waiting awkwardly

After a brief Christmas hiatus the bloggerel is flowing once again. I hope you had a relaxing and enjoyable Christmas and that if you have braved the sales you have survived relatively unscathed.

shoppingOn Saturday I had the joy of accompanying my wife Sally and our teenage daughter to some clothing stores in Milton Keynes. As the designated hanger around looking uncomfortable/bag holder I had the opportunity of observing how different stores treat their customers. In particular, since we were mainly visiting clothing stores providing garments for women, I was able to observe how they provided for the men who were accompanying the women in their lives.

I won’t name the stores, although I will give you some clues, but there were some big differences between them. In ‘neat and trim floating zoo’* the changing rooms were located at the back of the store, through the lingerie department. I had the joyous task of waiting for my daughter to try on various items of clothing whilst standing conspicuously in the lingerie department, trying hard not to look anywhere in particular. If you have ever seen the episode of Father Ted were priests managed to get themselves lost in the lingerie department of a store you will have some idea of how uncomfortable I was feeling. Thank goodness I don’t wear a dog collar!

Contrast that experience with the experience I had in ‘waterway parachute jump finish.’** In that store they provided a comfortable armchair in a non-embarrassing section of the shop in which I could sit and relax and while away my time.

Now while I appreciate that providing seats for accompanying males takes up valuable shop floor space that could be used for displaying stock, I think that the second shop also understood that attached females often drag males with them on their shopping trips in order that they can “get their opinion” (and then ignore it, or take the wrong way). By providing for the companion and making the shopping experience more positive for them I believe the shop is more likely to get repeat visits from the couples.

It got me wondering whether we place visitors in a similarly uncomfortable position as the first shop placed me. I don’t mean that we display lingerie around our churches, but do we make people feel awkward or conspicuous? We are starting to examine how we welcome people in our church and one of the things that we need constantly to bear in mind is that people are more likely not to come back if they have felt awkward or foolish than if we have made them comfortable and relaxed.

We don’t have any specific answers yet but we’re working on it. Here are a few simple things that we are doing. One thing that I have started doing is making sure that everybody who is participating in the service from the front either introduces themselves or is introduced so that nobody is left wondering who these people are or what they are doing. We try to limit the number of verbal ‘in-house’ notices that we give so that it’s not all for the people in the know. We serve filter coffee rather than instant. If nothing else the smell is welcoming, but people should also be able to receive a decent cup of coffee from us rather than something that might well have been made by Baldrick in Blackadder goes Forth (hot mud – you don’t want to know about the cappuccino!).

Do you do anything in your church that helps people feel welcome and relaxed? Or do you have any ideas could you not yet implemented but which you think would be worth trying? It would be interesting to hear your thoughts.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Prim ark

** River I land

so ronery

I miss regular, meaningful human contact. That is one of the down-sides of locking myself away in my study to read, pray and reflect for 3 months. It is one of the reasons why I am really enjoying going off to visit other churches to talk with them about how God has used and blessed them in their mission and ministry.

It reminds me of a shameful episode in my past. When I was a student at the vicar factory that trained me (Spurgeon’s College) I had very long summer breaks. My wonderful wife, Sally, was working in order to keep us afloat financially. My friends and colleagues at College had dispersed around the country. I got lonely.

Our house was just off Beckenham High Street and on a particularly lonely morning I left home in order to stroll around and just be near people. But I wanted more. I wanted human conversation.

There were lots of shops around, but we had very little money, so I hit on the idea of going into the shops and asking the assistants to demonstrate different products. It was great. I found out about the merits of different TVs and video recorders (ask your parents kids); I found out about different sorts of light fittings and dimmer switches; I tried on different items of clothing (male); I think I even got the relative merits of different sports equipment explained to me.

In the end, however, I had to stop. I felt that I had exhausted the plausible reasons for going into different shops. I felt that I knew all it was reasonable for a shopper to know about the different products on offer (especially to those on a tight budget).*

Little did I know that years later God would call me to a church that is located in a town centre, surrounded by shops. Now if I am honest we have not had the best relationship with the surrounding shops. Some of them, I think, get a bit frustrated by the number of cars that come and go on a Sunday morning, nudging their product stands and A-boards outside (there’s no pavement). In the past I think some of them have been a bit put out by the loud activities that have taken place outside our church without warning.

But I have taken my experiences born of loneliness and applied them to the different shops in the immediate area around us. A couple of them are hairdressers, and it’s a bit difficult for me (see photo in ‘about me’) to justify going in there as a customer. But I have tried to start up conversations with any of the shopkeepers I have met. I go around them all at Christmas and give them a card from our church. When we did ‘Get In The Picture’ last year I spoke with those opposite it and asked if they minded and discovered that they loved the idea (as they also like it when the Salvation Army band play on our forecourt) because it attracted people to the area. I have got to know some of them quite well (and have even had some product demonstrations), and use them in preference to other stores when I need something they stock.

I am still acutely conscious that we could do more.

And I know they are not exactly what Jesus had in mind when he spoke about neighbours (Good Samaritan and all that) but they are our geographical neighbours and we need to be good neighbours to them. Who are your neighbours? Who is near you today? How can you serve / bless them?

Be blessed, be a blessing

see, buttons and knobs on the front of a telly – and nobody was HD ready!

*There was a bonus to this. Later on, when we had a small amount of money and wanted to buy a colour TV I was able to go back to the electronics store and they remembered me. I bought a 14″ portable TV from them that was an ex-display model for a very good price. It had buttons on the front to push to change channel, and knobs to turn to change the volume, contrast and brightness. (Yes, that’s what we used to have in the olden days).

But I was lazy. I wanted a remote control. I think it was around Christmas because we had some long cardboard tubes that had been surrounded by wrapping paper before we surrounded some presents with the wrapping paper. I had a brainwave and joined two of them together to make a very long tube, and put some tape over the end. Onto that tape I stuck a blob of BluTack (other sticky non sticky stuff is available). This was perfect for being able to sit in a chair or on the settee and reach the TV to push the buttons to change channel, or twist the knobs to change the volume.

Shame it was before the days of Dragons’ Den!

men are from mars, women go shopping

Today is my day off. I am killing time while waiting for my daughter to be ready so we can go into town to buy one or two ‘essentials’. I have observed that there is a clear division of the genders when it comes to shopping. Men know what they want and when they see it at a price they are willing to pay they buy it and come home. Women have an idea of the sort of thing they would like and may see what they like in the first shop they visit, but still need to check out every single shop in the town just to see what else there is… before going back to the first shop to buy the first one they have seen.

shopping

Anthropologists may say that it is something to do with our primeval instincts. My theory is this: Men, the hunters, know how dangerous and difficult hunting is so will attack and kill the first animal that is suitable. Women, the gatherers, want to make sure that they get the best berries so will check all the bushes.

Okay, I generalise, but we do shop in different ways.There’s no denying that. This is why more and more shops are now putting out ‘bloke seats’ for men to use while accompanying the women in their lives on shopping expeditions. Men reading this blog may feel that their style of shopping is best because it is quick, while women may say theirs is best because it is thorough.

What’s the spiritual point of these musings? Not much. Except perhaps that we need to remember that we are all made by God as unique individuals and we need to be patient with one another’s foibles so that other people will be patient with ours!

Just remember – you are a unique individual. Just like everyone else!