News question? What should church folks say, or not say, to guests who visit pews?

As most GetReligion readers know, I am in my 27th year writing a weekly national religion column commenting on what's going on in the news. At the same time, when your syndication deadline is pretty early in the week, and most people read your work in weekend pages, it's often hard to precisely define what "news" means.

Every now and then you can find spot something with some real newsy bite and get to it ahead of the crowd that is writing on a daily deadline or, in the Internet age, with a deadline that's mere minutes into the future. Most of the time, I try to write about speeches or events or online debates that other people have missed or written off. Sometimes -- this is no surprise to readers of this blog -- there are angles in religion-news events that I think deserve more attention that many other scribes.

But here is a simple fact that led to this week's "Crossroads" podcast discussion with host Todd Wilken (click here to tun that in). During the past quarter century, some of the columns that have inspired the most reactions from readers were not about "news" at all, but focused on facts and trends about what goes on in ordinary sanctuaries week after week, month after month, year after year, etc.

You want to start a war in the pews? Yes, you can preach about the Iraq war or the mysteries of marriage and sex. Or you can change the hymnal or the worship band. Oh boy, play that one wrong and you're sure to cause eyebrows to rise and checkbooks to snap shut.

So my United syndicate column this week grew out of reading a column by a Southern Baptist leader named Thom Rainer, whose Twitter connections pull in thousands and thousands of readers all the time (less than half of them Southern Baptists, apparently). While his LifeWay Christian Resources people do all kinds of interesting research, much of this commentary focuses on the basic DNA of daily church life in a changing world. In this case he wrote about "Ten Things You Should Never Say to a Guest in a Worship Service."

The preacher's kid in me was intrigued by that one, in part because I've followed -- since the late 1980s -- the whole "seeker-friendly worship" debates about what appeals to, or offends, modern people who are "unchurched" or who have been outside the church for some time (maybe even those about to become "nones").

So I called Rainer up and asked him to discuss a very specific issue linked to working with visitors. That talk let to the column and, during the podcast, to more discussion of just how hard it is to know how to handle welcoming guests in an era when some people truly want to be welcomed and others are, frankly, trying to play it cool and anonymous until they can talk to people on their own terms. Here's a bite of that column, discussing turf wars in the pews:

For some guests, the struggle starts with finding a safe place to sit. Often, church members make sure they get their favorite spots by marking them with hymnals, jackets or notes. It's not an urban legend: One of the most common visitor complaints is that members literally ask them to move, whispering, "You are sitting in my pew."
There's more. Ushers have also been known to tell guests, "You will need to step over these people to get to your seat." What is this, asked Rainer, a church sanctuary or a movie theater?
Large families can cause tension. Visitors with more than one or two children report being told that there is not enough space for them to sit together, rather than asking the regulars to shift around to make room. Mothers with several youngsters may be told, "Our nursery is really full." ...
The ultimate sin, however, is asking -- either intentionally or by accident -- some kind of "deeply personal question" that makes guests feel awkward or hurt. It may be as simple as asking a single woman, "Is your husband with you?" It isn't uncommon for parents in blended families to be asked, "Are these your children?"

Is this news? Maybe not. Is this subject crucial to religious leaders in an era of falling attendance rates in almost every kind of sanctuary? I would argue that it is.

So what do you say, readers?

Enjoy the podcast.

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