The lawn is perfectly trimmed and the sidewalks are swept. The church sign welcomes Everybody. The doors are painted with fresh red paint and the columns are clean and white.
The hope is that people will be attracted to this church and Come On In! The mindset is that “if we look like we care for our building, people will want to be a part of this community.” The message is that Tidy Church Building & Grounds = Healthy Congregation.
We all know that first impressions don’t tell the whole story. Second and third and hundredth impressions don’t tell the whole story either. In fact, some of us are excellent at Impression Management. And we can work feverishly to keep impressions up for a long time.
A 2011 article in Forbes declares that: “Most people will judge you within the first second of meeting you and their opinion will most likely never change.” This might be true for political campaigns and job interviews. It could even be true for most social occasions. But it shouldn’t be true for church.
The 21st Century Church must be real first and foremost. Maybe you know congregations who:
- Hide conflicts, skeletons, and leaky roofs from prospective pastors for fear of scaring good candidates away.
- Banish troublesome members in hopes of keeping everything pretty.
- Reward The Perfect Families in their midst with attention and leadership opportunities while treating others as if they are invisible.
There’s no spiritual community on the planet without some measure of dirt, disease, and discombobulation. We might all appear to be wholesome and prosperous but the truth is that we are kind of a mess. That’s the point of church, if you ask me: we gather as misfits and hot messes and find redemption and resurrection in spite of it all. And then we offer that to others.
I would like to say that thriving churches are authentic churches, but many thriving churches (if thriving = mega-numbers) lose members when relationships become deeper and pleasant first impressions are no longer manageable. All of us with long church connections know people who came through our doors seeking perfection and Pleasantville only to find imperfection and a unpleasant church underbelly. And then they left.
I love what Nadia says to people when they begin to connect with her congregation: I’m glad you love it here, but like at some point, I will disappoint you or the church will let you down. Please decide on this side of that happening if, after it happens, you will still stick around. Because if you leave, you will miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness. And it’s too beautiful to miss. Don’t miss it.
More than most, Nadia doesn’t do impression management.
I’m all about being intentional and noticing what about our body language might repulse someone, as Forbes recommends. But real people need real church. And it’s just too exhausting to try to manage appearances.