Welcoming people to weird worship

by Steve Collins 2003

When worship gets reinvented newcomers can find it hard to work out what's going on and how they fit in. Here's three extracts from an email conversation on the topic:

We all like routines, from the miniature of when we brush our teeth, to the routine of what to expect when we go into a cafe or pub, ie where to sit, how to order etc. People expect something when we use the word church - lots of songs or lots of hymns or lots of words, depending on their experience. So when we don't offer that, it's scary. Where should they sit, face, move? How do we ease this dis-ease? It's just part of being a good host, I reckon.

Case in point - this women emailed me last week - wanting to find God but not into established religion. She'd found us on the net and could she come to "pray, sing and worship". Now that makes no sense - if she doesn't want establishment, why use establishment words? All I could deduce was that those were the words she knew to link with church.

[Mark Pierson, Cityside NZ]

Something that has always puzzled me, has been the numbers of people who have come to us, *really* liked the service and not come back again ever. It wasn't till Jem joined the group, with the insight of someone new coming into it, that I started to gain some sort of insight into what was going on. These people weren't lying when they said they really liked it. You can generally tell when they are lying for the sake of politeness, there is a certain lack of enthusiasm there.

Since Jem joined our group though, people who have come for the first time have been coming back a bit more. This is because he talks to them after the service and says things like "I know this can seem a bit weird at first. Don't just judge it on one service, give it two or three if you can, to get used to the format, and then decide whether you like it or not".

I think he has a good point here, one that we need to be pursuing. That people can experience sensory overload, disorientation, or unfamiliarity with what we're doing. We expect our forms of worship to be more easily accessible to people coming in from the street, but even if the music is nicer or the building is prettier they aren't really as far as groundrules are concerned. Especially if people have no framework to build on, or strong relationships to guide them through the initial confusion. "What are the houserules for this place?","How am I expected to behave?".

Because we have re-written the groundrules for worship, an equal confusion meets those brought up in the church environment. They think they know the groundrules, but they don't anymore, because we have changed them. Some of us might even be changing them from service to service. This can also lead to disorientation. We need to be addressing this in some way. Allowing people time to get used to the format. Not by changing it necessarily, but by putting people at their ease, giving them space to talk through their concerns, reassuring people that it can take a while to navigate the territory, by encouraging them to try two or three services rather than just the one.

[Sue Wallace, Visions UK]

At anything new people definitely have an urge to slide into a pew at the back and watch from a safe distance - which in our church means they won't see anything! Newcomers are also quite inhibited in moving into the space once the service has started - makes me realise how we head for the nearest pew and sit down as quickly as possible so as not to be noticed by the minister! That's one of the ground rules we've changed.

And it needs someone on the door, because invariably there are latecomers who miss the start of the service and any 'official' explanations and welcome. I note that a lot of people expect to be able to turn up late to a service, slide in at the back and find their place in it without too much trouble. This does not always work with alternative worship if you missed the explanation at the start!

[Steve Collins, Grace UK]

So what can we get out of all this? If alternative worship events change the ground rules, how do we explain and put our visitors at ease?

Explanations can be incorporated into a spoken intro to the event. But explanations might be lengthy, will be missed by latecomers, and may not be the preferred start to the event. To hear the intro people have to come right in first - but the layout of the space is often the first unfamiliar hurdle to cross.

Or you could try to incorporate explanations into your welcome at the door. But the door is no place for long conversations. Especially if you have to have the same one over and over again to everyone who enters. Even a brief explanation may not be possible when groups arrive. And talking to latecomers may cause disturbance once the service starts.

So how about:

  • A big notice on the door for brief basics, that people can scan as they arrive.

  • A printed handout with a longer explanation that can be perused while waiting for the event to start, and taken away afterwards.

  • A welcome person on the door to hand out the printed handout, repeat if necessary the stuff on the big notice, deal with other points like toilet directions, and - especially - to reassure people that you're not a bunch of weirdos entrapping them into your cult!

The big notice should contain:

  • Welcome to [your event]

  • Instructions for what to do on entry eg where to sit or stand.

  • The theme of the event [if it has one]

Hint: do your notice with welcome and instructions on, and leave a space for the theme. Get it laminated, which makes it durable and weatherproof for putting outside. Then write the theme in the space provided, using a whiteboard marker pen, chinagraph pencil - something that writes on a plastic surface but rubs off for re-use next time.

The handout should contain:

  • Welcome to [your event]

  • What is [your event]

  • What usually happens - general kinds of things that aren't specific to one occasion. In particular make note of things that people might not expect to find in a church event, eg ambient video or discussion groups.

  • What usually doesn't happen - the things that people might expect in a church event that you've done away with or altered radically, eg sermons, times of sung worship.

  • General principles of how to behave in your event - not event-specific instructions but your general approach. Like, slob around on the cushions/dance manically/greet one another with a holy kiss.

  • Reassurance that there's no pressure to join in - emphasise that visitors are free to just watch if they're unsure or uncomfortable.

  • Something like 'Don't judge us on just one event - come to two or three if you can as the content and feel of events can vary hugely because of the way Alternative Worship is planned.

  • Who you are - your community.

  • What you believe - very short basic outline of beliefs. Try to come up with a non-religious non-jargon explanation in simple modern language, for your non-Christian visitors. No lists of doctrines please.

  • Your denominational affiliation if you have one. It helps people understand your background, and may reassure them that you are not adrift or a cult or sect.

  • Encouragement to ask questions afterwards

  • How to get on the mailing list

  • How to get involved

After the service:

Several members of the team should be actively available for conversation, no matter what the time pressures to clear up the space and get out. It should be made clear in the handout and at the start of the event that the team will be available for talking to. These might be the make-or-break conversations that determine whether people come back or not.

Some of the above might seem painfully obvious. But it's easy to overlook the obvious when your attention is bound up with the struggles and pleasures of doing new things, and the panic of last minute preparations. Congregations have a way of arriving five minutes before you're ready to welcome them, so make it part of your system to have welcome persons and things ready even when nothing else is. Visitors will forgive your technical shortcomings more readily than your welcome shortcomings!