Trust Me, Church: How Your Bulletin Makes Me Feel Like I Do (or Don’t) Belong

Trust Me, Church: How Your Bulletin Makes Me Feel Like I Do (or Don’t) Belong January 12, 2015

BulletinIn my search for a church home during graduate school, I attended over ten churches in two years, each with their own different style of communication. Some handed out a tan, tri-fold piece of paper by which I could follow along, nose down, during the service. Others projected announcements on movie screens that required thick-rimmed glasses to read. My favorite bulletin was at an Anglican church who footnoted each part of the service so as to explain its theological significance. It was a divinity nerd’s dream.

It’s the second week of the “Trust Me” series, and I’m talking about the micro-resolutions church leaders can make to foster trust with Millennials. This week’s topic? The little things that can take our bulletins from information to transformation.

I realize the word “bulletin” might sound a little outdated to my Millennial peers reading this, many of whom aren’t fond of the idea of going to church but instead are finding alternative ways of being the church. Personally, I’m a fan of both. But regardless of in what form of church we find ourselves, it’s how our church communicates the invitation to belong – in worship, mission, and community – that shapes whether we’re just informing members or growing disciples.

My time in graduate school was a fascinating study in belonging as I moved from church to church, paying attention to the way in which someone new to each place, each denomination might react to the words being said. Or not being said. For instance, I was surprised by the number of congregations that didn’t print the Lord’s Prayer for us to read, especially since it was so easy to be the lone “trespassers” in a chorus of “debtors.” (Cue doe-eyed sympathy from my pew mates.) Equally missing were the brief congregational responses that often followed the reading of Scripture; instead they came out of strangers’ mouths by memory. If someone like me who grew up in the church felt out of place and hesitant to return, I imagined someone new to the faith would feel even more, well, exposed.

Even if we’re not new to the faith, it’s likely that at some point in our lives, we’ll find ourselves in a church culture with which we’re unfamiliar. In fact, I’d say it’s a sign of our spiritual health and commitment to unity if we do. Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute describes the impact of our shifting allegiances for church leaders:

 I think the days of standing in the pulpit looking out in the pews in a Presbyterian church or a Methodist church and thinking most of these people in here are cradle-to-grave are gone. More than three in 10 Americans are switching their religious affiliation at least once — and I don’t just mean Methodist to Presbyterian. I mean Catholic to mainline Protestant or Muslim to Buddhist. They’re big switches, not just denominational trades.

Last week, I wrote about how it’s no longer realistic for churches to assume that members of the same family have the same last name. Likewise, it’s no longer realistic for churches to assume that the people sitting in our pews are familiar with our denomination – or Christianity at all. The shift in religious affiliation can be a gift to the church if we let it move us from communication complacency to communication hospitality.

This means we have to be a little more intentional with our words than we’re used to. We might choose to say what denomination we’re affiliated with on the bulletin and how that commitment pops up during worship. We might choose to say what version of the Bible we read from here and why. We might choose to say who exactly “Beth” is and how exactly to contact her with contributions for the canned food drive. We might even say who to contact, too, if we need help processing the sermon.

Perhaps it’s a result of growing up Catholic that I favor bulletins that are straightforward, predictable, and have a Spanish counterpart. Without a discernible structure for belonging, newcomers and old waste precious energy trying to read the culture instead of entering the spirit of worship. We end up losing ourselves in the bulletin rather than losing ourselves to each other.

Micro-Resolution #2: Treat me like a stranger. Challenge a group of 3-5 church leaders to attend each of your church gatherings through the eyes of a “stranger:” a teenager, a new mom, a person with a disability, an immigrant, a non-Christian. What questions come up for you? Where do you get tripped up? Now return to your bulletin and see where there’s room for more hospitality, i.e. a different language translation, a note about hearing aids, an explanation of theology, etc.

Although Jesus’s communication style was maddening at times (just like his church!), his example was clear: to favor the stranger is to find favor with God.

Lane_Author Photo_CompressedErin S. Lane is author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe and co-editor of Talking Taboo. Confirmed Catholic, raised Charismatic, and married to a Methodist, she facilitates retreats for clergy and congregational leaders through the Center for Courage & Renewal. To find more of her writing, visit

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21 responses to “Trust Me, Church: How Your Bulletin Makes Me Feel Like I Do (or Don’t) Belong”

  1. Funny thing happened to me this weekend. I went to a mainline church for the first time. I was so amazed by all the liturgy they went through that I had never experienced. It was a truly beautiful service and I was more excited than left out.

    So at the end of the service I signed in as a new member and got an email thanking me for coming and encouraging me in my search for a church home. However the email said, “we were so happy to see the ‘both’ of you”. I was quite confused and laughed. I guess it must be a stock email because I’m 23 and was clearly there by myself.

  2. Oh, Rolland. I’m heartened to hear that you made a deep connection with the liturgy. How awkward, then, to receive such a disheartening email! (Thank goodness for your sense of humor.) You’ve hit upon the assumption many churches make about the family structure of their attendees.

    I’m curious: How would you have liked them to respond to your new member sign-up? And are you planning to respond to them about the gaffe?

  3. I was raised fundamentalist and thus heard liturgy for the first time ever as a 23-year old. People love to diss the liturgy, but if you really listen to it, it’s GORGEOUS and super inspirational. I’m so glad you love it too:) my hubs, OTOH hates liturgy and wants to fall asleep during it (he was raised with it). Anyway, it’s nice to meet other adults who are just approaching liturgy for the first time and still appreciate it. 🙂

  4. The liturgy can be a powerful way to bring oneself closer to God. I remember our Sunday night Vespers service and its beautiful, simple service which included the Magnificat. Most of which I can still recite. My friends who would visit would say, “but your church does the same thing every Sunday.” Yes, and that way it is committed to memory. Several years ago the Sunday evening Vespers service was dropped: lack of attendance. Sad.

  5. Very good.. Since we moved back to So Cal, my wife has visited several churches trying to find a place where she can serve. She was a compassion and children’s director, ran the food program and is a licensed counselor.
    Most of the time the pastors never call.. When she does show up and try and help, people are very threatened by strangers butting in to their little social circle so she backs off.. It really is a shame.
    I think these pastors have good intentions but that doesn’t make them good managers or organizers.. Which is funny because those are two of my wife’s great talents.. She has run non- profits, fundraisers and her own business.
    If only someone would spend five minutes and be open to someone new, she could really be an asset to a church and help serve the community.. It breaks my heart and it’s another reason why I don’t like church. Peace DC

  6. Our church is small and very friendly. The Bulletin is straight forward and complete with sermon notes. You’re only a visitor ’till you get 3′ in the door… then you’re family and it shows.

  7. (Hi there, first-time poster, long-time visitor to Patheos’ progressive Christian ghetto.)

    I go to a perfectly nice Catholic parish that has a strong sense of hospitality. Its bulletin has a couple of things that I find a little off-putting and something else that is a nice example of inclusion.

    On the negative side, the list of pastoral groups is always printed in this order: the group for young men; the other men’s group; group for engaged people; group for newly married people; healing prayer; home visitation; the old folks’ group; family planning; and adoration. Groups for youth and schoolkids are lower down, but under their own subheading. It bugs me that there are 2 groups explicitly for men but none for women and that the men’s groups come first, above all the demographic-non-specific ones. Not a huge thing–I’m Catholic for God’s sake, so this is the least of our slights against women–but I notice it.

    The other thing I notice is that, every 6 months or so when we have a special edition parish newsletter–about 20 pages in colour with a more in-depth look at various of the activities in the parish–the cover and most of the photos inside are dominated by groups that are exclusively young and male (and that’s not counting the priests). I mean, yay for young men, I’m a big fan of them personally, but as a demographic they are the *least* representative of a modern Catholic parish. If we were honest about what our parish looked like we’d have lots of photos of old ladies, some old men, a big bunch of kids, and the few photos of young adults would be 70% female.

    On the positive side, each week for the past 6 months or so the front page has included a paragraph from Pope Frank’s Apostolic Exhortation–not selected quotations, but each paragraph in order from the start. I like this because it makes the letter that so many people are talking about accessible to most parishioners, not just the Captain Catholic SuperNerds (myself included) who have access to the internet and look up papal exhortations in our spare time. One paragraph at a time makes it easy to digest, as well (to be fair, Frankie’s writing style also helps a lot on that front). I’m hoping they do the same for the upcoming encyclical!

  8. I do not think I can be the church by sitting in pews with people I see once a week and never work alongside, by drinking weak tea and making small talk about the weather and the school run, by singing songs written to be listened to, and by listening to preachers who believe, although they can see only all the usual faces, that every sermon must be addressed to the mythical unsaved visitors.
    Church is a verb. Churching has to mean more than being the audience at the weekly service. Worship has to mean more than singing. I want to work with the family of my heart to create the Kingdom on earth. That’s glorifying God, and that’s church-ing.

  9. Accessibility for millennials: it would be really nice if church signs advertised the expected end time of a service as well as the start. How can you make plans if you don’t know when something finishes?

  10. Great points on looking at a church as a visitor would. As an introvert, and one who has attended church all my life, I embrace the awkwardness of church. Any place where people meet up is going to create some awkwardness for somebody.

    Church leaders need to acknowledge this and think about how to welcome somebody into an awkward situation. This is hard to admit when a church believes they’re a bunch of great people that would NEVER make someone feel awkward. RIGHT! Whether we admit it or not, a stranger in the midst of a group will always make the stranger feel some discomfort.

    Any visitor to a church is going to feel uncomfortable entering a place where people have already formed a bond. If you know no one there, it can feel like crashing a party uninvited.

    If a worship bulletin is written in a way to help the visitor know what is happening in a church service, it can take some of the awkwardness out of it. The challenge for most churches is to serve the regulars while helping the visitors feel welcome. The only way to do that is admit there is a possibility

  11. I serve in a resort/retirement community. I assume no one knows what we do. I especially assume no one knows anything by memory(Lords Prayer, Creeds, responses. We use a Worship booklet with all the words or a small hymnal that has all the words. Reality is you can’t meet everyone’s needs or expectations. You try to meet as many as possible. Rolland: if the church has a lot of visitors the Pastor just maybe got you mixed for someone else visiting. The church is the gathering of believers, you can’t “be the church” without the believers.

  12. Do you mean, only a visitor until the third time you attend, or only a visitor unless/until there are three of you? If the latter, that could be very alienating and othering to singles and even couples without children.

  13. I think that might be “three feet in the door” — not a bad approach, as long as there’s also recognition that I may be family but I’m family who probably needs to know where the restrooms are 🙂

  14. Actually, that doesn’t answer my question. Can you please explain to me what you mean in plain English (remembering that I’m not from the US)?

  15. Oh! I’m sorry; yes. They’re using “feet” in the sense of “measured distance” — “three feet” is a yard, or roughly a meter. (Or at least that’s what I think they’re doing.) So, “You’re a visitor only until you’re actually inside the building — then we will treat you (and welcome you) like family.” Or approximately, “We treat everyone who comes here like family — the only ‘requirement’ is that you show up!”

    . . . Was that any better? Or just more words than before?

  16. I’m an atheist now, but I grew up the son of the Church of Christ minister. I remember always finding it a bit freaky when, on budget Sundays once a year, my father’s salary was printed in a line item on the bulletin for the entire congregation to see.

  17. Thank you. Now I understand. And I think this is a microcosm of the kinds of cultural-linguistic differences that were covered in the original post.

  18. I write the bulletin for our (liturgical Anglican) services. If anyone would like to add some additional do’s and don’t’s, I would love that.
    We could call it ‘congregation sourcing’.

  19. Yes, exactly! And it’s very, *very* hard to see the place where your own assumptions (as a ‘host’) are causing confusion or alienation.

    I’ve found it can be a useful exercise to go to a religious activity that I’m not already familiar with, to see how they explain what’s going on to a newcomer and what I’m still confused by; that can help me look at my own “home” with new eyes. I’ll probably still miss things, but to some extent I think that visibly *trying* to be welcoming is itself welcoming, even if you get the details wrong. (Like the Belgian family I was visiting as a student, who offered me Coca-cola with my breakfast. I was both charmed by their thoughtfulness and appalled at the idea of Coke for breakfast. 😀 )

  20. I think I read ’till you get 3′ as quoting a phrase. I see now that you meant these as two completely unrelated apostrophes.

  21. I work in an Episcopal church office in which we are always working towards being clearly welcoming in our service materials (it’s a continuing goal, probably never reached permanently). In our weekly booklet (usually 48 pages, 12 legal-sized sheets folded and stapled) we have everything needed for two different styles of services. One is drawn largely from the Book of Common Prayer, while the other draws from more diverse sources. We print ALL the prayers, and identify their sources. We print ALL the congregational music: not just the text, but the music notation as well. Why? Well, I’m also an organist, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in organ. If I go to a strange church and have the music in front of me, I can sing immediately, even if I haven’t seen a hymn or piece of service music before. If I’m welcomed with only text, I HAVE BEEN EXCLUDED. Repeat: I HAVE BEEN EXCLUDED. It tells me that there is an in-group of regular attenders who know by habit everything that’s going on, and an out-group of guests who are locked out.

    We print the same service booklet, in the same formatting, on 11 x 17 inch paper as well, enlarged to fit the larger paper. It may not be perfect for those with visual impairment, but it helps, and it is what part-time staff can do.

    We also publish the service booklet on our website, so that those with tablets and e-readers can use those devices.

    As an organist, I get to substitute for colleagues at various churches. In some, I have been welcomed like family members. In others, I am like a friend the people haven’t met yet. And, unfortunately, sometimes I experience the “chosen frozen” effect: hardly anyone talks to me. That feels very, very strange.

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