Saturday, March 21, 2015

Church Lessons from the Camino (part 1)

The Camino de Santiago outside of Sobrado de Monxes (image source:
Last year Robin and I got to walk the last 140 miles of the Camino de Santiago in Spain (the medieval Catholic Pilgrimage immortalized in The Way).   We chose the Norte route through the mountains because less "pilgrims" travel it.  It provided us a lot of time to pray and reflect.   The scenery was beautiful, the people were welcoming and the food and coffee were delicious!  It really gave us some time to confirm that God was truly directing us to move back to the US after 13 years of training and coaching leaders, teaching in Bible schools and planting churches in Europe.

There were a few lessons we learned on our trip that apply to churches.  If you haven't noticed, our culture is rapidly moving from postmodern to Post-Christian.  Christianity, believers and churches are rapidly losing their influence in society.   But there are some things we can do to create a larger footprint for the Kingdom of God.  Over the next few blogposts I'll cover a few of them that are pertinent to North American church leaders.

Having been involved in numerous church plants in secular Europe (planting and pastoring the last one we were involved with), we learned how to effectively minister in this environment.  If North American churches want to connect with an unchurched Post-Christian audience they need to:

1.  Prepare their people to welcome visitors

Church Lessons from the Camino (Part 2)

As we walked I think we stopped at most of the coffee shops along the way.  The coffee served in Galicia, Spain was the tastiest I've EVER had!  Most of these cafés were very inviting to "pilgrims," serving great coffee, "pinchos" (tapas) and tasty sandwiches.  But one experience was drastically different.

In the middle of nowhere during an exhaustingly steep 30 mile leg of our journey we found a rickety shack that advertised drinks and snacks.  Thank God we could finally get a cup of coffee!  But when we went inside there were a half dozen unwashed tables covered with dirty plates, coffee mugs and shot glasses.  The black mold on the ceiling and walls had creeped all the way down to the floor in some areas.  And there was no one inside.  After a minute or two a very old lady came out of the back room to wait on us.  She was sweet, but her place was DISGUSTING!  I was desperate for a caffeine boost, so we ordered a Café Cortado to go (which turned out to be powdered Nescafé).  Needless to say, it was a very disappointing experience.

Compare this to our experience a couple of days later.  We stopped for lunch at a café with some people we had met as we walked.  The café owner was dancing to the Caribbean music as she waited on tables.  As a matter of fact, she offered free homemade specialty drinks from her village to everyone at our table.  And instead of rubber stamping our "pilgrim passports," she hand-drew the stamps.

One café was welcoming.  The owner went out of her way to make it a fun, inviting experience.  The other café appeared as if they couldn't care less whether we showed up or not.  The owner of the dirty café was sweet, but the atmosphere wasn't inviting.  We instead wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.

Sending mixed messages (source:
How many times does a similar thing happen in our churches.  An unchurched person works up enough courage to actually visit a church service.  They search online to find a church with a nice looking website and decide to come.  But in the parking lot there are no signs pointing to the entrance.  When they do find it, there are friendly people shaking hands at the door, but after the visitor comes inside he or she is alone again.  There are no signs to the main service room, Kids Church or the restrooms.  People smile when they see them and maybe say hi, but don't really engage them in conversation.

The music, customs and language of the service are strange.  The pastor's message makes references to Bible characters and stories but gives no background (i.e. "It's just like David in the Cave of Adullam... he only cut off the corner of Saul's robe instead of killing him.").  To a visitor it seems as if everyone else in the service is familiar with the story the pastor is referencing, but he or she is clueless.  The message is probably doctrinally sound, but contains no practical application.  The visitor walks away deciding the church has nothing to offer them.  The church has unintentionally given the same message as the dirty café  We want your business; but we don't want to work hard enough to keep it.  The whole experience doesn't draw the unchurched to Jesus; it repels them.

Tweet: To a church visitor, it seems as if everyone else knows what's going on except them.

When we visit a new group, we want to feel welcomed.  We want to feel like we belong... that the people wants us there.  So do our visitors.  Visitors from previous generations came to church when they had a glaring problem.  In an Post-Christian culture people are often just curious.  Yes they may have a need, but they often don't even realize that their lives are messed up.  It's the welcome factor that makes our churches "sticky" (shuts the back door).

There are some simple things you can do to improve your church's welcome factor:

* Train your people (staff, volunteers, members and regular attenders) to welcome people by engaging them in conversation.  I'm not just talking about before the service, but after it as well.  Visitors observe how you treat them before the service to see if you have anything to say to them.  What they experience after the service tells them whether or not you really believe what you're saying.  Pastors: you have to model what you want to see in your church.

Tweet: Visitors size up your church before the service. After the service they determine if you are for real. @jonperrin

* Use adequate signage throughout your facility (and not the kind that look like a handmade garage sale signs).

* Monitor the condition of your facility regularly.  Keep it clean and orderly.  This means the Kids Church and Nursery rooms are clean and orderly, the restrooms are clean, the musicians don't leave their cases laying around on stage and the mic cables on stage don't look like a plate of spaghetti.  It also means mowing the grass and painting the building when necessary.

Pastors, I believe we have a message worth sharing.  And in a secular climate people are interested in spiritual things.  But if we want to have the platform to share the life changing message of God's grace, we have to make some changes.

Join the conversation... your comments can help pastors and church leaders as well.  How does your church intentionally welcome visitors?

Church Lessons from the Camino (Part 2)


  1. Great Post.
    Most Leaders in churches like the idea of being friendly. Often we judge our friendliness by our own personal character. I mean "How could you not like us" - However, personal character doesn't make up for other poor areas.
    We've found that instead of being friendly we would be helpful. Being helpful gives substance to our character and it expresses itself clear concise ways. It's outward focused instead of inward. It is the "works" to our faith.
    The packaging of the church experience will determine how I view the authenticity of the message.

    1. Great thought Aaron. We do need to focus on others instead of ourselves... this is what makes us welcoming!