(Before I begin, let me state that the purpose of this post in NOT criticize this church...my hope is that I can use my experience to further understand how to become the church that God wants us to be. I'm not going to mention the church's name...it's not a church I've discussed on PW before. If you can gain something from my experience, even better.)
I'm in Durham, NC this weekend because my wife is still in the hospital (almost two weeks). Tricia has been wanting to go visit a certain local church for the first time, and although she couldn't go, I went for her. I decided to go in with the mindset of trying to view everything as a first-time, unchurched guest (again, so that I can try to understand how first-time, unchurched guests view their experience at NHC). Because I grew up in the church and was brainwashed for several years, I can guarantee I didn't do a super job of thinking like an unchurched guest...but, hopefully I did OK.
This church meets in a strip mall. I only took a look at the small entrance lobby and the worship center, but I could see some kind of kid's area as well off to one side. The worship center seats about 250. There are colorful stage lights, and decent sound system, two projectors and screens on each side of the stage flashing graphics and announcements before the service, and video/lyrics/scripture/etc. during the service. There are actually two stages...one in the center holds the worship leader guy and his acoustic guitar and wireless head mic, three BGV singers (all ladies), a lady on the keys and a guy playing some percussion things. The second stage off to the left holds the electric guitar, bass and electric drums and the guys playing them.
I parked in the "first-time guest" designated parking space. I'm typically an outgoing guy, but not when I enter into a completely new environment, so I didn't go out of my way to talk to anyone. I walked directly into the worship center and found a seat in an empty row of chairs. I did not sing any of the songs (a few were familiar to me), I did not take any notes, I did not put anything in the offering basket, I did not seek out anyone to meet when they told us to get to know somebody after the first song.
So, here are a few things that I noticed based on my viewpoint as a first-time, unchurched guest:
> They had a couple of speakers on stands set up in the parking lot playing music. This was cool, but I did not recognize the music (actually, I did, but I'm trying to think like an unchurched person...). I think I'd feel more comfortable if they were playing something familiar.
> Before I reached the front door from the parking lot, a young lady approached me and asked if I was a first-time guest. I said, "yes", and she welcomed me and handed me a white bag (I'll tell you what was in the bag later). I thought this was cool at first, until I realized that this was a very sneaky way for the church to tag me as a first-time guest so that everyone else would know I was a first-time guest...this was not cool. I wanted to be able to go to this church and be as invisable OR visable as I wanted to be...I wanted to wait until I had a feel for what this church before I identified myself as the outsider. Furthermore, I did not see anyone else carrying a white bag like mine, which made me feel even more uncomfortable. I could literally feel the people I passed in the lobby and worship center on my way to my seat looking first at my white bag and then at me. When I reached my seat, I tried to hide the white bag as best I could.
> When I reached the front door, a guy handed me a card...he smiled but didn't speak. I glanced at the card and quickly put it in my white bag. When I reached my seat, I pulled the card out of my bag...it asked me for my information and if I wanted any more information about the church. Nobody ever mentioned why they wanted my information, why I should want the church information, or what I was supposed to do with the card.
> Except for the girl who handed me the white bag and the guy at the door who smiled, nobody made any contact with me. I guess that's OK, because, again, I want to be as invisable as I want to be. (But, had I really been an unchurched guest, I wonder if I would have known to enter the bigger room with the seats and lights and stage and sit down anywhere I wanted to sit.)
> I sat in a chair in an empty row of about 15 chairs about the middle left side of the room. Nobody sat in my row...I wonder why. The room only ended up about 35% full, but it seemed that everyone I could see was sitting with other people. It's not that I wanted to sit with anyone, but I wonder why.
> I only arrived about 2 minutes before the service began, so I didn't get to see much of what was being displayed on the big screens, but the ones I saw looked like some announcements that were meant for the people who were already going to that church. The graphics were cool, but they didn't seem like they were communicating to me.
> The service began with when about 10 people walked up onto the stage and grabbed the instruments and mics and began playing and singing a song that I had never heard. The words to the song were up on the screen. A few people around me were clapping and/or singing, but most everyone sat and watched an listened...I was cool with this because I didn't know the song and I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be singing.
> The first song ended and the guy with the guitar (I didn't find out his name until near the end of the service) asked us to stand and then turn and shake somebody's hand. I was sitting alone in my row, but a family of three in front of me eventually turned around and shook my hand and said, "hi".
(Read Part 2)