I was running once and saw this sign and the first word that popped in my head was “Closed”. Anything which seems exclusive to the people already on the inside makes me as an outsider seem unwelcome. I’m sure that’s not the intent this church has with this sign. It’s probably a very welcoming church. I also know there are circumstances which make some churches have to limit their parking. Again, probably not the intent, but the sign seemed so harsh to me as someone unfamiliar with the church.
As I continued running I kept thinking about that sign and implications for those who saw it. It then brought to mind signs I’ve seen in store windows – which I don’t completely understand. The signs say, “Closed for Business”. How can you be closed “for” business? Seems more like you’d be closed “from” business. If you’re closed you’re closed.
Of course, none of us would intentionally place a “Closed for Business” sign on our church doors. But, it was a great way to jar my thoughts about some practices churches occasionally have, which, intentional or not, serve essentially the same purpose.
Over the years, Cheryl and I have visited dozens of churches. Whenever we travel we try to find a church. I’ve spoken at and consulted with a lot of churches in all types and sizes.
From personal experience – here are some ways you can place a closed sign to visitors on your church.
Only do “church” on Sunday.
When we make no effort to build community with people who visit we let people know by our actions – or lack of actions – that we are comfortable with the people in the church now. And, there is little room for new friendships. (This could include not reaching out to people we haven’t seen in a while.) Not long ago, while out of town, Cheryl and I visited a church, filled out a visitor card, and only placed our email and phone number on the card. Months later we have yet to hear from anyone.
Don’t act like you’re happy to see people.
Have no one greeting in the parking lots or at the doors. And, don’t talk to people you don’t know if people actually make it inside the building. I once was the guest preacher at a church. Not one person greeted us in the church. I literally had to go find somebody to tell me when to preach. Not one other person besides the person I found ever spoke to us. I realize that’s the extreme but I wonder how many times visitors feel that same way in our own churches.
Display confusing signage or, better yet, none at all. And, don’t think about using people as guest hosts. I can’t tell you how many churches we have been to where it was very confusing which door to enter and where to go once we entered the door. At times, if I weren’t the speaker – as an introvert especially – I might have left. (Just being honest.) I have to be honest even more and say that could have somewhat been said of the church where I am pastor now. After years of add-on projects it can be a very confusing building. Hopefully we are continuing to make strides towards overcoming that with signage and people.
Make it uncomfortable for visitors.
If you really want a closed sign up, everyone should talk to the only people they know. It’s either that, or you could make visitors feel very conspicuous. Have them stand up maybe – or raise their hands – and keep them up until an usher comes by. We once attended a church which made visitors stand up, introduce themselves, and tell why they came that day. Talk about awkward. Again, that’s extreme, but it certainly caused me to review how we make visitors feel welcome – and don’t.
Have your own language.
Use acronyms – for everything. When we pretend everyone already knows what we are talking about – don’t differentiate between VBS and Vacation Bible School – we make outsiders feel left out of the conversation. (Even with the name of it can be confusing as to what it really is without some description being given.) Another thing which is very anti-welcome is to use personal names during the announcements no one knows but the regulars. (“We’ll meet at Sally’s for the ice cream social. See Joe if you want more information.”)
Have closed groups within the church.
And, don’t start any new ones. It could be any group – Bible studies, service groups, but when any small group has been together more than a few years – with no new people entering the group – it’s a closed group. A new person coming in will not feel welcome. They won’t know the inside jokes. They don’t know the names of everyone’s children’s. They feel very left out when personal conversation begins.
Beat people up without giving them hope.
And, for this one I had to go all theological on you. But, when we are clearer about how bad people are than how great the Gospel is we can make outsiders – who may not yet be living the life we would suggest for them – like they don’t belong and have no chance of getting there. We should teach on sin – and not just certain sins, but all sin, including what I call the 3 G’s – gossip, gluttony and greed. But my goal is to always let people leave with the hope of the Gospel. It’s actually the only hope we all have.
Those are a few of my observations. Again, none of us would purposively place a “Closed for Business” sign on our churches – so we must be careful we haven’t done so by our unintentional actions.