First impressions last, but many churches seem not to think about the impression a first-time visitor gets. So here’s some friendly advice for pastors and deacons and church organisers of all kinds.
And this one’s free, gratis and for nothing, chaps. If you engaged a mystery shopper, you’d be paying market rates for the consumer intelligence you’re about to get from the humble Soul Searcher.
Think how you’d feel if you arrived at a strange church and …
- nobody spoke to you at all – before, during or after the service
- you found yourself in an empty corridor with a choice of unlabelled doors
- the people who greeted you were dirty, unkempt and actually quite scary
All of the above have happened to me this year. I’m not going to name names here. The leaders and preachers are fair game – they’re paid staff, and they’re standing up there telling people how to live their lives. But the doorkeepers and ushers are volunteers and they deserve anonymity.
Two primary school-age children at the door handing out leaflets. They’re shy and don’t make eye contact. It isn’t clear where to go next so I ask. The children look terrified (I didn’t mean to frighten them, honestly!) and point vaguely along a corridor, so I thank them and go where they pointed. It still isn’t clear where the main auditorium is, but at this point an adult comes out of a door and I think that’s my best bet, and as it happens I strike it lucky.
Soul Searcher asks: Don’t you supervise your children? And could you really not spare an adult who’s properly briefed and knows what to do when they encounter a visitor? No harm done, but it doesn’t look good.
The man at the door is huge; no one’s getting past this guy. Okay, he can’t help the way he’s built, but it’s a narrow doorway and he’s two steps higher than I am. He could have stood further in, or out on the pavement, but as it is I have to shake his very sweaty hand as he towers over me and then squeeze past him to get into the building. As I do so, I notice the shiny stains on his lapels and the sores around his mouth, and then he sprays me with saliva as he speaks. The first thing I do when I sit down is get out my anti-bacterial alcohol gel and give my hands a very thorough wipe.
Soul Searcher asks: Basic personal hygiene – do you really need to be reminded?
If I were directing a movie in which the innocent protagonist is carried off to Bedlam, I’d want to include a scene a bit like this:
Action: [Heroine’s name] POV as she is marched through the ward. On all sides, madmen and simpletons drool and leer, their faces horribly contorted, eyes wild, laughing and howling. Hands reach out to grasp at her. She turns from side to side as the faces loom nearer.
And if I were a casting agent, I know just the man I’d choose for the close up of the leering simpleton, because he “greeted” me at a church I attended recently.
I felt myself recoiling from him, and even as I did so I reproved myself for reacting in this way. What an unchristian attitude! The poor man can’t help the way he looks. But it was pure instinct to be scared of this man with the weird, unsettling stare and the slow, creepy smile. He was the kind of man you’d hide from if you were a child, and if you were a parent you would be at pains to reassure your frightened children that the funny looking man isn’t actually going to hurt them.
Soul Searcher asks: Would you want your child to encounter a man like this? And do you really think he’s the best guy to put up front, even if he did volunteer and is a nice chap once you get to know him?
Take a leaf out of the airlines’ book. The cabin staff smile, look you in the eye, tell you where to sit and give the impression that they know what they’re doing and that you’re safe with them.
After all, not everybody is as devout or self-mortifying as Dorothy in George Orwell’s “The Clergyman’s Daughter”:
“Dorothy remained on her feet a moment longer. Miss Mayfill was creeping towards the altar with slow, tottering steps. She could barely walk, but she took bitter offence if you offered to help her. In her ancient, bloodless face her mouth was surprisingly large, loose, and wet. The underlip, pendulous with age, slobbered forward, exposing a strip of gum and a row of false teeth as yellow as the keys of an old piano. On the upper lip was a fringe of dark, dewy moustache. It was not an appetizing mouth; not the kind of mouth that you would like to see drinking out of your cup. Suddenly, spontaneously, as though the Devil himself had put it there, the prayer slipped from Dorothy 'Beasts of England's lips: O God, let me not have to take the chalice after Miss Mayfill!
The next moment, in self-horror, she grasped the meaning of what she had said, and wished that she had bitten her tongue in two rather than utter that deadly blasphemy upon the altar steps. She drew the pin again from her lapel and drove it into her arm so hard that it was all she could do to suppress a cry of pain. Then she stepped to the altar and knelt down meekly on Miss Mayfill's left, so as to make quite sure of taking the chalice after her.”