Like most people these days, I want to get good value for my dollar. The best value, of course, is free. So I love for books, CDs, whatever, with their low minimum order for free shipping., the online musical instrument store, is even better; every order ships free, from the cheapest accessory to the most expensive PRS guitar.

What I hate is the sort of free, like the offer from the Presbyterian Foundation for bulletin inserts for Wills Emphasis Sunday. The inserts are free with an *. When you check the note, you’re told that while the inserts are free, the shipping is not. So you end up paying probably $5-7 (if past experience is any indicator) for your inserts. A rep told me Monday that the Foundation did not offer the inserts for free PDF download. Not cool.

Food purchases are another area where you can get ripped off or, alternately, find really good value. For example, those typical chain burger places like Hardee’s and McDonald’s offer Angus burgers which are pretty good. But once you pay for a combo, especially if you substitute a shake or upsize to medium, you’ve dropped $8 or $9. For a burger, fries, and a drink! On the other hand, I ate at a popular Mexican restaurant in Amory, MS Sunday and got two pieces of catfish, rice, salad, sliced avocado, a whole jalapeno, flour tortillas, and all the chips and salsa I could eat, and the bill was, with tip, $7. Yes, I had water to drink, but I got a much better meal for less than I would have paid in a burger place.

As I congratulated myself on being a savvy food consumer, I began to wonder about whether churches offer good value, especially for church “shoppers” and “patrons,” AKA Sunday worship guests. What might be the “metrics,” as they say?

One would certainly be the sense a visitor has that he or she is receiving something beyond the expected. The typical (formerly) mainline worship service is pompous, dull, and wordy. But what if the language and music were fresh, the message relevant, and the rituals doorways into the mysterious presence of God? Suppose that instead of getting lectures in church school, members and guests could be part of small groups that tackled real issues from the news and daily home life. Wouldn’t such experiences add value and make attendance worthwhile?

Another would be the level of personal attention given to guests. I love Sweetwater for musical instruments because they assign a representative to each customer, someone whose name you know and can call on if you need gear or have a question. What if churches matched a mentor with every new member, ushers took time truly to greet and speak with guests instead of merely handing them a bulletin and guiding them to a pew, and the preacher handwrote a note or sent a personal email to each newcomer? Wouldn’t that set the church apart?

A final possible measurement might be the porousness of the congregation. By that I mean the openness of the church to new ideas, the ease with which new members move into the mainstream of the congregation’s life, and the number of “doors” and “windows” in the walls tenured leadership put up to keep newcomers and younger folk from the inner circle. In a Presbyterian church, an index of porousness might be the mix of men and women and long-term and newer members on the session (local governing body), as well as how many people under 35 or even 25 are serving on it. Another could be how flexible the terms of endowments are, so the money can actually be used for something when circumstances change. (I heard the other day in a meeting that endowment rules are made so strict by some people because they don’t trust their children and especially their grandchildren to administer the funds years from now!)

I am convinced that if newcomers and young adults sense that there is value in the church because they are valued, then they will be active. But if not, they’ll desert the church like video store renters switching to Netflix.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham