The First Time Attender Experiment - Guest Post
As a youth pastor at a church of about 400 people, I am constantly on the go during our services. Whether it is a youth event or a Sunday morning, there are people to see, students to meet, and hands to shake. I’m not used to being unknown in a church setting, rather I am accustomed to being up front and visible. Until recently, I have had a real hard time empathizing with those that are on the opposite end of the spectrum: the first time attender.I am a little twisted and I came up with an experiment last week to try to learn about the person who is so different from me. I was prompted by a simple question. Where will I feel more welcomed: The young adult church service or the bar?
I had heard about a large church which has a great college and 20-something ministry about an hour away from me. I wasn’t invited by anyone, I didn’t know a soul there, and I went alone. Let me admit that I am generally 100% extroverted, but I felt so vulnerable, even afraid, walking into this unfamiliar environment. I showed up about 3 minutes early, grabbed a coffee, and awkwardly sat down alone at the back, trying to make it as clear as possible that I didn’t know anybody. A few guys came up to me, introducing themselves and describing their role as staff at the church, but I definitely found that eye contact was avoided and people seemed to go out of their way to not sit by me (please note that I am participating in “Movember and I hold no judgment over their hesitation). The service was great, I was able to worship as a part of the congregation rather than lead it for a change, and I was about ready to leave when another staff member stopped me and had me fill out an information card. Over all I think they did enough to encourage me to come back, but I did not necessarily feel overly welcomed. The fact that I had a few conversations with several staff members was nice, but the general atmosphere had a certain vibe that this was a club that I was not yet invited to take part in. Then I went to a cool bar downtown that I had heard of and hoped to share battle stories with the enamored incumbents. I bought a beer and I found a nice ledge to lean on out on the patio. Again, I found myself pretty much ignored (I’m starting to think “Movember” was tragically harmful to this experiment) by everyone minus the staff, who were friendly and helpful. I left after my one drink, having only awkwardly talked to another dude leaning next to me. Bars are awkward when you are alone.
Part of me wishes I could put on a pretty girl disguise and track the results of the same experiment, but instead I will simply share what I’ve learned and how it affects the way I will do youth ministry: 1. Human Beings have social needs, and we all desire friendship, meaningful connections, and a place to belong. In order for Youth Ministry to be effective, it needs to be proactive in creating welcoming environments that are conscious of the most scared person in the room. It needs to be a team effort, and every student, adult leader, or Youth Pastor can make a huge impact. 2. Every little conversation counts. Beyond that, eye contact and a warm smile goes a long way. If you don’t have the time to have a conversation, the least you can do is acknowledge a first time attender’s presence. 3. Individuals who go into an environment by themselves are extremely brave and bold for doing so, and should be commended for their pursuit despite their fears. To answer the question that led me to become a first time attender, I would say that overall, I felt more welcomed in the church. My results are in no way conclusive and are influenced by my upbringing and current occupation, but I believe that this particular church earned the victory. This kind of discussion definitely merits further study (no, I’m not encouraging everyone to hit the bars hard and often), but it brought about a sincere desire to grow and lead a welcoming youth ministry that always strives to ease the fears of the first time attender.
Eric Hochhalter is a hometown and college friend who is currently serving as a Youth and Worship Pastor in the sunny state of Florida. This is his first Guest Post but most certainly not his last. You can check out his blog at foreverliftedhigher.wordpress.com.