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The One Thing Churches Should Do, But Don’t

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I pastored my last church in 2003. Between July 2002 and November 2008, my wife and I, along with our children, personally visited the churches that are listed below.  These are the church names we could remember. There are others we have either forgotten or vaguely remember, so we didn’t put them on the list. Churches in bold we attended more than once. All told, from 2002-2008 we visited about 125 churches. If I added every church I have ever attended or preached in my lifetime the count would be over 200.

If the church has a website, I linked to it. A handful of these churches are no longer open. Emboldened church names we visited more than once.

Churches We Visited 2002-2008Location
Our Father’s HouseWest Unity, Ohio
First Brethren ChurchBryan, Ohio
First Baptist ChurchBryan, Ohio
Grace Community ChurchBryan, Ohio
Lick Creek Church of the BrethrenBryan, Ohio
First Church of ChristBryan, Ohio
Eastland Baptist ChurchBryan, Ohio
Bryan Alliance ChurchBryan, Ohio
Union Chapel Church of GodBryan, Ohio
Celebrate Life Christian FellowshipBryan, Ohio
Faith United Methodist ChurchBryan, Ohio
Trinity Episcopal ChurchBryan, Ohio
Archbold Evangelical Church Archbold, Ohio
Sherwood Baptist ChurchSherwood, Ohio
Ney Church of GodNey, Ohio
Ney United Methodist ChurchNey, Ohio
Sonrise Community ChurchNey, Ohio
Farmer United Methodist ChurchFarmer, Ohio
Lost Creek Emmanuel Missionary ChurchFarmer, Ohio
Hicksville Church of the NazareneHicksville, Ohio
Community Christian CenterHicksville, Ohio
Grace Bible ChurchButler, Indiana
St John’s Lutheran ChurchDefiance, Ohio
Harvest Life FellowshipDefiance, Ohio
Community Christian CenterDefiance, Ohio
Second Baptist ChurchDefiance, Ohio
First Baptist ChurchDefiance, Ohio
Grace Episcopal ChurchDefiance, Ohio
First Assembly of GodDefiance, Ohio
Defiance Christian ChurchDefiance, Ohio
First Presbyterian ChurchDefiance, Ohio
St John’s United Church of ChristDefiance, Ohio
Peace Lutheran ChurchDefiance, Ohio
Pine Grove Mennonite ChurchStryker, Ohio
St James Lutheran ChurchBurlington, Ohio
Zion Lutheran ChurchEdgerton, Ohio
Northwest Christian ChurchEdon, Ohio
Restoration FellowshipWilliams Center, Ohio
Pioneer Bible FellowshipPioneer, Ohio
Frontier Baptist ChurchFrontier, Michigan
Salem Mennonite ChurchWaldron, Michigan
Waldron Wesleyan ChurchWaldron, Michigan
Lickley Corners Baptist ChurchWaldron, Michigan
Prattville Community ChurchPrattville, Michigan
Betzer Community ChurchPittsford, Michigan
Fayette Church of the NazareneFayette, Ohio
Fayette Bible ChurchFayette, Ohio
Fayette Christian ChurchFayette, Ohio
Morenci Bible FellowshipMorenci, Michigan
First Baptist ChurchMorenci, Michigan
Demings Lake Reformed Baptist ChurchDemings Lake, Michigan
Medina Federated ChurchMedina, Michigan
Thornhill Baptist ChurchHudson, Michigan
First Baptist ChurchHudson, Michigan
Rollins Friends ChurchAddison, Michigan
Canandaigua Community ChurchCanandaigua. Michigan
Alvordton United BrethrenAlvordton, Ohio
Pettisville Missionary ChurchPettisville, Ohio
Vineyard ChurchToledo, Ohio
Providence Reformed Baptist ChurchToledo, Ohio
Lighthouse Memorial ChurchMillersport, Ohio
Newark Baptist TempleHeath, Ohio
Church of GodHeath, Ohio
30th Street Baptist ChurchHeath, Ohio
St Francis De Sales Catholic ChurchNewark, Ohio
Bible Baptist ChurchNewark, Ohio
Cedar Hill Baptist ChurchNewark, Ohio
Eastland Heights Baptist ChurchNewark, Ohio
Northside Baptist ChurchNewark, Ohio
Newark Brethren ChurchNewark, Ohio
St John’s Lutheran ChurchNewark, Ohio
Vineyard of Licking CountyNewark, Ohio
Vineyard Grace FellowshipNewark, Ohio
Grace FellowshipNewark, Ohio
Faith Bible ChurchJersey, Ohio
Vineyard Christian ChurchPataskala, Ohio
Cornerstone Baptist ChurchNew Lexington, Ohio
St Nicolas Greek Orthodox ChurchFort Wayne, Indiana
Nondenominational ChurchAngola, Indiana
Nondenominational ChurchFremont, Indiana
Victory Baptist ChurchClare, Michigan
First Assembly of GodYuma, Arizona
Desert Grace Community ChurchYuma, Arizona
Calvary Lutheran ChurchYuma, Arizona
Bible Baptist ChurchYuma, Arizona
Calvary ChapelYuma, Arizona
OasisYuma, Arizona
Faith Baptist ChurchYuma, Arizona
Valley Baptist ChurchYuma, Arizona
Calvary Assembly of GodYuma, Arizona
Foothills Assembly of GodYuma, Arizona
Morningside Baptist ChurchYuma, Arizona
Faith Horizons Baptist ChurchYuma, Arizona
Stone Ridge Baptist ChurchYuma, Arizona
Old Order Mennonite ChurchYuma, Arizona
Grace Bible FellowshipYuma, Arizona
Calvary Temple of ChristYuma, Arizona
Maranatha Baptist ChurchYuma, Arizona
Independent Lutheran ChurchYuma, Arizona
Community Christian ChurchYuma, Arizona
Church meeting in funeral chapelYuma, Arizona
Pentecostal ChurchWinterhaven, California
North Holtville Friends ChurchHoltville, California
Sierra Vista Baptist ChurchSierra Vista, Arizona
Hedgesville Baptist ChurchHedgesville, West Virginia
New Life Baptist ChurchWeston, West Virginia

We visited all sorts of Christian churches, with varying beliefs and practices. We didn’t visit many Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) congregations. No need — been there, done that. What we found is that the churches we attended didn’t really care about us; that we were just asses in their seats and money in their offering plates. Often, we were treated as if we were unwanted. We were able to get in and out of one church of 300 or so people without anyone speaking one word to us. Congregants were often stand-offish, wondering why we were attending THEIR churches.

I was a pastor for twenty-five years. When someone visited our church, I made sure I introduced myself to them. I made sure they received a visitor’s card. I encouraged church members to warmly welcome new people, knowing first impressions mattered. On Monday or Tuesday, I would call people who visited on Sunday and ask if it would be okay to come and visit them. (I also visited the homes of church members several times a year.) Most visitors said yes. Over the course of twenty-five years, I personally visited hundreds of visitors, often taking one of the men from the church with me. Sometimes, depending on the circumstance, I would ask Polly and one of the church women to visit newcomers.

I believed then, and still do today, that personal contact with visitors is important for church growth (or business growth, in general.) Sitting in someone’s home allows them to feel comfortable and more willing to share their stories and ask questions. By my actions, I was saying to visitors that I cared about them and wanted to help them in any way I could.

I know that part of the reason for doing this is my personality and work background. I was a people person, even though I often craved being left alone. Was it my schtick? I don’t think so. I genuinely wanted to help people. I worked a lot of public-facing jobs, especially restaurant management. I honed my people skills by interacting with customers and staff. According to others, I was good at my job.

Out of the churches listed above, do you know how many contacted us by personally visiting us or calling us on the phone? Five. That means that almost ninety-five percent of the churches we visited showed no interest in us post-visit. Only one church contacted us once, a GARBC church. Several churches we attended for months, never contacted us. We were non-existent to them. Thank you for the offering. See ya next week.

We concluded that most churches didn’t give a shit about us. And then one day, neither did we.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Darcy Walker

    Three hundred people?? And no one noticed you two? Our Unitarian Universalist Church has visitor and member tags. We have a “pass the peace” time to greet, shake hands (or touch elbows!), and notice people with visitor tags. We need to connect with visitors, and I used to be the one to contact those who filled out a card and wanted follow-up by email. Not sure who does contacting now. We also have a Seekers religious education group before service, with people who never attend service at 11 am. I attend Seekers, and conversations range all over. We have “chalice groups,” with up to 12 people including some non members, and that’s one answer to small group worship, with topics for listening and then discussion.

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    Amazed the church has 300 people. I’ve heard tell in area Baptist churches some only have 15 that even attend anymore.

  3. Avatar
    Neil Rickert

    “What we found is that the churches we attended didn’t really care about us; that we were just asses in their seats and money in their offering plates. Often, we were treated as if we were unwanted.”

    This was my experience as a grad student. I attended a local community church, and they did not seem to care about me.

    This is why I left Christianity. Perhaps the church was doing me a favor, since it did lead to my giving up on religion.

    “I was a pastor for twenty-five years. When someone visited our church, I made sure I introduced myself to them. I made sure they received a visitor’s card. I encouraged church members to warmly welcome new people, knowing first impressions mattered.”

    This describes my experience growing up. And I have no regrets about those years, even though by now I recognize that a lot of it was nonsense.

    It wasn’t the colorful cakes — I’ve never been a big fan of cakes. It was the friendship and welcoming to the community that was probably important as I was growing up. And it wasn’t just my age. The pastor at that church would even welcome a drunk who showed up at church.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Call me a provincial New Yorker, but I never imagined that towns like Bryan or Defiance could have so many churches!

    Bruce—I imagine that there are many other people who would say the most important thing in their lives is their relationship with Jesus but don’t become pastors, ministers or priests. The more I read your stories, the more I believe that you were just as motivated by caring about people.

  5. Avatar
    Danny Plumber

    Boy, I couldn’t agree with you more, Bruce! My father was a Baptist minister for over 50 years and he always made a point of greeting everyone and having people in the back making sure that everyone was welcomed. Without that, what have you got? A social club, which is exactly what my last few experiences of going to church have been like. You know the routine. You go and get a seat while the praise and worship team, with two hot girls in front trying not to look too hot, sing vapid choruses about the wind and the rain and how much Jebus loves us and how much we love Jebus. Then some dude from missions comes up and tells us how they need more money for their building project in Bungo Wungo. Then some guy who wishes he had been in Stryper sings a song on acoustic guitar that he wrote the night before about, you guessed it, how much Jebus loves us and how much we love Jebus. Finally, the pastor, usually wearing tennis shoes and a three day old beard to impress the 15 year old girls, gets up and tells us that the rapture will happen any day now and that we need to vote for the godly republican candidates. Also, Jebus loves you and we love Jebus. When its over, everyone quickly goes to their circles of friends and laugh loudly to let you know that your not a part of their cool group, and you stand there with your yang in your hand wondering what to do now. Finally as you are going out the church door you might be lucky if someone says ” Thanks for coming”, as they hurry off to their single mothers meeting. Ah, the church going experience! Oh, and dont forget, you’ll see most of these people later at Denny’s and Perkins. Of course they won’t even know who you are.

  6. Avatar

    That’s one problem with a church service. While everyone is in the same room, there isn’t much interaction between the people themselves.
    I wonder if churches are really making a mistake? If you drop in once and then move on to the next church was it really the lack of rolling out the red carpet? No matter how friendly a reception, if you’re not feeling the vibe you’ll be off to kiss the next frog.
    I recall watching a YouTube video of a visit to a megachurch for Christmas. Maybe that’s what (some) people want? “I checked the box now let’s go home!”

  7. Avatar

    I guess I’m the outlier. I’m somewhat of an introvert. Although, I work in hospitality and interact with people all the time. When I was still visiting different churches, I wanted people to leave me alone when I first visited. I grew up as a PK in an IFB church. I’m very familiar with the greet/follow up visit. I wanted no part of it. It never felt sincere. However, I’ll introduce myself and welcome anyone new in my neighborhood. FYI, I no longer go to church.

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    Karuna Gal

    I have some ideas about why many churches don’t or don’t know how to engage in outreach to prospective members or even retain their own members. In the old days most people were born into a certain church tradition and lived in that tradition all their lives, at least nominally. If your family was Lutheran you remained a Lutheran. If you were Protestant you were always a Protestant. Moving to another denomination was rare and frowned upon. It was socially acceptable and important that you belonged to a certain Christian denomination. You’d most likely marry someone from your church tradition, and raise your children in it. So churches knew they had a captive audience, you might say. They didn’t have to work hard to retain a healthy membership or attract new members.
    Assimilation of ethnic groups into American culture causes their related churches to decline (Lutheran Germans and Scandinavians), for instance. The ability to “church shop” without social penalties now has decimated a lot of churches. And of course there are people not interested in being part of a church at all. Better education and critical thinking skills undermine religious belief. Churches were sitting pretty for many years and don’t have the knowledge or wherewithal to deal with these issues. Their traditions, especially Mainline churches’, have no precedent for dealing with all this. So they just go on as usual, totally in denial. Maybe the overwhelming difficulty of solving their problems causes them to act this way.
    When I left my (Mainline) church only a few people called me to ask what happened. Were they clergy? Church leaders? Nope. Typical.
    I read articles written by Christian religious leaders bemoaning the fact of their declining numbers. But the solutions they come up with are laughable and seem to have been pulled out of the air. They could, at the very least, make an effort to walk their talk and try to be a place where the”little ones” and strangers, as well as the important ones, are all friendly and interested in each other and each others’ welfare. Y’know, follow Jesus? 😉

  9. Avatar

    I live in a large urban area on the west coast where I would be unable to find 200 churches within 30 minutes of home. On my last church search, each church I visited (maybe 10?) were very friendly and at least 7 of them contacted me post-visit. Could it be a church-saturation issue? No one expects you to return? A church of under 50 in my area eventually dies or merges with another church needing their building.

    I am a committed Christian but I’ve kept up with your blog because your insights and observations about how churches operate are accurate.

  10. Avatar
    Karuna Gal

    In the interest of fairness I also have to add that the problem of not welcoming and engaging new people is not confined to churches. When I first got interested in Buddhism I went to a “Newcomer’s Evening” at a long-established Tibetan Buddhist center. No one at the door welcomed me or the other newcomers. There were no announcements about what newcomers should do or who we could talk to. So I just followed what everyone was doing. And of course I never went back. The other two Buddhist temples I went to were much more welcoming,and I still am involved with both of them. 🙂

  11. Avatar

    One thing I noticed about Catholic Masses – and I have been to quite a few different parishes – is that it’s completely possible to go in and out without having to speak to another person except for the obligatory passing of the peace. I have attended a few different evangelical churches in the South where newcomers were greeted upon entering the church and were encouraged to fill out a visitor’s card. I have felt most welcomed at a UCC in NJ where we ended up as regular members for a few years – there was a designated greeter each week who would have a conversation with the visitor’s, find out a little about them, and introduce them to someone in the congregation who shared something similar (music, an industry, a hobby, etc). And the visitor’s were encouraged to stay for coffee hour after church where members would chat with the visitors. It was actually a welcoming community (and open and affirming to boot).

  12. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Obstacle—You’re right about Catholic masses.

    I don’t know what Hispanic fundamentalist and evangelical churches are like. But if they are more welcoming, that could be a reason why some Latino/as are switching from their hereditary Catholicism. After all, if you’re in a strange city and country and you are welcomed in your own language , that might be reason to stay.

    • Avatar

      MJ, that’s a good point. There are quite a large number of Spanish-speaking churches in the NY-NJ area that are not Catholic. I am sure that the community of people speaking the same language is a draw.

  13. Avatar

    Whew! It’s not as though you left the church you pastored and never darkened another church door. That’s an astonishing list. All those churches, and only five of them seemed at all interested in having you in their congregation? That’s pathetic, but it tends to back my theory that a lot of churches are mostly social clubs, with the spiritual needs of members coming in second.

  14. Avatar

    After reading some of the comments, I’m having a bit of second thoughts about my earlier comment. Especially when you figure all the effort some denominations go through to reel in new members, including door-to-door solicitation. Here it is served up on a plate and they don’t do the minimum? Visitor cards and follow up seems like a no brainer. I’d also include routine educating the congregation to welcome new members, this can be done with help of the visitor cards with a brief introduction. Of course this isn’t possible in the megachurches. (One reason I like smallish blogs like this one. You can read all the comments.)

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