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

insuring a good welcome*

This is Lloyds of London’s office, in case you did not recognise it and wondered what it had to do with today’s blog!

Being diligent consumers, when our insurances are up for renewal we shop around. We check to see that the price we have been quoted and the cover offered is the best available. And if we can get a better deal that our current insurer can’t match we will switch to the new insurer.

A while ago I used to think that customer loyalty meant something to these companies. I used to think that because I had been with a company for a while they would give me a better offer. I used to think that because I had been with them for a few years they would consider me a preferred customer. But the reality I have discovered is that they expect customers to switch in the manner I have described and do very little about trying to keep us. They don’t count customer loyalty very highly, in my experience.

At least that’s true of the big companies who process our accounts with computers and think of us as numbers on a spreadsheet.

I have my home insurance with a smaller company who don’t work through a website. I get to speak to a real person each time I have a query or want to renew. They are great. They are friendly. They are personal. I get the feeling they want me to stay with them.

A couple of weeks ago we switched my wife’s car insurance to a new company. Since then they have pestered her with weekly phone calls – offering her better deals on her other insurances, offering to quote for insurance we don’t have or want, and being rather persistent. I think she’s regretting using that company.

It’s a very delicate balance. I presume that these companies would prefer us to stay with them. But it is difficult to provide a personal service when you are as big as them. And you can be overzealous in your communication.

I have tried applying the same concept to churches.

It seems that many people have a loyalty to a particular church. But we can’t take that for granted. If we do they can ultimately feel neglected and perhaps wonder if they would be more appreciated in a different church. Do those who are disaffected wonder whether we would miss them? Do they believe we don’t care? And the larger the church, the more difficult it is to ensure that people are still cared for adequately. As followers of Jesus, who met the needs of individuals in large crowds, we need to ensure that we show his love and treat each person as precious.

Those who are newcomers to a church can be given a warm welcome, but is it possible to be overzealous? Do we see them as potential new leaders for our children’s groups or new house group leaders when they have only been coming for three weeks?

It’s not easy. If we get it right in our church I will bottle it and sell it!

In the meantime, if you are feeling either neglected or overstretched in your church, don’t assume that someone else is aware. If you want it sorted, speak with someone. They will want to put things right. It may require grace, forgiveness, apologies and time, but it is worth it. You’re worth it!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

A true story.

A friend of mine was contacted by a salesman who want to speak to him about insurance. He agreed to give him 45 minutes of his time if the insurance salesman would give him 15 minutes so he could talk about a different insurance scheme. The salesman agreed.

He came around to my friend’s house and spoke about what they could offer. After 45 minutes my friend politely declined the offer.

(He is a Rev).

My friend then said, “So I would like to talk to you about eternal life insurance…”

 

*yes I do know that it should be ‘ensuring a good welcome’ but I like the pun

how do you do?

A few years ago I had the immense privilege of visiting mainland China. It was a wonderful experience (not just for the food) where I met some amazing people who have made an impact on me, and on my faith in Jesus. I met Christians who had endured incredible hardships because of their faith and had refused to deny what they knew to be true. I met believers who were being amazingly imaginative in how they led churches and trained ministers in an environment where it was against the law to do so.

I also had the opportunity to visit  an English Language school that was being run by some American Christians (from the South of America) and was given the opportunity to talk with some of the students so they could practice their English. We had previously sat in on the start of their lesson and I was fascinated that the lesson began with the teachers greeting the students in a Southern drawl, “Hi – how are y’all?”

The students repeated the welcome in response in an interesting blend of Chinese intonation and pseudo-Southern drawl.

When I had the chance to talk with the students I confess I was a bit mischievous. They were fascinated that I had a different accent: a quintessentially English accent (if you know me you’ll wonder at that description too, but it was because of the contrast, I think). Anyway, I decided that they needed to learn some English English so I told them that there are different ways of greeting people in England and told them that we offer a handshake to people we meet and say, “How do you do?”

I told them that next time their teacher began with, “Hi, how are y’all?” they should respond with, “How do you do?” in as posh an English accent as they could manage. I don’t know if they did, but the thought tickles me that it may have happened, just imagining the look on the teacher’s face!

At our Deacons’ Meeting last night we looked at how we welcome people in our church and looked at how we can go beyond simply greeting them well. Part of it was about offering to accompany newcomers through a service so that they could ask questions, and be helped if we do things that we assume everyone knows about. Part of it was about making sure that they were remembered and contacted further during the week. Part of it was looking to introduce them to other people in the church and helping them to find where they belonged. But most of all it is about an attitude of openness and invitation. We heard how the experience for some of the deacons when they first came to the church was that the people with whom they sat took an interest in them, looked out for them, invited them for a meal, shared their lives with them. One of the spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament is ‘hospitality’. It’s an expression of God’s love in action.

The temptation is to think that it’s just for some people, but it’s a gift for the church, surely, and while some are more natural about it than others, it is a gift we can all exercise if we use it, if we ask for it, and if we want it.

Be blessed, be a blessing (y’all)

complications

it looks like this

We are about to buy a new car. Well, when I say ‘new’ it’s new to us, but is about 7 years old. Yesterday we went to have a look at it and tried it out for size.

Literally.

Our son is now 6’6″ tall so we needed to find a car with adequate legroom (and headroom). That is not easy. But we have found a car and I have just put down a deposit. Hopefully we will have it on Saturday.

The decision to buy, and the placing of a deposit, has been the easier bit. Now comes the complicated stuff…

Sorting out the car loan.

Getting insurance cover.

Arranging road tax (once the cover note has been arranged).

Getting all the documents together for the car we are part-exchanging.

Clearing out the debris and detritus that has accumulated in the car we are part-exchanging over the 8 years we have owned it.

Arranging a refund of the road tax for the car we are part-exchanging.

Sending off the documents to DVLA for the old and new cars.

Arranging for car parking permits to be transferred to the new car.

Driving home in the new car (the bit I am really looking forward to).

It’s so complicated because lots of different things have to be done more or less simultaneously, but in the correct order. We need insurance on the new car before we can get the road tax. We need the loan for the new car before we can pay for it. We need to drive to the garage in the old car before I can remove the road tax from that car before I can send it off to get it refunded.

I am so glad that I don’t have to go through all that rigmarole for most purchases!

How complicated have we made it for people to find faith in Jesus? How difficult is it for people who have drifted from their faith to come back? In no particular order (because it’s not like buying a car):

People have to learn our church jargon.

They have to learn our traditions.

They have to adjust their routines (to fit church (back) in).

They have to get to know lots of new people (or face some familiar people with whom they have lost touch).

They have to learn new songs.

They have to change their priorities.

They have to stop doing some things.

It came home to me recently when I visited a church of a very different tradition and style to that with which I am familiar. I kept asking myself questions about why they did some things, what some words meant, what I was allowed to do, what I was expected to do…

And that’s not the half of it. I love it when we have new believers in our church and they have so many questions. It reminds me that we should make it easier for people. Even a handbook would be helpful! Perhaps we should have a FAQ page on our church website (actually, that’s not a bad idea!)

But when it comes down to it, do they HAVE to do those things to follow Jesus? What’s essential? What is simply about following Jesus and what is about church? How many of the things included in (and hidden behind) that list are actually for the comfort and convenience for those who are already following Jesus?

Jesus spent a considerable amount of time tearing down barriers that religious people had put in the way of others finding God… and in two millennia we have built a lot more!

The message of Jesus is enough of a stumbling block… heaven forbid we make or maintain others. Literally.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

from cartoonchurch.com

counting on you

I am a bit obsessed with the counter on my blog that tells me how many people have visited. Just by clicking on the link that brought you here, you have brought me joy – even if you get nothing out of it!

From my end of the blog I can also analyse the stats a lot more. I know which country you are in (thanks to whoever visits from the Maldives, Libya and Myanmar!) when you click on the link. I know which pages are visited most often. I know how you got here (search engines, Facebook, etc). I know the top terms used to visit my blog on search engines (fantastically ‘Elmer Fudd’ still reigns supreme). I know how many people have shared my blog with others. And there’s other stats I can identify too.

You have no idea how much the latent geek / nerd within me loves this information.

And I have no idea how useful it is. It does not affect the content I post, because I (selfishly) put stuff up as a way of me reflecting on my life and faith rather than to please any audience. It does not mean that I will be writing in other languages (good thing too!). It won’t make me get to know you at all.

In churches we can get obsessed by statistics too. How many people were in church / at the prayer meeting / go to house groups / came to the blindfold hang-gliding evening*? How many people have become members? How many people were baptised? How many people have come to faith?

The answers to those questions are not unimportant, but they won’t help us to get to know people better. They won’t tell us about the things that are going on in people’s lives. They won’t inform our praying. That only happens when we see people rather than numbers; when we are interested in one another not just in what interests us; when we don’t just say ‘hello’ but welcome people wholeheartedly. When we do, it would be interesting to see what happens to the statistics!

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

*Not yet inaugurated at our church.

the pen is not mightier than the word

Yesterday I had a letter arrived at the church that was personally addressed to me. At least it will be if I ever change my first name to begin with the letter ‘R’. Still, all the rest of the details were correct so I opened the envelope.

Inside was a lovely pen with our church name and details lasered onto it, along with a letter inviting me to order lots of them for our church.

“How kind of them to send me such a nice gift,” I thought. How they knew that I needed an extra pen I can’t tell. The letter was inviting me to purchase 50 such pens and get another 50 free. It’s not a bad deal, but it’s not a deal that I want to take advantage of right now. However the deal is time-limited, and that’s a shame because it may be that in the space of a couple of months we might want to buy some pens with our church details lasered onto them. We just have not had that discussion at the moment and as it is a strategic decision related to how we welcome and integrate people into the church (honest) it will take a little longer than the 30 day length of the offer.

Many times in the past I have written bloggages about us being free samples of Jesus, and that would be an obvious analogy to draw from this. However I’m going to resist. The letter that accompanied the pen described it as “a pen customers and prospects will treasure and use every day.” It is quite possible that someone will use such an everyday item, perhaps they will treasure it. But will it persuade them to come back to our church?

I think the things that attract people to churches are not the things we give away but how much of ourselves we give away. Our church has a reputation for being warm and friendly. But “warm and friendly” is not the same as “loving”. It’s easy to love those whom we have got to know but how do we show love to the newcomer?

I haven’t got any profound answers to that question at the moment. We are working on it. but I think the way that we listen, value people, respond to their needs, open our homes, share our lives is far more significance than a pen.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

laws of computing (look for the pen*)

1. When computing, whatever happens, behave as though you meant it to happen.

2. When you get to the point where you really understand your computer, it’s probably obsolete.

3. The first place to look for information is in the section of the manual where you’d least expect to find it.

4. When the going gets tough, upgrade.

5. For every action, there is an equal and opposite malfunction.

6. To err is human…to blame your computer for your mistakes is even more human, its downright natural.

7. He who laughs last, probably has a back-up.

8. The number one cause of computer problems is computer solutions.

9. A complex system that doesn’t work is invariably found to have evolved from a simpler system that worked just fine.

10. A computer program will always do what you tell it to do, but rarely what you want it to do.

*these rules were offered to me when I did an Internet search for jokes about pens. I’m not sure whether pen is myself

spelunking* the Corinthians

In our evening services at the moment we are working our way through 1 Corinthians. It’sUnderground a bit like exploring a series of caves. It’s dark and murky in places but you keep coming into new chambers in which there are spectacular formations that take your breath away.

Sunday evening is no exception. We will be looking at chapter 5, in which Paul takes the church to task not simply for tolerating immorality but apparently embracing it. There’s a lot of murk, but in the midst is a reminder that we are sincere and true followers of Jesus in a dark and murky world.

This is a tension with which we all live. We know God’s standards, yet we fail to reach them. Just when it feels like we are doing well we find a new way to fall short of those standards, or slip back into old habits. That can be true of churches as well as individuals.

To the church in Corinth Paul warns of the effect of yeast. Yeast, in most biblical illustrations, is something small and insidious that permeates and affects the whole person or church. Yeast, for us, are the little things that have the potential to blow up into something massive.

The church that embraces immorality will find its message being ignored by those who hear it because they are being hypocritical.

The church that embraces greed will find that people write it off as ‘only after our money’.

The church that embraces pride will find that people consider that they look down their noses at others.

The church that is riddled with divisions will find that people are not interested – they have more than enough conflict in their lives already.

And the same is true of us as individuals.

Here lies the tension. We know that (whether a church or individuals) we are not perfect. We know that we fall short of God’s standards. We know that people who come in will find themselves feeling very uncomfortable if we are ‘holier than thou’.

How do we create church / be believers who are intolerant of our own sin while not condemning the sin of others, while being open and welcoming to all, while being free samples of Jesus in his world?

Perhaps the answer lies in being people who draw in the sand rather than throw stones. People who, while we recognise our own sin and wrestle with it, refuse to transfer our feelings about it onto others. People who will not condemn, but don’t condone.

Thank God he has given us his Spirit to help us!

Be blessed. Be a blessing.

A party of Methodist ministers was attending an Annual Conference at a private countryside resort. Several of them set off to explore the area, and presently they came upon an old bridge that crossed a quiet pond.

Unfortunately, they didn’t notice a sign declaring the bridge to be unsafe. As they crossed it, the caretaker came running after them. “Hey! You there! Get off that bridge!” he protested.

“It’s all right,” declared one of the ministers, “we are in this resort with permission. We’re Methodists from the Conference.”

“I’m not worried about THAT,” replied the caretaker. “But if you don’t get off that bridge, you’ll all be BAPTISTS!”

 

*spelunking is the American word for potholing or caving