One day last week, I found myself shopping at Walmart at 5:00 am.
I shop that early because the shelves are usually well-stocked at that hour and the checkout lines tend to be short.
On this occasion, I did my shopping quickly because I had to be home by 5:45 … and I live 10.5 miles away.
Sometime around 5:20, I went to the only available checkout line. Everything went well. The checker and I bantered a little bit, and I swiped my debit card and paid … but the tape for the receipt ran out.
The checker told me, “I’m sorry, but I can’t print you a receipt.” I asked her, “How long will it take you to print me a new one?”
“It will take eight minutes to reset the computer.”
That was going to make me late getting home.
As calmly as I could, I asked her if we could do something else. I didn’t have eight minutes to spare.
She told me, “Just a minute,” and went to speak to the manager in charge of customer service.
With a basket full of groceries, I watched as the manager tried to print a receipt for me from her computer.
That didn’t work, either.
I was starting to become anxious. I needed everything in the cart, but I couldn’t wait much longer.
Finally, the manager suggested that I visit another check stand. She asked a different employee if she would ring up my groceries … even though it meant unwrapping everything I had already bought.
I was willing to give it a try, until that employee protested … loudly … “I need to go on my lunch break.”
Wrong answer – even at 5:30 in the morning.
At that point, I told the manager, “I can’t wait any longer. I’m leaving my groceries in the cart and leaving.”
And as I left, I looked at the griping worker and said, “It’s because of attitudes like that that your company is struggling so much.”
I don’t know what happened after I left. Maybe the complaining employee had worked all night and was dead on her feet. Maybe she was coming down with a cold. Or maybe she was reprimanded … or even dismissed. (Although I certainly hope not.)
But now I don’t want to return to that store … at least not for a long time.
In the same way, when people have an unpleasant experience at a church … especially a new church … they often don’t want to go back, either.
Several years ago, I visited a church five minutes from our house that meets in a community college. My wife wasn’t able to come with me that Sunday and I felt a bit vulnerable as I left my car and walked toward the front door. (Yes, it’s even scary for a former pastor to visit a new church!)
Nobody was standing at the door.
Nobody handed me a bulletin outside the auditorium. The usher had his back to me and was talking to someone else.
And then after I sat down near the back, a woman came up to me, pointed at my seat, and exclaimed, “That’s where my friend sits!” And pointing to the empty chair next to me, she barked out, “And that’s where I sit!”
Feeling disoriented … and a bit rejected … I arose from my seat and did the only thing I knew how to do.
I went home … without hearing the congregation sing a note or without hearing the preacher announce his text.
One thing is certain: I don’t ever want to visit that church again.
Was it personal? No.
Is my attitude rational? Probably not.
Should I give that church another chance? Possibly.
But in my mind, that church simply wasn’t ready for company.
In fact, most churches aren’t … which is why 80-85% of all churches are either stagnant or declining numerically.
I don’t think any church can completely eliminate unpleasant experiences. They are going to happen from time-to-time. Pastors aren’t omnipresent, and even when they’ve done their best to establish a culture of service, some church members are going to mess that up.
But if and when unpleasant experiences happen at your church, don’t be surprised if newcomers never return.
After my early morning excursion to the first Walmart, I visited a second Walmart that morning that was even further away … and I only bought half the items I bought at the first Walmart.
But one unpleasant experience at a specific Walmart wasn’t going to keep me from all Walmarts.
By the same token, those people who have an unpleasant experience at your church may very well visit another church … but they just might cross your church off their list.
I believe that a culture of service to newcomers starts at the top in a church.
The pastor must preach about how much lost people matter to God … exemplify that value through his own life and ministry … train church leaders on how to treat newcomers … and constantly evaluate and reevaluate how the church is doing in this regard.
Paul’s words in Colossians 4:5-6 set the pace for how we Christians are to deal with the unbelievers we meet … especially those who visit our churches on a weekend:
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
I’ve been to some churches that “are wise toward outsiders” every time I go … and they’re usually packed out with multiple services.
But I’ve also been to churches that aren’t ready for or welcoming toward outsiders … and they’re usually in decline.
One of my ministry mentors is fond of saying that newcomers make 11 decisions about a church within the first 30 seconds after they arrive.
What decisions are they making about your church?
And what can you do about it?