I’m watching her as I wait in line. First impression? She is relentlessly cheerful. Emma, who looks to be in her thirties, is taking orders at the Schnitz Deli in Grand Rapids where I stop for a sandwich after a meeting. Emma asks enthusiastically, “How are you doing? What would you like today?” After I order a California Reuben, she says, “You have an accent. You’re not from around here, are you?”
“I lived here for twenty years, but I’m originally from the Philadelphia area.”
“That’s what I thought! Well, I love your accent. It’s sweet!”
After waiting for a short while, Emma shouts out my name, I pick up my sandwich, and she says, “Honey, here’s your food. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks for coming to the Schnitz.”
Will I go back to the Schnitz? You bet I will.
First impressions are made within the first minutes and even seconds. Kristi Hedges writes in the September 5, 2014 issue of Forbes Magazine, “In our society, we put a great amount of energy into helping people form good first impressions, from crafting perfect elevator pitches to touting the importance of a firm handshake. You can be made to feel that if you blow a first impression, you’ll never regain footing.”
A few weeks ago some out-of-town friends visited our church. We showed them around the building and introduced them to others before worship. At Coffee Hour after worship we noticed our friends standing in a corner of the Fellowship Hall all by themselves while everyone else was busy chatting with their friends. Even in the “friendliest” of churches, it happens. I wonder what they were thinking.
In his bestselling book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes, “It is a central part of what it means to be human.” Gladwell refers to a theory called thin-slicing, whereby we tend to make judgments of others based on only a few seconds of interaction. He writes, “We thin-slice whenever we meet a new person or have to make sense of something quickly or encounter a novel situation. We thin-slice because we have to, and we come to rely on that ability because there are lots of situations where careful attention to the details of a very thin slice, even for no more than a second or two, can tell us an awful lot.”
No doubt first impressions can speak volumes. Having visited many churches over the years, I notice if the grass is not mowed, no one greets me at the door, the carpet in the nursery is filthy, the restrooms smell, the ushers are sullen and the church bulletin is full of typos. When churches don’t put their best foot forward in service to God, I make quick judgments about how much they really care about their church and, consequently, their faith.
On the other hand, first impressions can sometimes get in the way of accurately assessing a church as well as a restaurant or business. Do I have the grace to overcome ingrained impressions that may get in the way of a real impression? How long does it take to discern the true DNA of a person or organization? Do my negative first impressions say more about me than about people or congregations? Are real churches perfect?
A young man shared this story when his family decided to joined a church I pastored. “A friend and mentor from work knew that my wife and I were looking for a church and told us to try your church. We also knew Kathy from your church, who said, ‘You’ve got to try my church. Why don’t you usher with me?’ We took it slow and discovered that you take seriously spiritual formation for all ages. We always leave church with something to think about. And, as my wife has been going through treatment for cancer, we can’t believe the support the church is giving us. This church is real. We are so blessed to be here.”
What kinds of first impressions create real churches?
- People want to know that you really do care about them. When church volunteers are out on the front lines in the parking lot helping people find parking spaces or offering an umbrella in the rain, guests realize that they are important and that the church values their presence.
- People want to know if they will be able to form deep relationships. Most people looking for churches yearn for friendship. If church members are so intent on chatting with their current friends that they don’t bother to connect with guests during their worship experience, new people can only assume that they are not wanted or needed.
- People want to walk into a church and feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. You can tell when a congregation is expecting the Spirit to move among the body of Christ in worship. You may not be able to describe it, but you can feel it. It’s an excitement, a joy in Christ and an awareness that God’s grace is permeating the sanctuary with hope as well as challenge.
- People want to believe that they are not mere spectators in worship but are part of a team of disciples of Jesus Christ who are fired up to love God, connect their faith and everyday life and bring in God’s kingdom. There is a palpable energy in churches that expect the Holy Spirit to show up every Sunday to empower the congregation to go forth to serve God by doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God. Worship is not flawless, but it is real, participatory, authentic and touches the soul.
- People want to sense that this church will be there for them in time of need, encourage them and their children to grow spiritually and challenge them to discover their gifts and use them to change the world. I’ll never forget a man who joined the church one day and became a great leader in the congregation. When asked how he found his new church home, he replied, “On my first Sunday I read the church’s mission statement in the bulletin and told myself, ‘If I find that this congregation’s beliefs and actions truly align with their mission statement, and if I discover that this church is for real, I’m staying.’” He stayed. Any size church can create systems of support, spiritual growth and service for all ages that compel others to say, “Sign me up!”
First impressions are not always real impressions, and at times we need to rethink initial judgments. At the same time, thin-slicing is a reality. First impressions will be formed this coming Sunday, which for many churches is the first Sunday of fall programming, a time when first-time guests often come seeking a spiritual home for their family. That’s why my prayer this week is that every church will be real. Guests who are new to a church seek a congregation that is real, a place where others are authentic and genuine and where they can feel safe to become their true self.
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” ― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
What kind of church will you be this Sunday? Thank God for real impressions and real church.