What do we really mean?

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone

At around 9 am on the 8th September 1969 I stepped into a new world. It was an arcane environment with its own police force, punishments, shop, timetable and distinctive rules. It had a language peculiar to itself, a bizarre mixture of 60’s slang, Fenland dialect words and made up Latin (who now remembers what the Pensum was?).

The cream doughnuts in the shop were in such short supply that no more than about 20 people ever stood a chance of getting one. If you happened to be in Room 1 – and you weren’t unduly delayed at 10.45 am – then it was quick dash down two steep flights of stairs into the basement. Within minutes the whole area was a seething mass of bodies resembling a giant Rugby scrum: anything up to 70 people could be involved. To the shout of “Bundle[1]” the pushing and shoving began. The sugar rush of a real doughnut was a potent drug indeed.

Small wonder, then, that it made such an impact on Roger Waters (“I hated every second of it [school] apart from games”), that it gave him the mechanics for the most commercial song from one of the best rock groups ever[2].

Brave New World

Being catapulted into a world where you don’t know where you’re going and what people are saying is a pretty tough proposition. Your guides are few and far between and expectations seem to mount at every turn. Sometimes you only discover the things and the people you really need to avoid when it’s too late. Contrary to most expectations it wasn’t the best idea to be at the front of the queue in the shop as, in the bundle, you could quickly be trampled underfoot by some spotty 16 year old.

The real surprise comes when it all begins to make sense. You know what to do, you discover who the real players are and you even understand the little customs you need to embrace. That’s not to say that you don’t stop making mistakes - you do - and the consequences of some of them (good or bad) will follow you through the years.

I wonder what it feels like for someone who attends our church services for the first time. Are we over protective of what we have or so keen to share it that we make the occasion more of wearying trial than a joyful experience? Is it really like my first day at CHSB? I knew no one, got lost, couldn’t work a lot of things out and even strayed into enemy territory.[4] 

Keeping it simple

First impressions count. A tidy, well marked entrance with a friendly welcome and an offer of help, goes a long way. An ability to listen as well as to explain is essential – the visitor may have particular needs and would welcome direction and/or support. Clear and concise explanations of what to expect are important as is the opportunity for the first time visitor to join in or step back, in whatever way they might wish.

Notice that I say “join in” and not “participate.” This brings me to my second point: consider the way we communicate and how we explain things. What we understand by “in house” jokes, words and technical terms may not be how others perceive nor receive them. In most cases, jargon goes right over someone’s head and far from demonstrating our own technical prowess or knowledge, may put them off coming back. Preachers take particular note – finding another way to say “kerygmatic eschatology[5]” is a given. Praying for someone “laid aside on a bed of sickness” needs a radical rethink too.

All good things come to an end but how do we continue to build on the good work of a warm welcome, an easy to follow, well explained service and a message which touches someone’s heart? As in all things, strive for excellence and don’t be content just to make do: go the extra mile, invite them to join you for lunch, demonstrate God’s generosity (really good coffee not dishwater, unless you ask for it) and His Grace (real interest in the person through friendly and appropriate interaction). Address specific needs and answer questions as necessary.

An honest appraisal

Many companies employ mystery shoppers to get an unbiased opinion of their service and products. Perhaps we need to take the same kind of approach from time to time, looking in at ourselves with the eyes and critique of a first time attendee.  Does our worship as a gathered community reflect an authentic approach to engaging with God? Are we expressing faith in such a way that is understandable, accessible, relevant and likely to spark further interest?

Whether we like it or not, the church is subject to the same kind of consumer attitude as everything else we engage with. It’s about choice in the realms of practice (what I do), preferences (the things I like) and principles (the core beliefs I hold to). A bad experience may not put someone off one church, it might well put them off any church. I could debate the theology behind some of this at length but that aside, would we be really happy with being a church that people visit just once? As the old church notice board signs used to say “Carpenter needs Joiners, apply within”. There’s much more to it than that but you can see what I mean.

Celebrating life

There’s lots of things to take on board when you go to a church for the first time – and that happens even when you’re used to going and are trying out a “new” one. It’s a journey into the unknown but it should lead to a personal experience of God demanding a personal response. Every time we meet brings an opportunity for us to provide the environment for that to happen for everyone – whether first time visitor or returning saint. Take time to discover the real message of Jesus and you’ll soon find that it speaks into your life and circumstances in a way you’d never otherwise believe. Personal conviction follows our individual encounter with Christ. Just like a new school we will not “get” the whole package at once but (unlike school for some) this is a voyage of discovery and a box of delights.

Roger Waters looked back on his school days with repulsion not fondness. I hope and pray that when we look back to our first experience on the journey of faith, that we do so with affection and with gratitude for the way we have been welcomed both by God and by His people. No one gets it “right” all the time but a church where you are welcomed and where you encounter God, alongside people who are committed to help you grow, is a blessing indeed.

 [1] Fenland/South Cambridgeshire dialect word meaning to jump on someone. Its meaning has changed somewhat from the mid nineteenth century. It originates from Middle English c. 1350.
[2] Roger Waters, Another Brick in the Wall Part 2. Pink Floyd[3] – The Wall
[3] To generations of ex CHSB/HRSFC it’s The Floyd, please. The “Pink” is silent and/or omitted. We claim both Roger Waters and Syd Barrett as two of ours.
[4] I used the “wrong” toilets, the ones reserved for years 6 and above. Ours were open ended and faced the biting east wind. Not nice in December. They smelt too.
[5] The bible records that Jesus will come back to the world. 

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