! Get it? The “welcoming smile” was just a gimmick to attract you, but the church doesn’t really want you there. At least, that is what I would have thought.
Recently I learned that the parking spaces that my church uses require people to have a sticker to park there even on Sundays. The parking attendants (which, by the way, are pretty much ghosts because I have never actually seen one) cover the pay machine with a sign that says something about the parking being used for the church. But what they mean is that only those with stickers can park there.
What if you are a visitor and do not know this? Well, you get a ticket.
The problem is that not everyone is aware of this. If you visit a church, you expect to have a space where to park if you are driving, and you expect to have an order of service if the church has one, so you are not lost, and you expect to be acknowledged as a visitor without being put into the spot. Going to church, for a first time visitor, should be a relaxed experience. The last thing you want is to find a parking ticket on your car!
We, the people in church, keep wondering why visitors don’t come back and why our church is not full on Sundays. But the truth is that we keep making visiting our churches harder and harder for outsiders. Even when our heart is the right place – wanting to make visitors welcomed – our actions are still telling people that they do not belong. We form closed groups. We hang out in those small groups after church and don’t even acknowledge the visitors. We sit with our buddies during the service and let the visitor figure out where the hymns are or what comes next in the service. We ignore the visitor on our way to communion and at times give them a harsh look should they have the audacity of partaking of this internal meal meant for insiders only.
Finally, when visitors don’t come, we try to find a scapegoat. “The sermon was horrible.” “The brownies were bland!” “The hymns were so last century.” “The songs were too contemporary.” When the truth is that at times, it is the simplest of explanations… Often times, visitors come because they are exploring different faith communities. Your church – my church – is just one among a long list of churches they might be exploring. Sometimes visitors will come back. Sometimes they will leave and never come back. But the important thing is to make all in our power to make sure that visitors feel welcomed and safe in the time we spend with us. A parking ticket is the last thing they need to get from us…
Do I have the solution to this? Yes and no.
On the one hand, we must start to sacrifice ourselves. If having more parking for visitors means that I have to wake up earlier and take the bus, or to park farther from the church and walk, so be it. Church should not be about “me, me, me” all the time (well, sometimes it is OK, but not all the time.) Church should be about “me, you, us, them…” On the other hand, I don’t think that there are just simple solutions. There needs to be a cultural change – a change in the culture of church – and that takes time, effort, and a very painful process. I believe that the mainline churches that will survive are those who are willing to start having these difficult conversations and willing to explore different things, even when some of them fail.