Today, my family and I visited The Ark Church in Conroe. I wasn't familiar with The Ark, but I had heard that it did a great job of welcoming newcomers. Since that is certainly something I want Westbury to do, I decided it was worth a visit to see what I could learn.
First of all, the reputation is well-deserved. We attended the 9:30 service; they also have one at 11:15. When we drove up, the first sign we saw said, "Visitors, please turn on your flashers." We did so, and this alerted the parking lot team. These guys were all over the huge parking lot. And every one we approached saw our flashing lights and helped guide us where we needed to go. The man nearest where we parked came over to introduce himself and to ask our names. He walked us to the worship building and got the attention of a greeter, then introduced us to her by name. This woman handed us a welcome packet, showed us where to return the visitor information card in order to get our free gift, and told us about their life groups. She then escorted us to the sanctuary, where a network of attentive, well-trained ushers were there to help us find the best possible seats for four people. The entire process took five minutes. Although we'd never been to The Ark before, we never once felt confused about where to go. It was impressive, indeed. Only one other church I've attended had as well-crafted a system: Oak Hills Church in San Antonio (founded by Max Lucado). As a pastor, I thought about how many volunteers, and how many hours of training, it takes to produce such an experience. To make things even more impressive, my wife decided ten minutes into the worship service that she needed a jacket and returned to our car; the parking attendant who had first met us saw her and said, "Are you already done, Carrie?" Clearly, these volunteers take their jobs very, very seriously.
Once we were inside, the experience was pretty common to suburban megachurches; Same predominantly white, upper-middle-class, casually dressed crowd; same fan-shaped interior; same lighting scheme (dark, rock-concert feel during music, lights up during preaching); same driving beat to the music. The Ark had around ten people on stage during the music; half were singers. They started with two congregational songs (Open Up the Heavens and God's Great Dance Floor). Then one of the worship leaders invited people to come forward during the next two songs if they wanted someone to pray with them. Many people did so. Those two songs were Forever Reign and Bless the Lord, O My Soul (the first of the four that was a little slower). The Executive Pastor came out and led a "greet your neighbor" time, then the Community Pastor gave a short sermonette that led into the offertory. He talked about different ways we show honor and respect to people, then quoted Proverbs 3:6 and said one way we honor God is by giving Him our tithes (while this was going on, the screen listed different ways you can give: cash, check, credit card, online, direct deposit, text message, etc). He then prayed and--I thought this was pretty cool--prayed for other local churches, mentioning one of them by name. As the offering baskets were passed, instead of music, they showed announcement videos on the screens. Then the five singers came back out and sang It Is Well With My Soul as a special.
So far, I am 0 for 2 as far as hearing Senior Pastors preach. Today, the Executive Pastor preached. His sermon answered three questions: What is the soul? Why is it important? How do we care for our soul? He answered the last question with the acronym SOS: Slow down, Observe, and Seize the moment. It was a well-researched sermon, and he was very well-prepared. I prefer messages to be a bit more expository, but he did a good job. At the end of the sermon, he had us bow our heads. He asked anyone who might be interested in following Jesus for the first time to raise their hands. He then led us through a responsive prayer that was basically a prayer of salvation. He then said, "If you prayed that prayer for the first time, please let us know. There's a "Yes!" card in the pew in front of you; fill it out and take it to a booth in the lobby that says "Yes!". Or just text "changed" to the following number..." And like that, the service was over. No closing song, no benediction. The entire thing was 1 hour on the nose.
On the way out, I visited the booth with my visitor card (I am eager to see how they contact me) and received a very nice coffee mug with the church's logo (Carrie has already claimed it).
Overall, I liked the invitation to prayer, and of course was awed by the visitor welcome. Everything at The Ark is well-designed and well-rehearsed. Nothing is left to chance. I had to borrow a pen from someone near me in order to fill out my visitor card, but it seems they thought of everything else.