Recently, my wife and I have found ourselves in discussions about restaurants where we've dined. We enjoyed the food in each place and found the staff sufficiently friendly. But several aspects loomed large in our conversation, provoking me--ever the preacher--to thinking about how churches could benefit from studying what these eating establishments are doing, and what they're not doing.
1. I wish churches put as much emphasis on friendly greeters at the front door as great restaurants do.
Often they are teenagers, or perhaps college students. The kids are fresh-faced, sweet-spirited, well-dressed, and friendly. The graciousness appears genuine.
Have you ever walked up to an unfamiliar church and saw no one at the doors, no greeters or welcoming team anywhere on the premises? It happens to me frequently.
Are restaurants more interested in welcoming paying customers than churches are interested in showing hospitality to people coming to worship the living Christ?
Even so, sometime in the service the preacher or a staff member will give a verbal welcome. They will tell how much this church loves visitors and guests. But it doesn't wash. It rings hollow.
Take the business of having a handshaking, fellowshiping time in the middle of the worship service. If the members do not care enough to greet newcomers before and/or after the service, any attempt to do so within the service itself doesn't work. To a visitor, the only friendliness that counts is the spontaneous outpouring prior to and after the worship.
The most successful restaurants choose greeters carefully and train them. Managers monitor them occasionally and correct the greeters who are not getting it right. Furthermore, these young people are surrounded by a staff of their peers who will help them.
Churches can learn from this. A church interested in effectively welcoming newcomers will have continual greeter training going on.
2. I wish churches knew what restaurants know: while the food served is the main thing, it's not the only thing.
Many pastors make the mistake of assuming if their sermon is a winner, worshipers can put up with just about anything else.
Not even close.
These days, in middle-sized to large towns, worshipers have their choice of several fine churches with excellent preaching. All things being equal, they will gravitate toward the church that does the best job of showing newcomers they are welcome, helping them find rooms and events, and making their initial experience a good one.
My wife and I ate lunch at a well-known restaurant in our neighborhood last week. I pointed out to her that when the restaurant changed ownership not long ago, they began trying to upgrade the facility. She said, "Good thing."
In places, the paint was peeling, the floors needed attention, and the weeds were growing in corners of the yard. The service was slow, although the food was outstanding.
We had been wondering if this was the restaurant to book for Easter Sunday. I was willing, but Margaret wanted to treat our guests a little better than this, so we went elsewhere.
The most successful restaurants do not rely solely on their menu to bring customers back. They are always painting and cleaning. Likewise, the eateries that neglect their appearance will soon find themselves without customers.
3. The main thing is the food. It is a restaurant, after all. And restaurants--like churches--must never forget why they are in business. For churches, the main thing is the message preached.
A store in Dothan, Alabama, sported a large sign in its window: "Going out of business because we forgot what we were in business for." (Wouldn't you love to know the story behind that? I would.)
When I'm hungry and looking for a restaurant, even though the appearance and cleanliness of the facility and the friendliness of the staff and efficiency of the waiters are important, what matters most is the food. If I'm in the mood for a steak, my mind quickly flits through the steakhouses in our area and sorts them out. Which is our favorite? Which offers the best dining experience? Which will not bust my wallet?
The preacher of this church is a great guy but he doesn't study. His sermons are shallow and dull. So, I'll pass, thank you.
The pastor of the next church knows his Hebrew and Greek and will let you know it in a heartbeat. He loves to study, his sermons are deep, and I always learn something. But there seems to be something lacking--something like practical application. The pastor lacks an appreciation for what working people deal with during the week.
What else ya got?
The third pastor is evangelistic. I like that. But I wish he was equally into discipling the believers. If you want a friend to hear the gospel and have the opportunity to be saved, bring him here one Sunday. But then, take him somewhere else to learn what living the Christian life is all about.
The fourth pastor works hard at finding the balance. That's my guy. That's my pastor of choice.
4. Speaking of choice... people have choices these days, in where they will eat as well as where they will worship.
I hate this about what the Christian faith has become in this country, but it's there nonetheless.
In the Alabama town we visited last week, the mega-First Baptist Church sits across the street from the huge First United Methodist Church. And in between, almost crowded out, sits the tiny Church of Christ.
Many medium-sized towns across the Southland will have a downtown intersection where four Christian churches of different denominations occupy all four corners.
It's truly weird.
I wonder what the Lord thinks about it. But there it is.
Whatever else we make of it, good or bad, people today have choices where they will worship, just as they do where they will dine.
I live in the Deep South. Can you tell? There are still communities in this country where the choices are extremely limited. But not in the South. Someone once said Texas is a star-shaped state covered by a thin layer of Baptists. Or, maybe you heard it this way: In (fill in the blank with your favorite southern state), there are more church members than people.
5. However, let's not overdo this parallelism. A restaurant lives by the bottom line. A church does not and should not ever.
The church member who divides the number of people reached for the Lord into the total budget to see if they are getting their money worth is missing the point. It does not work that way.
The church member who divides the number of people saved into the total expenditure for last week's revival to determine whether the investment was worthwhile is missing something major.
No church should be making a profit or declaring dividends.
The Lord's churches will always be straining at the limit of their resources. They will be finding new opportunities, gaining new vision, and opening new enterprises all the time.
When John Bisagno went to the First Baptist Church of Houston, Texas, as pastor nearly 50 years ago--that seems so strange now, since I recall when it happened--the church was stagnated in growth and forgotten by the city. Looking over the finances, Brother John saw a bank account holding $60,000, a goodly sum in those days.
"What's this for?" he asked.
The financial manager said, "That's for a rainy day."
The pastor said, "For a rainy day? My lord, it's been flooding for years!!"
That money was spent quickly as their new pastor called the church into action.
The only one who should be making a profit from a church sits on the Throne in Heaven. We who labor on His staff, so to speak, should keep His resources working for Him and not bury them in the ground like a disobedient servant Jesus spoke about. After all, our Lord's resources are as infinite as He is. He is not pleased when we hoard them, pile them up in savings accounts for some possible disaster in the future, and act as if He has left us to our own devices.
Unlike restaurants, at church the Master Chef is always on the premises, ever watching over the operation, overseeing every detail, concerned about each person who enters and the personnel who serve them.
The rest of us are like teenagers at the front door, simply doing His bidding.
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