If I met you for the first time, how long do you think it would take you to form an opinion about who I am and whether we could have a relationship of any kind?
Duane Elmer, in his book Cross-Cultural Servanthood (p. 48), cites an American study which demonstrated that it takes between 2.4 and 4.6 seconds to make an unconscious decision about whether we like them and whether there is any potential for relationship. With only a glance at the surface characteristics of features like “skin texture, hair style, nose size or ear shape” I decide whether you are worthy of my relationship.
It seems like the height of arrogance, pride and superiority to pass someone off so quickly, especially when it takes a lot to convince us that our first impressions might be wrong.
Now, consider arriving at church. If it’s a new church to you then you’ve already made some huge decisions by the time you’re greeted, walked a few paces into the lobby and scanned the age, ethnicity and energy of the people in your vicinity. The music and preaching might pull you past those impressions, but not necessarily. We trust our first instincts a lot.
Imagine you’re a family arriving and your children use their 5 seconds to form an opinion. You hear about it clearly afterward. Despite your own experience, you feel the pressure of catering to your child who may drop out of church, faith and life if you get this wrong (or so your own feelings tell you). We are naturally risk-adverse when it comes to those we care about.
Imagine that you arrive in your home congregation and someone unfamiliar is in your path (or in your seat) looking at you. Perhaps they’re dressed differently, expressioned differently, talking differently or responding differently than you would expect of someone in this place. Your 5 seconds of decision making will be over before you realize. Your greeting or lack of greeting may confirm their first impression of this church. Nothing we do, or don’t do, only impacts us.
What does Jesus mean when he responds to those who made their 5 second conclusion about him because of his actions on the Sabbath? In John 7:24, he says “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (NIV).
Suspending judgment seems to be an unnatural act for us – even as followers of Jesus. Elmer advocates for openness and says (p.51) “Too often we see negatively what God sees as difference. If it is merely different and not wrong, we should stay open and be accepting.”
We claim to be a church family where every generation and nation is welcomed. That’s a lot to live up to for all of us – whether we are coming for the first time and dealing with our first impressions – or whether we are regulars given the responsibility of welcoming and receiving other newcomers.
Thank you for thinking twice or three times about your first time impressions.
Have you ever caught yourself deciding quickly whether you like someone or not? What categories did you use to make your decision? Did you ever end up changing your mind about someone later on?