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The Signs of Feral Goats

My Dad and I saw a sign like this while zipping the the Scottish Highlands in a rented Nissan “Crash-car.” He had enough time to look at each other and say “What?” before we crested the rise and He had to lock up the brakes before slamming into a a small herd of fluffy-beasties. Once we gathered everything that had fallen off the dash into the floor and looked up, we saw one particular goat raise his head above another’s back and look at us as if to say “Tourists… Didn’t you read the sign?”

I remember that when I visit a new-to-me church building. “What do the signs say about us?” How do we “steer” or “warn” or “welcome” or “impress” someone that has already decided to come in?

One church, immaculately kept and huge by most people’s idea has a long list of no’s. No skateboarding, no skating, no loitering, no trespassing… I guess, should Jesus return, He and His followers must loiter elsewhere.

Another has reserved parking for the pastors and staff right next to the door, then handicap spots, and then visitor spots. The visitor spots are actually nearer to the two doors that take folks into the education wing. (For the record Suburban churches do not need reserved parking for the pastor spots, that just lets the drive-by support seekers know whether to stop or not.) I guess this worked when the church was bigger, but now that the education wing is dark on Sunday mornings, visitors find their way into dimly-lit hallways that are a locked door away from the sanctuary.

One church, solved this problem by putting a coffee cart by the door next to the visitor spots. People congregated there between Sunday school and worship and one of the members would greet them and say, ” You have found your way to our church, My name is (name here), let me get you some coffee and I can help you find the sanctuary.” Then the person was taken on a very brief tour where the member would talk about the church, explain how they worship, arrange childcare if necessary and see that they were seated comfortably with all the materials and introduced to at least two other people. After worship the person would check in with the visitor or visiting family and invite them to come back.

There were no questions about their home Church to try to make them feel guilty, no pressure to join the church on the first Sunday and most importantly they were welcomed and oriented. After a while people even included jokes about the pastor or the particularities of that congregation. It was probably the most welcome I’ve ever felt as an outsider visiting a congregation.

They grew.

I visited one of the largest churches in my area, spent 2 hours there and the only thing anyone said to me was “excuse me” when they bumped into me in the lobby. I went to one of the smallest and was hugged and kissed to the point of going home with lipstick on my collar.

And all the while, I think all of the faithful were doing what they thought was right. But those first impressions linger. So what do the buildings say?

Are folks wandering the basement like Spinal Tap searching for the stage? Are folks walking in to the front of the sanctuary during a time of quiet pre-church medidation?” They made it to the parking lot – how much work does it take to get in front of the cross?

I’m not entirely judgey here… but how can we do better?

Too often we get caught up in the big things, new projects, programs, etc. “get the people in,” but don’t pay attention to the little things.

Example: One day a man and his wife were visiting me in the office and talking about joining the church. The conversation turned to what other churches were doing to recruit them. I said, “Those are great ideas, would you be interested in starting a program like that here?” He shook his head – “No, I just wanted you to know they visited our house & brought us home-made bread.”

“So, you want me to get you some bread?”

“It would be nice.”

I smiled, “Why would I?”

“Because they did.”

“But you’re in my office, talking about joining this church.”

“Well, I didn’t like them.”

“Oh… well, you’re probably not going to like me then.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m not buying you, or letting anyone else bake you bread.”

“I can’t believe you’d lose two church members because you’re too stubborn to buy me bread.”

“I can’t believe your spiritual integrity can be bought that cheaply.”

He stared at me. I grinned at him. After about 10 seconds he laughed and said, “We want to join the church…”

A few weeks later, before Session (our board) someone asked him why he chose that church to join. His reason? He wanted a Pastor that would argue with him, make him think and stand his ground. Of course some of the elders were freaked out about it.

How did you know?

I didn’t. But I saw signs.

The Sunday they joined, after the welcome, I switched up the communion, replacing one of the elders. As I went through the congregation, I bent down and looked him in the eye and called him by name, “Nombre this is the bread of heaven.”

He nodded, “Thanks be to God.”

Watch the signs y’all, they say more than you think.

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