For the duration of my life on this Earth thus far (37 years), I have been involved with only two churches.  For the first 18 years of my existence, I was involved with the church of my parents in Waterloo, IA.  The church where I was born, raised, put my faith in Christ’s loving sacrifice as payment for my sins, was baptized by immersion…and then I headed off to college.  While in college, I joined a fellowship of believers in Ames, IA that had been part of my siblings’ lives, and enjoyed 19 years of ministry there, dedicated my life to Christ, found a wife, started a family, became a leader, saved a marriage and learned a thousand different things (likely a blog post for another time).  However, in each church situation, I had never truly been a visitor – I had pre-existing relationships that drew me to those churches.  Over the past 24 months as the Lord called me and my family to minister closer to our Ankeny community, we had a unique opportunity to visit six churches over a ten-week period as visitors for the first time.  It was eye-opening, a little intimidating and completely enjoyable.  Here are some of my observations as our family of five navigated this new adventure…some serious, others less so:

Never forget – I am a visitor…and I am clueless!

  • Seriously, I am clueless.  I may also be nervous, intimidated, scared, worried and anxious, so you cannot overtly treat me like I’m clueless.  I may or may not ask for help.  I may or may not notice the obvious.  I may flee back to my car or to the bathroom at a moment’s notice.  This, therefore, puts your church in kind of a bind.
  • So here are a couple key rules of thumb to remember:
    • Rule of thumb #1:  Maps, signs, volunteers, more signs, name tags, more signs, handouts, pamphlets, billboards, posters and big, bright, flashing signs = VERY GOOD!
    • Rule of thumb #2:  Assuming I know where the kids go, where I’m supposed to go, where the bathrooms are, where the exits are, what goes on next in the service, where I’m supposed to go after the service, what I’m supposed to do during fellowship, how much the “free” donuts cost or assuming anything of a geographical, logistical or ceremonial nature = VERY BAD.  Never assume I know anything.  And I thank you in advance.

 Have you seen the cross of Christ?

  • In what has to be considered one of the bigger upsets of the whole “church visitor” process, it became strikingly clear, that the cross of Christ was missing.  Not from the sanctuary, the church bulletin, the kids’ worksheets or from people’s necks….but from the sermons!  Seriously – it was a 25% hit rate (2 out of 6) for explicit mentions of the cross of Christ, Christ’s death on the cross or salvation by grace through faith.  That was quite shocking to me.  I by no means think or demand that sermons have to follow a certain order, topic, cadence or ritual (other than be focused on Truth).  But when one is called by the Holy Spirit to speak on our ultimate hope, maybe it would be good to mention a bit more explicitly the source of that hope.  When you are reminding me that I’m a lazy, selfish sluggard that can learn from an ant, maybe remind me how I can have victory over the natural man.

 Coffee confounds me

  • I know it’s me – I know I’m the oddball.  No matter how many times I’ve tried it, tested it, sipped it or been tricked into it…I just don’t like coffee.  It is like drinking brewed dirt.  But within the Christian community, there is no single commodity that is more popular or more important.  I mention this not as a value judgment but out of sheer and utter amazement.  Price of corn?  Irrelevant.  Soybeans?  Not important.  Cattle, hogs, wheat, sugar…who cares.  Where is the coffee and how much is it.  If the Christian community were to ever boycott coffee, for whatever reason, I truly believe Starbucks, Caribou, Seattle’s Best and all the rest will lose market share like there’s been an outbreak of the plague.  And I freely admit – it’s just the jealousy speaking.  I wish I liked it.  I wish I was one of you.  But the Lord forever made me to love my venti, non-fat, no-whip hot chocolate…and it is my loss.

 Why I want to be a church visitor FOREVER

  • The #1 reason why I want to continue being a church visitor and never settle on a church home is actually very simple.  It was clear at the beginning of the process and it was just as clear at the end of the process.  I wish that reason was noble, worthy and valuable…it is none of those.  It is the visitor parking!!!!  It is the best!  It is close and right up-front and convenient and special.  And as a father who either rushed my wife and three children out the door or was the cause of my wife and three children being late…I am eternally grateful.

 I ❤ Technology

  • The technology and the talented people involved with the technology are mind-blowing.  The apps, the bar scans, Twitter, Facebook, downloadable sermon notes, the cameras, the videos, everything…top-notch.  But the area where I valued technology the most – my kids.  Not the video games or the computers or any of that.  Not even close.  It was the security.  The Check-ins and locators, unique parent pick-up codes and automated instructions…all seemless.  I cannot put into words how comforting and helpful it is to know that your church puts my children’s safety as a priority.  Kudos.

 Music is Non-Negotiable

  • See, you thought I was going to wade hip-deep into the whole contemporary versus traditional, type of instruments that are acceptable brouhaha.  Nope.  That’s for a whole different post.  My point is this – there is one aspect I witnessed regarding music that is non-negotiable – you must have skilled artists who pursue excellence in their craft and in their performance.  It’s really a binary decision.  You either do or you don’t.  And you don’t have to do a lot of things.  You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing.  But whatever you do decide to put out there, it has to be skilled, is has to be excellent and your people must own it.  That is what everyone is expecting as a given.
  • One free bonus observation from the worship experience – there are some of you that REALLY enjoy worshiping on Sundays.  In addition, there are some of you that REALLY look like you don’t want to be there.  Lord help me to model the former and not the latter.  Because I know which one encourage me the most as a visitor.

 And finally…there is a LOT of people currently doing a LOT of activities that bring glory to God and further His kingdom!

  • Thousands of people.  Think about that for a second.  THOUSANDS of people within a 20 mile area!  People who love the Gospel, who love our Savior and who are seeking to pursue righteousness and holiness.  Never forget that!  When the days seem darkest, the enemy seems strongest, when you feel isolated, alone and on an island all by yourself, remember this.  You have many, many brothers and sisters in Christ ministering RIGHT NOW.  You have many, many brothers and sisters in Christ that are bringing glory to God RIGHT NOW. And most of all, you have a loving Father ready to give you true comfort and peace and hope.  CELEBRATE that.  REJOICE in that.

This entire process of visiting others churches has been invaluable.  It has opened my eyes.  It has encouraged me.  It has humbled me.  I look forward with great joy to the next church family we will be ministering alongside and anxiously await our next opportunity to serve side-by-side with fellow Christians as we bring glory to God and further His kingdom.