On Church Leadership
Seven Characteristics of Inspirational Churches
By Pastor John Braland, President of IMF's Board of Directors
Every summer I take several weeks off to take vacation, study, do strategic planning, and visit churches. Since I pastor a church, I don’t get many opportunities to attend other churches unless I am off for the weekend. Visiting other churches gives me the opportunity to experience church life as a guest. I get to observe church life as an outsider rather than an insider and what I have found over the years has helped me bring back fresh insights to my own church and minimize weaknesses that could potentially prevent people from connecting with God. Every pastor wants their church to be warm and inviting to new guests, but many churches flat out are not. I think there are seven characteristics that inspirational churches share. You may add one or two to your own list, but if you want your church to be warm and welcoming to guests, you should pay attention to these characteristics.
1. Inviting facility. What message does your facility send? If you have ever used the bathroom at a convenience store or restaurant you know what I am talking about. It doesn’t matter if you meet in a school, warehouse, traditional space, or new building. Your facility sends a message to guests. Is there good signage to direct people? Is the lawn mowed? Is it trimmed? Is the paint peeling or shrubs dying? Is your entry well lit and comfortable? What about your carpet, bathrooms, halls and walls? What message do they send? If the exterior and interior of your facility are neat and clean it sends the message that you care. If not, it sends the message that you don’t. It’s that simple. Churches need to pay attention to the message they send with their facility.
2. Incredible environment. The lighting, temperature, seating arrangement, stage set, carpet, and color choices all help to create your environment. Is there background music playing before and after services? If you have screens located throughout your facility, are they lit? What’s on them? When every element works together it creates a tangible resonance that just feels good. When the elements don’t, it creates dissidence which feels uncomfortable. Think about it like this, when individual musicians come together to play the same song it helps move people. If each musicians played their own song to their own beat in the same room it would sound irritating to say the least. You need to make sure all the elements are working in harmony. This might involve minor tweaks like adding background music or more significant changes such as moving your refreshment table or guest connection center (which I suggest you have).
3. Engaging staff. Engaging staff encompasses both paid and volunteer staff since guests don’t distinguish. I recently attended two churches in the same community. At one church, I was greeted at the door with a smile and a “hello, welcome” by volunteers. At the other church, I wasn’t greeted at the door by anyone. In fact, I wasn’t greeted in the lobby or entrance to the sanctuary either. This sent a huge message that I was an outsider. I noticed people talking to each other, but nobody said anything to me. It felt weird and I’m a pastor! Ironically, if I were to ask the pastor if his church was friendly, he would say “absolutely.” In reality, their unfriendliness made me feel unwelcome.
People want to know who they need to talk to if they were to need someone. It is helpful for guests if church staff wear some type of identifier. Name tags, badges, or special shirts work depending on the type of church.
4. Inspiring worship. Music moves the heart. It can stir emotions like nothing else so church leaders should create service sets that inspire people and leave them with a tune in their head to hum throughout the week. The worship doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to be played with excellence because we want to give our best to God. Good transitions help people move from one song to the next and can add to the worship experience rather than detract from it. When the worship team is into what they are doing, the congregation will follow.
5. Relevant messages. Inspiring churches don’t always have the best orators or communicators. What they do have is a pastor who believes in what they are saying and says it clearly with conviction. Like you, I have sat through my share of painful messages (I have even given a few). I don’t like being yelled at or talked down to. What I do like is to dig into the scriptures and learn how they apply to my life right now. I think that’s what most people want. Don’t try to dazzle people with your Greek and Hebrew, dazzle them by holding God’s work up high and helping them to understand it in a way that is transformational.
Before I deliver any message I manuscript it out and hand it to my teaching team to review it and make comments. My team consists of three people, two volunteers and a full time staff. Their edits help ensure the message is clear and concise. I appreciate them more than I can say in print because they help me to communicate God’s word better. I learned long ago that I would rather have a trusted friend tell me it’s a bad message before I delivered it, than after.
6. Intentional relationships. Friendly churches are always trying to befriend new people. They have people strategically placed to make connections with others because they value relationships. Guests are invited to stop at their information centers and have an easy process for connecting with other members and regular attenders. This might include an invitation to come to a Next Steps class, membership class, or information dessert. Relationships are the glue that holds churches together and if people feel welcome and accepted, you need to provide a process for them to take the next step in connecting. Remember the church I went to where nobody said anything to me? They were all so connected to each other they ignored me making me feel like it was an ingrown church that doesn’t really want to grow.
7. Easy involvement. I read a statistic that said that sixty percent of guests who attend a church are looking for a significant place to get involved. Churches need to create a process that enables this to happen. Do you know the process for people to get involved at your church? Would a guest know this process? Are there volunteer opportunities with job descriptions on the web site? Does the staff at the connection center know how to get people connected and involved? To the insider, getting involved isn’t the issue, but to the new person, they have no idea who to talk to or how to get involved. Spell it out for them using an online platform because the web is the first place everyone goes for information.
I hope you dig into these seven characteristics because they matter, not just a little, they matter a lot. If you want your church to grow and make disciples, you need to take a good hard look at what you are currently doing. You might need to make a few changes, but ultimately they will help your church to stay on mission. We need more healthy churches, and yours can be one of them.
Pastor John Braland
President, IMF's Board of Directors