What churches can learn from good restaurants

My wife Margaret and I had been discussing various restaurants. We enjoyed the food in each place and found the staff sufficiently friendly. But several aspects loomed large in our conversation, provoking me–ever the preacher–to reflect on the way churches could benefit from studying what these eating establishments are doing and are not doing.

1. I wish churches put as much emphasis on friendly greeters at the front door as great restaurants do.

Often they are teenagers, perhaps college students. The kids are fresh-faced, sweet-spirited, well-dressed, and friendly. The graciousness appears genuine.


Have you ever walked up to an unfamiliar church and saw no one at the doors, no greeters or welcoming team anywhere on the premises? It happens to me frequently (and I’m the guest preacher!).

Are restaurants more interested in welcoming paying customers than churches are interested in showing hospitality to people arriving to worship the living Christ?

In most worship services, the preacher or a staff member will give a verbal welcome. They will tell how much this church loves visitors and guests. But if they have failed to demonstrate it earlier, it doesn’t wash. The pulpit claims ring hollow.

Some churches schedule a handshaking, greeting time in the middle of the service. However, if the members do not care enough to greet newcomers before and/or after the service, doing so on command is contrived and a little hypocritical.  To a visitor, the only friendliness that counts is the spontaneous kind.

The most successful restaurants choose greeters carefully and train them. Managers monitor them occasionally and correct the greeters who are not getting it right. Furthermore, these young people are surrounded by a staff of their peers who will help them.

Churches can learn from this. A church interested in effectively welcoming newcomers will have continuous greeter training.

2. I wish churches knew what restaurants know: while the food served is the main thing, it’s not the only thing.

Many pastors make the mistake of assuming if their sermon is a winner, worshipers can put up with just about anything else.

Not even close.

In most places, worshipers will have their choice of several fine churches with excellent preaching. All things being equal, they will gravitate toward the church that does the best job of welcoming newcomers, answering their questions, and making their initial experience a good one.

As my wife and I ate lunch at a well-known restaurant in our neighborhood, I pointed out that when the restaurant changed ownership not long ago, they began trying to upgrade the facility. “Good thing,” she said.

In places, the paint was peeling, the floors needed attention, and the weeds were growing in corners of the yard. The service was slow, although the food was outstanding.

We had been wondering if this was the restaurant to book for Easter Sunday. I was willing, but my wife wanted to treat our guests a little better than this, so we went elsewhere.

The most successful restaurants do not rely solely on their menu to bring customers back. They are always painting and cleaning. Those that neglect their appearance will soon find themselves without customers.

In a church, check the bathrooms.  How they are maintained will tell you volumes about how people are valued around there.

3. The main thing is the food. It is a restaurant, after all. And restaurants–like churches–must never forget why they are in business. For churches, the main thing is the message preached.

Years ago I heard of a store in Dothan, Alabama, with a large sign in its window: “Going out of business because we forgot what we were in business for.”

When I’m hungry and looking for a restaurant, even though the appearance and cleanliness of the facility, the friendliness of the staff and efficiency of the waiters are important, what matters most is the food.  So with churches…

–The preacher of this church is a great guy but he doesn’t study. His sermons are shallow and dull. So, I’ll pass, thank you.

–The pastor of the next church knows his Hebrew and Greek and will let you know it in a heartbeat. He loves to study, his sermons are deep, and I always learn something. But there seems to be something lacking–something like practical application. The pastor lacks an appreciation for what working people deal with during the week.

–The third pastor is evangelistic. I like that. But I wish he was equally into discipling the believers. If you want a friend to hear the gospel and have the opportunity to be saved, bring him here one Sunday. But then, take him somewhere else to learn what living the Christian life is all about.

–The fourth pastor works hard at finding the balance. That’s my guy. That’s my pastor of choice.

4. Speaking of choice…people have choices these days, in where they will eat as well as where they will worship.

In some ways, I hate this about the Christian faith in this country, but it’s there nonetheless. So, many in our churches flit from church to church, moving their memberships (or refusing to join any at all!) on the slightest whim.

Many medium-sized towns across the Southland will have a downtown intersection where four Christian churches of different denominations occupy all four corners.

It’s truly weird.  And I find it sad.

I wonder what the Lord thinks about it.  I wonder what someone from a different religion thinks of it.

Whatever else we make of it, good or bad, people today have choices where they will worship, just as they do where they will dine.

I live in the Deep South. Can you tell? There are still communities in this country where the choices for worship are extremely limited. But not in the South.  (It’s called The Bible Belt for good reason.)

5. However, let’s not overdo this parallelism. A restaurant lives by the bottom line. A church does not and should not ever.

The church member who divides the number of people reached for the Lord into the total budget to see if they are getting their money worth is missing the point. It does not work that way.

The church member who divides the number of people saved into the total expenditure for last week’s revival to determine whether the investment was worthwhile is missing something major.

No church should be making a profit or declaring dividends.

The Lord’s churches will always be straining at the limit of their resources. They will be finding new opportunities, gaining new vision, and opening new enterprises all the time.

When John Bisagno went to the First Baptist Church of Houston, Texas, as pastor nearly 50 years ago–I recall when it happened and have heard him talk about it–the church was stagnated in growth and ignored by the city. Looking over the financial balance sheet, the new pastor saw a bank account holding $60,000, a goodly sum in those days.

“What’s this for?” he asked.

The administrator said, “That’s for a rainy day.”

Pastor John said, “Rainy day? My lord, man–it’s been flooding for years!!”

That money was spent quickly as their new pastor called the church into action.

The only one who should be making a profit from a church sits on the Throne in Heaven. We who labor on His staff, so to speak, should keep His resources working for Him and not bury them in the ground like a disobedient servant Jesus spoke about. After all, our Lord’s resources are as infinite as He is. He is not pleased when we hoard them, pile them up in savings accounts for some possible disaster in the future, and act as if He has left us to our own devices.

Unlike restaurants, at church the Master Chef is always on the premises, ever watching over the operation, overseeing every detail, concerned about each person who enters and the personnel who serve them.

The rest of us are like teenagers at the front door, simply doing His bidding.

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