Over the past 2 years, I have visited approximately 20 churches. Many have been good experiences, some have been horrible experiences, but sadly, few have been that amazing “I can’t wait to go back next week” experience that you want as a guest. I’m definitely not trying to bash any church because they all have incredible people who were clearly trying to connect new people to Jesus and lead their regular attendees to a deeper walk with Christ. But, no matter the church, they all faced a challenge they were unprepared for…my anxiety.
The Silent Killer
I was a pastor’s kid growing us, went to Bible college and seminary, and have an additional 19 years in pastoral ministry, so I would consider myself very comfortable in the church. My wife also grew up in the church and served in various ministries over the years, and my kids are very familiar with church life. Despite this level of comfort, whenever my family visits a new church we enter those doors with a sense of anxiety. No matter how comfortable we are with church we still face anxiety over meeting new people, navigating a new space, going through first-time check-in processes, and understanding the cultural norms of the church. Even though one may suggest that these shouldn’t be that big of a deal, the reality is that the anxiety I carry with me to church puts me in a place where relatively small issues can push me over the edge and I can’t enjoy the service, and I probably won’t ever return.
I’ll give you an example. We visited a church a couple of months back and were greeted in the parking lot by a super nice guy and led inside to the Kids Check-In desk to check-in our 3 kids. The person at the check-in desk, as kind as he was, didn’t know how to register new kids, so he had to go get someone. Finally, after several minutes of looking for someone to help, the Kids Director came over but was also confused about how to add new families. As each minute passed and the apologies mounted, my anxiety began to rise.
After 10 minutes we got checked in and someone graciously offered to show us to the kid’s rooms. However, after showing us the first of three rooms she got pulled away by a friend wanting to talk, and after standing there awkwardly for a couple of minutes we decided to just find the other rooms ourselves. As we dropped each of our kids off, the leader of each room seemed surprised that a new child would be there. As a parent, I could sense and see the anxiety my kids felt being ushered into this new place, which caused my anxiety to continue rising.
Finally, as we were nearing the Worship Center, I decided I needed to bolt real fast into the restroom. I was so excited to see a sign with an arrow that read “Restrooms This Way.” As silly as it sounds, my anxiety lowered for a moment knowing I could find my way until I went down that hall only to a dead-end where the hallway broke off into 3 other long hallways, none of which had a bathroom sign, leaving me completely unsure where to go. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, but I froze, and out of frustration, hearing the opening song being played, turned around and went to the service, stressed and really needing to use the restroom. At this point, I was done…DONE.
You may be saying to yourself that I need to just get over it or be less judgemental, and ultimately, you may be correct. But consider that if, as a seasoned churchgoer, pastor, and Jesus follower, this is how I feel, how much worse must it be for those unchurched guests we are trying to welcome?
To be sure, no church is perfect! And, there is no way that a church can figure out all those individual anxiety triggers of every new person that comes through their doors. However, churches can and need to be on the lookout for those common issues that lead to increased guest anxiety. There are great resources out there like First Impressions: Creating Wow Experiences in Your Church, by Mark Waltz that can give insight into common issues for guests and how to solve them, but ultimately, I believe the best thing a church can do is to always have in mind that every individual new person that steps foot on their campus is filled with anxiety and is looking for kind and knowledgeable people, easy systems, and great signage to minimize that anxiety.
At many of these 20 or so churches I visited, I’ve received mugs, stickers, books, and gift cards that certainly help me feel welcome. But, I’ve never considered returning to a church because of a mug or gift card. I’ve considered going back because while we were there we felt a warm connection to a place that was expecting us and had clearly thought through how to make our experience as easy and enjoyable as possible. You don’t have to have a massive budget to accomplish that, just a commitment to be on the lookout for little things that can cause big anxiety so that people can connect to your church, your people, and ultimately to Jesus.