As a pastor, I hear it all the time – “Why did we play THAT song?” Maybe you do, too. Or maybe you ask it. Every time we begin our church service with a song from a non-Christian radio station, I know it’s coming.
I understand. We recently began our church service by singing these lyrics: “A singer in a smokey room, a smell of wine and cheap perfume. For a smile they can share the night, it goes on and on and on and on.” Okay – seeing it in written form feels a little sketchy (or a ton sketchy!). I may have a few questions for myself, now!
But let me ask you a question: What song is that lyric from? Did you smile as you read them? Or sang them? Are you still singing?
Here’s why we occasionally begin our services with music from Journey or Disney – because people like it. I know, that’s not profound. And I realize it’s certainly not theologically sound, but it is powerful. People like fun, familiar music. And that’s extremely important, because I’m convinced if people don’t like how their church experience begins, odds are they will not like how it progresses or ends.
To say it another way: If we hope to influence people toward their Heavenly Father, we must engage them emotionally in the beginning of our service to engage them spiritually during the service.
So here are five things to consider if we hope to create a church experience that leads people from where they are to where we want them to be an hour later:
1. Consider the diversity of your audience.
You must answer this question first. If you have unchurched, nonbelievers in the room, they walked in somewhat skeptical of the church, God, and the pastor. They are predisposed to be disengaged and at arms-length. So, if you hope to engage the unchurched in your church, you must first find a way to emotionally connect. The more diverse the audience, the broader the connection. If you have Christians, non-Christians, atheist, and everybody in-between, you need to start really broad – maybe even with Journey!
2. Consider the power of first impressions.
We know how powerful a first impression can be – mostly because you only get on shot!. But while the sermon actually begins in the parking lot, people’s first experience in the service is critical to engaging them throughout the service.
The first thing I want people to do is drop a barrier, smile, laugh, or relax (or all of the above, if possible). People are on edge when church begins. An nonbeliever is skeptical. A churched family might have argued the entire trip. Finding parking could be stressful. Either way, how the service begins can make or break an attendees entire experience. Worse, it may determine if they ever return!
3. Consider what you want your audience to FEEL.
Not what you want them to know or hear. What do you want them to feel?
Think about it. Most things we do at church are weird. I know we don’t think church is weird, because we are Christians, but try to step back and see your church service through the eyes of an outsider. Think about baptism. Adults dunking other adults under water in a giant bathtub. Take singing. It’s not a concert, yet we are standing and singing about blood, crosses, and a God who for some reason feels the need to be praised. That’s weird! So let’s just agree that before things get weird for our guests, we should engage them first.
4. Consider the many ways we can engage.
Obviously, music is emotionally engaging. Who cares if it even ties in with the message. But music isn’t our only option. Laughter is engaging, and laughter breaks down barriers. We have begun services with Jimmy Fallon’s “Thank You Notes” bit. We have played games. As long as it is done with a high degree of excellence, it can accomplish the mission of emotional connection.
5. Consider removing announcements and inserting navigation.
My good friend and coworker Jeff Henderson from Gwinnett Church does this better than anyone I know. Let the bulletin handle announcements to free up this time in service for a true welcome. Jeff functions as a navigator in his services, guiding and preparing the audience for what is to come. He will use humor to emotionally connect. He will mention something current (weather, football, or whatever) to connect. Jeff comes across very likable, which is … connecting! Churches too often overlook or completely dismiss the significance of the welcome. Use it well to create some laughter and connection.
Let me conclude with this: Singing secular songs or having a comedy routine to begin a church service is not about attracting unchurched, nonbelieving people; it’s about engaging everyone emotionally in the beginning in preparation for what you desperately want them to experience in the ending. And that’s worth signing Journey in church.
You can help us all get better. What else needs to be considered when creating an engaging experience? How have you leverage emotional engagement in a church setting?