I remember vividly my first visit to a Catholic service. We were visiting friends in another city and they invited us to attend mass with their family. As an elementary-aged boy, I was in awe of the opulent atmosphere, the drama of the mass and the celebratory tone of the Eucharist. It was all so very different from the small country church where we attended with it’s clapboard siding, padded wooden pews and white steeple. I liked how it made me feel part of something grand and historic and global.
But I was also very confused as we progressed through the liturgy. I quickly realized that there were ques as to when to sit, when to stand, when to speak and yet they were unspoken ques so I missed them! I felt clumsy when I ended up standing late, mumbling the prayers that others seemed to know by heart… I was awash in a sea of liturgy that was bereft of familiar signposts.
I think that some of this still sticks with me into adulthood. This sense of not wanting people to feel lost or disconnected with what is going on in a public worship setting. Our staff team at our church gets weary of me repeating my mantra: “think like a visitor” but it’s tricky to see for the first time what you experience every week. For example, most churches use abbreviations or short-hand to describe things that are abundantly clear to everyone who’s been around the block a few times but make no sense to visitors. Even the flow of worship can be confusing for a new person if you don’t coach them a bit on why you do what you do and how they can participate in it or politely opt out of it.
That’s why I’m assertive in seeking out feedback from our first-time guests or friends who attend. Yesterday, as I was asking about ways we could perhaps improve our experience for our first-time visitors, the guest preacher said to me “I like that this feels like a warm, front-door church as opposed a side-door church”. When I asked him what he meant by that, he elaborated that in his experience, side door churches assume that you have come to Christian faith before you step foot in the door. They operate as if you already know all the rituals, language and other things that will help you quickly move to insider status. You simply slip in through the side door and merge into the flow of things.
Front door churches, on the other hand (or front door organizations) are attuned to the fact that when you come in the front door, you may not know all of the rules that they play the game by. You may need some coaching that doesn’t make you feel like an idiot and they carefully give you time to assess if the way that things happen around their place feels congruent with your needs and desires as a visitor.
That distinction got me thinking… how much assuming do I or we do about a persons background and how quickly they can get “up to speed” on the way we do church? How many assumptions about things do you make and about what in your setting? In order to find out, perhaps the next time you have a newcomers lunch or a membership class, you may want to ask for feedback on specific things that were perplexing or confusing for people who are newer to your setting. They may just tell you that they had to sneak in trough the side door, and if that’s the case, you may have some “renovations” on how you do things that you may want to consider.