December 13, 2012

What ARE you saying?

Often, the message we send is not the same as the message received. I was reminded of this recently when I came across this statement in a church bulletin:

“[Name of church] is an Accessible [sic] Church. For assistance, please ring the doorbell or ask for John.”

Here’s a prime example of good intentions gone awry. I was sitting in a pew when I read this. Aside from the obvious fact that I’m already inside, the directions for how to get inside assume two things: that I know where the doorbell is (I don’t remember seeing any signs on my way in) and that there is a way for me to contact John from outside.

What I believe the congregation intended was to be welcoming to persons with all types of abilities and to let us know how you can enter the church without having to climb stairs. The crux of the matter is that we can forget what it is like to be new to a church and even more so to our very own church. Words that we use, however well intended they are, can come off as meaningless or confusing or offensive. Other times it’s the words we forget to use.

Since moving to New York, I’ve been visiting a different church every Sunday. And, while I’ve experienced amazing liturgies, met fabulous people, and learned of fantastic ministries, these visits have also reminded me of the value of paying close attention to the experience of being a visitor to our churches.

Here are a few other messages from Sunday bulletins that fall short of communicating their intended message:

  • “If you are visiting today, please give generously.”
  • Discovering an entire page – of very dense text - that, to the church’s credit, did have a welcome statement but then also talked about the parish, then what the liturgy was all about, what books were used, and informed visitors how they should participate.
  • “Please feel free to speak up loud [sic] and clearly in those moments of the liturgy that call for congregational response. You will be setting a good example.”
  • No note of welcome anywhere, or in some cases, it’s buried in the announcements.
  • Announcements that almost exclusively talked about money in one way or another.

Another message that I really noticed was the lack of thankfulness. Out of the dozen parishes I have been to, only in a handful was the congregation thanked for being at worship and even fewer put this in the bulletin. Are you grateful for those who are in your midst? I know of one parish that every week in the Prayers of the People, prays and gives thanks for visitors with them and for those who have yet to walk in their doors.

With Christmas approaching and with it an increased number of visitors to our churches, this is a good time to take a moment to look over your bulletins from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about your church. Ask yourself, what is this saying? Does it make sense?

This isn’t always easy and you might not know what to do. Try to find someone who doesn’t go to your church and can provide honest and critical feedback to look at the bulletin. A colleague in a neighboring church, ideally not much like your own, is a good option. Offer to swap bulletins and provide feedback of your own.

If you print announcements, take care to think about what these messages say about your congregation to both those within and outside your church community. Do your announcements reflect your congregation’s mission, vision, and values? Try to find a balance in the content and make sure you have at least one thing about outreach and giving back and how others can participate.

By taking time to think about what your bulletins are saying, I hope that you will be helping to invite the joy and celebration of the Nativity into the hearts of the visitors in your midst.