“I was a stranger…..and you welcomed me.” Matthew 25:35 (Amp)
“In the kingdom of God strangers on the doorstep represent a gift and opportunity from God.” --Michael Knowles
It was a nightmare I’ll never forget.
Two days before Christmas. A free Sunday morning, free to visit a church for its special Christmas Sunday morning service. We chose one a little distance from home, a church where we were virtually unknown. We left early to be sure to be on time but missing the street, driving around a little we arrived at 11:01 a.m. The service had just begun!
Our first encounter were large beautifully carved solid wood doors. What was behind those doors? We entered unnoticed and stood alone in the foyer listening to the congregation singing the first carol. Finding the coat room, I hung up my winter coat and returned to my wife still standing alone in the foyer. Two ushers stood in the entrance to the sanctuary with their backs to us joyfully singing with the standing congregation. I startled one of them when I touched him on the shoulder and asked for a bulletin. He handed us two then turned to continue singing. We were left to find our seats in a full auditorium, Christmas Sunday morning, congregation standing.
I spotted two seats on the aisle half way to the front. Relieved, we hurried down the aisle only to discover signs on the seats; “Reserved for ushers.”
At that moment the carol concluded and the congregation sat down. Everyone, except us! Embarrassed? You bet! What do we do now?
Over in the far corner, at the back, I saw some empty wooden chairs that had been brought in to handle the overflow. We worked our way toward them and sat down just in time for the next hymn. We searched – but no hymn books were to be found. After the hymn we were instructed to “meet and greet” our neighbors. No one talked to us – visitors – on such a strategic Sunday morning.
Were we relaxed, comfortable, ready to worship God and hear from Him? Not really!! Will we ever go back to that church? Not likely!! After the service we met the same apathy – no one welcomed us or even attempted to speak to us. What was the problem?
In many ways this is a great church, just not a visitor friendly church.
Compare that to the experience of Martin and MacIntosh (The Issachar Factor, p. 133).
“Recently we visited a large church. As we stepped up to enter the front door, a lady greeted us by saying “Hi, Is this your first visit with us?” After we replied in a positive manner, she introduced herself, asked our name and walked us to a welcome center. At the center she introduced us by name to the person at the desk who immediately offered help and gave us directions to important areas of the church such as rest rooms and the auditorium. As we were about to end our conversation an usher walked up and she introduced us to him. He then led us to our seats in the auditorium. In just a few short minutes we had been introduced to several friendly people, our names mentioned three times, and were given all the initial information we needed. With such a well-planned strategy, there is no wonder that the church is growing.”
Welcome to a visitor friendly church.
“Effective churches which are reaching their community for Jesus Christ and helping people assimilate into the body make people flow a priority.” (p. 120)
The authors suggest every church falls into one of three categories:
The hospital church – Cares for its own
The army church – On the march
The “MASH” Unit church – Combines both aspects
Into which of these categories does your church fall?
The focus of this booklet is on building a church that not only cares for its own, but cares for others as well. It is visitor friendly.
Dr. Percy of the Wycliffe College Institute of Evangelism asks; “How do we treat our visitors? This is one of the first questions that must be asked by any congregation that is thinking seriously about evangelism. It hardly makes sense to develop strategies for inviting people to church if we don’t know how to treat the people who come on their own.”
The problem is not a new one. It is as old as the Christian church.
Let’s revisit, for a moment, the first century church.
The church in Jerusalem had no welcome mat for Saul of Tarsus, the recently converted persecutor of the early church.
When he came to Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. Acts 9:26
This sounds like the reception too many converted ex-cons receive today in some of our churches.
It was this same church that was reluctant even to open the door to Peter with his Gentile converts (Acts 10:11). The church hadn’t quite caught up to Peter who had broken free of his spirit of discrimination against the Gentiles and was able to say:
I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right…..Jesus Christ is Lord of all. Acts 10:34-36
So it was with the church in Rome. The background for the writing of Paul’s epistle to that church was the racial tension between the Jews and Gentiles.
The Jews couldn’t understand how the Gentiles had come into favour and blessing. The Gentiles couldn’t understand why the Jews had such favour with God. So Paul explains God’s workings and ways with Jews and Gentiles in his plan of salvation – explained so thoroughly in Romans 1-11. Against this background comes a series of “one-anothers” in chs. 12-16 applying the truths of chs. 1-11 to the Jewish-Gentile relationships. In Romans 15:7 he directly addresses the problem when he states; “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you….”
This attitude of partiality and discrimination spread with the dispersion of the early Christians as they scattered from Jerusalem. James addresses it when he writes in James 2:1-11 against discriminating among themselves, receiving the wealthy, rejecting the poor. It’s clearly not a recent problem. We have a long tradition of failure when it comes to being visitor friendly.
Apparently the problem continues to persist twenty centuries later.
As a young man Mahatma Gandhi went forth in quest of the truth. He sought to discover the religion which would emancipate India from the caste system. Diligently he examined various religions. He came to the conclusion that Christianity had the right answer to India’s divisive, degrading problems.
One Sunday Gandhi went to a Christian church. An usher coldly confronted him at the front door and said, “Sir, this church is only for Europeans.” Disillusioned, Gandhi walked silently away from the church. The racially exclusive attitude he had encountered caused him to turn away from Christianity and dedicate himself to the spreading of Hinduism to Indian’s millions. How different India’s history might have been if Christ likeness had been displayed by that usher! If they had only been visitor friendly!
Are we really much different?
The extensive research of sociologist Dr. Gerhard Lenski would suggest not. In his book, The Religion Factor he reports on a study of protestant congregations of all kinds in the city of Detroit. His conclusion is that we prefer people “like ourselves in tastes and income.” Although we don’t mind a few folks a little above us with “their gold rings.” When it comes to those who don’t fit we “ignore them.”
Generally we are too polite to refuse or reject – we just ignore. We have learned that this is the politically correct way to exclude people. They soon get the message that they don’t fit and leave. Ask the poor, the single, the divorced, the widows and a dozen others. Apparently we have become quite proficient in delivering the message subtly and courteously.
Addressing this issue to evangelism in Canada a few years ago, Dr. Roy Bell, of Vancouver wrote; “The most important issue in evangelism today isn’t methods, content or even willingness to witness. It is ‘the Exclusion Factor.’” Again he writes; “The issue on which evangelism flourishes or falls is one of acceptance or rejection.”
So what needs to be done? What can be done? Can your church really become visitor friendly? Absolutely.
While writing this booklet I am in North Carolina to participate in the wedding of our oldest granddaughter. We will be visitors over the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in the church they attend. That’s right – visitors! It’s not our first visit. I think it’s our third or fourth.
We can’t wait to get to this church. It’s one of the brightest parts of our visit. We love their energetic but devout worship, their biblical and practical preaching but especially the warm, welcoming people. It is visitor friendly! In varying capacities, I’ve been in scores of churches over the years. When it comes to unchurched people, especially of the younger contemporary scene, this church is way up on the scale.
How did they get there? It doesn’t just happen. They are very intentional in being visitor friendly. Can it happen in your church? Of course it can. Can you help make a difference? Absolutely!
Let’s consider some steps we can take to make this ideal visitor friendly church a reality.
What is your vision for your church?
In his book, Mentoring Leaders, Carson Pue, Director of the Arrow Leadership Training ministry defines vision:
“It is a compelling picture of the future based on God’s desires”
So what is the leadership’s, the congregation’s vision for your church? Where and what do you all think God wants your church to be five years from now? Have you been praying about this? Studying the scriptures to answer this? Discussing together the options? Agreeing on a picture that is compelling.?
Are you now committed to the pursuit of that picture?
Visitor friendly needs to be in that picture because this surely is God’s desire for your church. A New Testament church welcomes fellow believers.
Accept one another, then just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. Romans 15:7
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Ephesians 4:3
A new commandment I give you; Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All men will know you are my disciples if you love one another. John 13:34-35
But what about those who are not yet followers of Christ – people who may be seeking, searching, enquiring, investigating? What about your friends and family members with whom you have shared your faith. You have been praying for them. Then there are those friends who need to hear the gospel . You care about them. You are waiting for an open door and you are praying for them as well.
At some point you may want to invite one of them to church with you. Or, better yet, they may ask if they can go to church with you. What kind of reception would you want your church to give them? What kind of reception should a Christian church extend to them? What kind of reception should they expect? Here’s the answer:
“I was a stranger….and you welcomed me.” Matt. 25:35 (Amp)
This needs to be part of your vision for your church – a compelling commitment!
In Revelation 1:20 the local church is described as a lampstand, I like to think this pictures the church as a motion activated floodlight in the community; dispelling moral and spiritual darkness, dispensing moral and spiritual light. Reaching out to the community, making a difference through our good works, (Matt. 5:16), will inevitably result in people we have touched visiting our church. What kind of reception will they receive?
At that Sunday morning service we are going to present the gospel, invite people to trust Christ, speak of the joy and blessings of a Christian life. What kind of reception will add credibility to that message and influence them toward a commitment to Christ?
The evidence is that the reception they receive becomes a significant factor in their conversion experience.
This is the conclusion of a consortium of Scottish denominations who recently commissioned a research project to discover; “How do people find faith today?”
The results have been recently published in a booklet “Journeys and Stories.” One reviewer, Mark Greene, writes;
One of the strongest messages to emerge from “Journeys and Stories” is that living as a community of believers – a community which is welcoming, accepting, inviting, joyful, enthusiastic, encouraging and loving is the most powerful testimony possible. It constitutes a significant contribution to people’s journeys to God, a compelling invitation to a banquet, perhaps even a sign that the kingdom of God is here.
There can be no doubt that one of the desires of the Lord for your church is that it be visitor friendly. Is that your vision? Take a second look at your church’s vision statement. Review your core values. Read through last Sunday’s church bulletin and other pieces of your church literature. Are there any indications at all that having a visitor friendly church is part of the “compelling picture” of your church’s future. Are you committed to be part of the solution? This is where it starts. One of the elders gets the vision. A family determines to make a difference. An individual says; “I can do this” and steps out of the pack, begins to pray, steps up to the plate and leads the way to a new way of “doing church.” Such people have a compelling picture of the future based on God’s desires.
But are you prepared for company?
Have you ever visited a family that wasn’t expecting you? You wanted to surprise them but, in fact, you embarrassed them and, as a result, you were embarrassed. Dirty dishes are on the kitchen counter, children’s toys are scattered around the family room; the laundry is in progress, the man is away fishing, there’s nothing in the house for lunch and the list goes on. You’ve been there. Everyone’s apologizing.
Because of the nature of our ministry, Marilyn and I are often weekend guests in Christian’s homes. Frequently before we arrive we receive a phone call or email from our hosts. They provide directions, schedules and other important information. They enquire about our arrival time, dietary limitations, food preferences and other accommodation matters. They are obviously intent on making the visit a pleasant experience for us as well as for themselves. They are preparing for company.
This is the second step in building a visitor friendly church. Before we invite company we need to prepare for company. It makes for a pleasant experience – one that could be repeated! It indicates that we are eager to have company. This is what we are about. We don’t have to be apologizing and embarrassed. The company feels relaxed and welcome. It lets them know they are important to us. Here are a few suggestions that could make a huge difference to our church visitors.
Look at your facilities with a critical eye. Look through the eyes of a visitor. This is the first impression a visitor will have of your church. Are the buildings in good condition? Clean, Tidy, Freshly painted, Accessible, Grass cut and trimmed. We become accustomed to signs of deterioration. Visitors notice them first. This says a lot about us.
Is the main church sign outside your building attractive, inviting, informative? Are there helpful signs inside the building to the nursery, coat room, washrooms, auditorium, office, etc. You don’t need them but your visitors will really appreciate them. They will recognize the signs are for their benefit.
In place of heavy solid oak front doors creating apprehensions as visitors approach, is there enough glass that they can see what’s inside and be relaxed?
Are there Bibles and hymn or chorus books available in the pews? Do you have a welcome desk in the foyer where literature and information is readily available?
Have you determined how best to obtain a record of their visit without embarrassing your visitors? Are visitor cards or packets available? Where? How will they be collected or obtained?
How can you reserve seats for visitors without making them reserved? Some congregations are simply instructed not to sit in the back two rows. They understand these seats are reserved for visitors (and perhaps parents with young children.) They also are trained to move in from the aisle, saving aisle seats for visitors. Ushers can help facilitate this.
The twenty-first century has arrived almost everywhere – except in some churches. This is the information age with its startling technology. What is the message delivered to a person who comes with some experience in current technology into a church that gives no evidence of even being aware of it – let alone proficient in using it? We don’t need to be trailblazers but we do need to be contemporary with (1) equipment that will complement, enhance and support our worship and preaching, as well as, with (2) trained personnel who are both sensitive to the supportive place of technology and are proficient in using it.
After five minutes into their first visit to your church you want them to be thinking any one of the following:
“They were sure expecting company this morning.”
“I really feel welcomed.”
“They have certainly thought of everything to make this a pleasant visit.”
“I think I am going to enjoy myself this morning.”
“This isn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be.”
Careful preparation will pave the way to a great visit.
Now you are ready to invite company.
While large amounts of money and time have been invested in impersonal invitations, in and of themselves, they yield meager results. Take, for example, the sign in front of many churches and chapels. Most of them declare “Everybody welcome.” If true, it’s a wonderful sentiment. But does it work? The crowds pass by unmoved.
What about notices in local newspapers or flyers dropped in mail boxes? Do they work. They may have in the past but not today.
This is not to say they are without value. They raise awareness of our presence. They provide a contact. They indicate our interest in our community. All of this prepares the way for a personal invitation and that is what seems to be required today. If we want company, we need to invite company personally!
How can a congregation be encouraged to become inviters? Why aren’t we? We may be exhorted to bring friends, but we seldom do. Why Not?
I think there are some obvious reasons with some very practical solutions.
a) The erratic quality of the worship and the preaching discourages us from inviting others. When it is great one Sunday, mediocre the next Sunday, occasionally disastrous and embarrassing we can’t depend on a consistent quality that would make us confident enough to risk bringing a friend. If we don’t trust our church for a service of consistent quality we are unlikely to take a risk with a friend.
Solution: Consistently offer the kind of Sunday morning service that our friends will appreciate.
b) Plan special Sundays; Friendship Sundays. Announce them in advance. Everyone will know this service is planned with our friends and neighbours in view. Provide special invitation cards that we can pass on to friends highlighting the event. It will be a reminder to them, posted on their fridge door. Make it an event, not just another Sunday morning service.
c) The music is a critical factor. If a person in your congregation is unhappy with the music, he or she is not about to invite guests to church. I’m well aware of the crisis there is today in the area of music. If your are ever going to be the church God wants you to be it will be essential that with some open discussion, a little personal compromising, a lot of grace and some serious prayer, you establish a united front which will involve the generations in your congregation to embrace a common style, standard and philosophy of worship and music.
d) Sermons that ignite, enlighten, inspire, encourage, comfort and challenge members in the congregation will motivate them to invite their friends to church. If the preaching is consistently relevant, personal, thoughtful, biblical and well presented, we will leave wishing that a friend, a family member, a colleague had been present to hear that today. When we feel that way about our preaching we will be eager to invite friends.
e) Finally, enlarge the vision of the church to include caring not just about themselves and their church family but about those outside the family also. God does – so should we. In our postmodern world our unchurched friends don’t make going to church a priority, They don’t trust organized religion – like a church. They don’t believe in absolute truth – like the Bible. They don’t want to be spectators – like listening to a sermon. Why would they ever want to come to church?
I can only think of two reasons; God by His Holy Spirit is creating within them a need and desire that will turn their hearts toward Himself. This is why and what we pray for on behalf of our friends who are not yet followers of Christ.
But seldom is this done apart from a second factor: a relationship with a Christian friend. As we cultivate friendships with schoolmates, neighbours colleagues or relatives who are not yet followers of Christ, as we enter their lives, meet some needs, answer their questions, welcome them into our homes and lives we earn their trust. The door is open to extend to them an invitation to come with us to church.
As the research reviewed in “Journeys and Stories” demonstrated, Mark Green observed: “A key factor in people becoming Christians as far as they were concerned was…a relationship with a Christian.” He goes on to explain, “One man was helped on his journey towards Christ by his wife’s encounter with another Christian in her workplace.”
A caring, helpful relationship gives us the right and often the opportunity to invite our friends to church. When they come, our first and perhaps greatest challenge is to avoid embarrassing them.
When it comes to welcoming our guests, the cardinal rule is never embarrass them! They arrive anxious, nervous, curious, apprehensive, perhaps even reluctant. They really don’t know what to expect when they step through those doors. They want to make a good impression. They are afraid of making a fool of themselves, doing something wrong. They want to blend into the crowd, be unnoticed. From the very outset our challenge is to put them at ease.
It starts with the greeters at the front door. They are distinguished by the privilege of making the first impression of our church family. An enthusiastic welcome sets the tone, The greeters welcome them as guests.
Their smile, handshake and greeting convey the impression – “We are genuinely pleased you are visiting us this morning.” Never ask, “Are you visiting us today?” Much better is something like this, “I don’t think I’ve met you before. My name is _______________.” They will likely respond with something like, “My name is ________________, I’m a visitor today.” or “This is my first time in your church.”
At this point, the greeter becomes a guide. We treat them as we would treat guests entering our home. They are gifts to our church. They are friends we are about to make. The greeter guides them toward the coat room, the washrooms, the nursery, the Sunday school, the sanctuary.
The greeter has done everything possible to put them at ease and remove any embarrassment. This is a great start to the visit. Their guard comes down. The anxiety level lowers. The anticipation rises.
Next come the ushers. Well trained ushers anticipate the questions of their guests who are wondering, “What happens now?” The usher hands the guests a church bulletin explaining it contains the order of service. The guests are wondering; “Where can I sit?” The usher offers to seat them. They may be wondering, “Where and when do I pick up my children?” An effective usher puts them at ease by anticipating and answering their questions without ever embarrassing them.
As the service begins the worship leader, chairman or pastoral leader welcomes everyone. Again everything is done to avoid embarrassing our guests. We don’t ask them to stand and identify themselves. We guide everyone to the Bible in the pew before them and give them the page number for the scripture reading. We give clear guidance for standing, sitting, kneeling, praying, offerings, communion, welcome cards and everything else that becomes part of the service and is appropriate in your church. We are always mindful that they are our guests. We want them to be at ease. Only then will they be free to worship, listen and learn with us.
Now comes the tipping point. The members of the congregation determine whether it’s a win or a loss. Our experience is that the standard of the congregation in welcoming guests is set by the leadership of the church. As the leaders go, so goes the congregation. The leaders set the tone and inspire the people. The leaders reproduce after their kind. What the leaders model is what they are inclined to get. We’ve seen this to be true in various areas, not the least of which is the open, warm, friendly welcome extended to guests. Once again the congregation reflects its leadership.
To mobilize the congregation and to maximize their impact there are two guidelines that can be given to them. One: accept responsibility for a radius of approximately five feet around you. When guests take their seats close by you, they can be casually but enthusiastically greeted. Then comes the “meet and greet” time. This is an opportunity for a more extended greeting: introductions, questions, sharing. If there is time, it’s also an opportunity to reach beyond the guests sitting beside you to others within that five foot radius.
If the entrance welcome is important, the exit welcome is even more important. Now your guests may have some questions about the service or your church. They may want to discuss something they have seen or heard. They may need some guidance to the Sunday school rooms, nursery, washrooms or parking lot.
This is when a second guideline may help. Reserve the first few minutes after a service for connecting with guests. Resist the temptation to gravitate quickly into a small circle with your close friends. The parting impression of our guests will probably be the most lasting impression. Remember we want to put our guests at ease and avoid embarrassing them, especially as they leave our church.
Although they have now returned home, guests are not to be forgotten. How can we best follow up? Or is that even important?
There is some research to suggest the sooner the contact is made after a visit the better. The longer it takes to make a contact, the less likely the visitor will return.
In most cases, I believe, the best first contact after a church visit is a phone call. The Peoples Church in Toronto, Canada is recognized around the world for its huge foreign missions involvement. Interestingly they are just as devoted and committed to home missions. One aspect of this ministry is their strategy for connecting with people who visit their Sunday services. During the service guests are invited to fill out a visitor’s welcome card which can be found in the back of the pew in front of them and to deposit it in the offering plate.
On Monday, teams of 6-8, mostly retired, seniors come to the church for the afternoon or evening. The cards are reviewed and phone calls are made to each guest who lives in the city. The caller thanks the guest for visiting the church yesterday, answers any questions the visitor may have, explains a little about the church and invites them to return next week or to some special upcoming event. It is a very effective way to connect.
Some churches connect by mail. This is most effective when it is a follow-up from the phone call and when it is personal and informative. A form letter with a stamped signature may say a lot about the church but it is not very complimentary, Recently I came across a good letter sent to new residents in the church’s community. While the details may be changed it is a good model for connecting. After welcoming the person/family warmly and personally the letter continues:
Our church family has been a part of __________ for over 50 years now. While we have a long history of ministry in this community and core values that remain true, we are always changing as we are touched by the love of God through the lives of people.
If I may, please allow me to tell you just a little about my church family:
* We are mission minded, desiring that all experience God’s love revealed in Jesus.
* We believe that the Bible has a message that is applicable to real life concerns today.
* We are committed to quality ministry and are constantly attempting to improve.
* We are committed to supporting families of all sizes.
* We are committed to improving the quality of life in our city and around the world.
*We are growing and expanding and invite you to come and grow with us.
If you have any questions or would like to know more about the church you may e-mail me at __________ or phone me at _____________.
(Times of the services are given here.)
If you are without a spiritual home we invite you to stop by sometime soon.
Please enjoy a cup of delicious coffee or espresso on us compliments of JUDY’S on _________ or downtown on _____________ Street.
In most communities today “cold-calls” are not appreciated. A personal visit, down the line sometime, may be useful when it is initiated by our guests and it is by appointment.
Now that our guest has taken the first big step and visited our church what can we do to encourage them to return. What is the most important factor in moving from a guest to a regular attendee?
How we treat visitors and assimilate new people into the life of the church is strategic for preventing a revolving door. People might be coming to church looking for spiritual reality or for answers to life’s problems, but in many cases the glue that helps them stay is relationships. Don Posterski [of World Vision] noted from his research on effective churches,
“People may initially be drawn to a church because of the preaching or because of denominational affiliation, but they will continue to attend because of meaningful relationships with others.”
Arnell Motz, Christian Week
The evidence abounds; no matter the reason that brought the guests the first time, the chances of them staying increases significantly as they are able to develop good relationships within the church. Our role is to facilitate this by providing opportunities for friendships to develop.
When our son left home, moved to a distant city to take a job, it was after several weeks of searching that he finally settled in a church. The reason?
That’s right: friendships!
During a ministry visit to an assembly recently I visited with a wonderful couple who said that when they moved into the area they first attended another chapel.
They told us how welcomed they first felt there but never seemed to be able to break into the inner circle. So they left. That’s the revolving door. How can we prevent that? Remembering that the welcoming process continues even after that first or second Sunday can make the difference.
The fastest growing church in Canada today – and one of the largest – meets in a suburb of Toronto. The church is known for excellent Bible teaching and helping people grow in their Christian life. It has experienced phenomenal growth among baby boomers and busters. It is called “The Meeting House.” They have identified a decisive factor in church growth and highlighted it in their name. Along with the other good things the church offers, this is a place to meet people.
The very first opportunity we have to facilitate this is the moment our guests enter our church. It becomes a priority function of the greeters. Upon welcoming our guests, think of what it would mean if the greeters began introducing the new family to a church family or two standing nearby, perhaps a family with similar age children, common background, similar careers or live in the same neighbourhood. Such greeters understand the power and influence of friendships to church guests.
Some churches have a reception for their guests after the Sunday morning service. It provides an opportunity to meet the speaker, a staff member, a couple of the elders or some hosts and hostesses. An orientation meeting every three months for newcomers to the church gives them an opportunity, not only, to learn more about the church’s history, vision, mission, distinctives and programs, but especially to meet other newcomers. Church social events, a series of classes once a year for newcomers will serve this purpose as well. Our roll is to provide the opportunities.
This is what helps stop the revolving door. It just makes good sense. It is much easier to keep people who have come to visit our church than it is to get people to come and visit! When we have successfully achieved the harder thing – getting them to visit – we don’t want to short-circuit the process by failing to do the easier thing – keeping them.
But we have much more to offer them besides friendship. Once the relationship question is settled our guests may begin looking for other things.
What else can we offer?
There are two basic approaches to encountering guests when they come to our church. If we know them to be Christ followers, the most common approach is; “What can you do for us?” We do not express it verbally but we often think it. After the introductions and as they begin to share our church life we can begin to see them as prospects for ministry. Our conversations become virtual job interviews. We listen carefully for hints as to where they will fit into our programs. What experiences have they had. Where do their interests lie? What training have they had? Our entire focus is on how they can help us. The message this delivers is hardly a flattering one; it is generally an offensive one; never a spiritual one.
It simply says we are more interested in ourselves than in our guests.
The alternative, of course, is to ask the Christ follower or the person who is not yet a Christ follower in any one of a dozen ways; “What can we do for you? How can we serve you? What are your needs that we can address? What difference can we make in your life or family? Obviously we don’t verbalize these questions. We just filter all we are hearing through the grid of these questions and then offer them opportunities to meet their needs not ours.
A few years back, in the Year Of The Family some research indicated that 58% of unchurched families in Canada said that they probably would go to church if they thought the church would help their family. This is quite startling. I wonder how they have ever come to the conclusion that a church wouldn’t help? What message have we been delivering so loudly and clearly that so many have heard it – and we have missed it?
For many of us this requires a major adjustment in our value system, thinking and ministry style. Our calling is not to use people but to serve people. It’s not what their gifts, talents, time and money can do for us. It’s what we can do for them. This happens as our relationship develops.
Think how impressed our guests would be if we listened so carefully that we were able to offer them a class or a ministry that would meet their needs – whether that need was to come to know Jesus personally or a class that would mobilize their gifts. It would say we are committed, ready and willing to enrich your life.
Don’t promise what you can’t produce. But make every effort to produce what you promise. That’s Christian integrity.
At this point in our relationship several weeks may have passed. They have been welcomed and are settling into our church. Now there is one step left to complete the process.
The most valuable evaluation we could possibly receive will come from those we have successfully engaged in the process of being a visitor friendly church.
We want to know what worked and what didn’t work. What did we do well? What could be improved? What do we need to stop? What tipped the scale for them?
We are not really qualified to answer these questions. But we know who is. If you really are serious - ask them. Why? Because making our churches visitor friendly really is important!
This Is Really Important
It’s not an option. It’s an opportunity to make a difference. Look at it this way. When it comes to making a difference there are two kinds of churches.
Some churches are like a cruise ship, others are like a battle ship. It isn’t hard to tell the difference. A cruise ship is crowded with passengers who are there to be served by a few hard working people, often underpaid, crew members. Not so on a battleship. No passengers on board. It’s a ship on a mission. Everyone on board has an assignment. The degree to which each individual fulfils his/her assignment will determine the degree of success in their mission.
Which is your church? A cruise ship or a battleship? More importantly – What about your role? Are you contributing toward your church being a cruise ship or becoming a battleship? One assignment that is shared by all is to participate in cultivating a visitor friendly church. This is important to every serious follower of Christ for these reasons.
1. We care, not just about ourselves, but about others. We care, not only for those in our tight circle of church friends, but others in the church as well. We care, not just about our church family, but about our Lord’s broader church family. We care, not just about the family of God but those outside the family of God as well. When we care, becoming visitor friendly becomes very important to us.
We take seriously New Testament directives such as:
Rom. 15:7 “Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you.”
Rom. 12:13 “extend hospitality to strangers.”
Heb. 13:2 “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”
Matt. 25:35 “I was a stranger….and you welcomed me.”
We are serious about building visitor friendly churches because we care about others.
This is the heart of Christian love. 1 Cor. 13; “love…is not self seeking.”
This is the essence of Christian discipleship. Mark 8:34 “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself.”
This is a feature of Christlikeness. Phil. 2:4 “Look out… to the interests of others.”
The second reason building a visitor friendly church is important to serious followers of Christ is because by this means we can make a terrific difference.
2. We want to make a difference.
Several years ago, while listening to the morning TV news in Florida, I heard the governor say what every Christian leader feels. He said; “I’m here to make a difference. I’m not here to stay but while I’m here I want to make a difference and I assume that of you as well.” That is the way every serious follower of Christ feels. But how? Too many people come in the front door and leave by the back door. That’s the revolving door. It can be stopped. Keeping people from going out the back door is easier than getting them in the front door. We can spend large sums of money, exert huge amounts of energy and invest large blocks of time trying to get visitors in the front door. Some thoughtful care can keep them.
Let’s think of some differences you could make: the rescuing of a lonely, lost person, the healing of a marriage, the growth of a young fledgling Christian, the development of a gifted teacher, the transformation of a church. All these and dozens more can be the product of closing the back door so that a guest settles into your church, becomes a Christ follower, becomes active, studies and grows.
The outcomes can be incredible. They are often traced back to the influence of a visitor friendly person.
There is a third reason why serious followers of Christ are serious about building visitor friendly churches.
3. We want to see people come to Christ.
In our postmodern world we know that personal relationships are a major factor in the process. Remember my earlier reference to the booklet reporting some resent research in Scotland – “Journeys and Stories.” The report affirmed the critical role a warm, welcoming, energetic congregation has on people coming to faith in Christ today.
It also affirms “the significance of the insignificant.” Apparently trivial acts of kindness, ways of living become beacons, signposts along the way. Clearly he reports, “the quality of relationships in the church has evangelistic power. The selflessness and generosity of our relationship is a sign to the world of the truth of the message, in fact, it is part of the message.”
The author goes on to report. “God works through relationships, through the people we meet and through exposing the people we meet to other people who know and love the living God.”
Lori Graham Lotz, (Just Give Me Jesus, pp 286-288), recounts a touching moment that highlights the brilliant warmth of a caring D,L. Moody against the appalling dark background of an uncaring usher. (I have abbreviated her story.)
Geoffrey was a young boy living on the streets in the slums of London. He had heard about a fiery preacher named D.L. Moody and that he was preaching in a church on the other side of the city. Geoffrey wanted to hear him. He set out to find the church, dodging carriage wheels, crowded thoroughfares and hordes of pedestrians. Finally finding the church he stared at it in awe. The church was situated on a hill with beautiful stained glass windows. He could hear voices singing. It awakened in him a longing that felt like homesickness.
Bounding up the long, sweeping staircase that led to the massive wooden front door, a big hand descended out of nowhere grabbed him by the shoulder, spun him around, and inquired sharply, “Just where do you think you’re going laddie?” Geoffrey responded trustfully, “I heard Dr. Moody was going to preach here tonight. I’ve walked all the way across London to hear him.” “Not you! You’re too dirty to go inside!”
Geoffrey stalked off the front steps confident that he could find another way into the church. But all doors were locked. He ended up back on the front steps, tears trickling down his grimy cheeks.
Suddenly a black carriage pulled up to the foot of the steps and a distinguished-looking gentleman in topcoat and hat climbed out. When he reached Geoffrey’s step he noticed the tearstains on the boy’s cheeks. “What’s wrong?” he inquired.
“I came to hear Dr. Moody preach, but that man says I’m too dirty to go inside.”
The gentleman looked down at the little boy and extended his hand. “Come with me.” Hand in hand they walked up the long sweeping staircase. When them came to the huge door the very same doorkeeper, who a few minutes before had forbidden the boy to enter, now hastily opened the door wide. Geoffrey walked through the open door, down the center aisle right to the very front row. With every eye on them, the big man seated Geoffrey there in front of the entire congregation. Then the big man walked on up the steps to the platform, stood behind the pulpit, and began to preach! The man was D. L. Moody!
“Above all, we want to welcome strangers because (as Mother Teresa of Calcutta puts it) they represent Christ in “disguise.” For who does not long to hear Christ’s words of commendation on the Last Day, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:35)?”
Times have changed and that’s especially true for Christian churches when it comes to connecting and cultivating meaningful relationships in a secular, pluralistic, postmodern world. The following edited chart from: The Issachar Factor, Martin and MacIntosh, (pp. 125-133) highlights some of the contrasts.
That Was Then….
This Is Now…
* Reserved parking for staff
* Reserved parking for guests
* Home visits
* Phone visits
* Visitors introduced
* Guests anonymous
* Responsibility is with visitor
* Responsibility is with church
* Happens by accident
* Happens by plan
* Lecture-styled facilities
* Relational-styled facilities
* Membership class
* Membership process
* Information packets
* Video on the church
* No funds
* Budgeted item
* Ushers solicited
* Ushers trained
* Back rows for members
* Back rows for guests
* Find friends after the service
* Find a guest after the service
* Random follow-up
* Organized tracking
The Issachar Factor, Martin and MacIntosh, Broadman and Holman, 1993
Dr. Harold Percy, “Your Church Can Be Visitor Friendly” (Discusses Steps 2,4-8) Wycliffe College, School of Evangelism 5 Hoskin Ave., Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1H7 (416) 979 2870 Fax (416) 979 0471
Dr. Michael Knowles, “I Was A Stranger And You Welcomed Me” Assistant Director, Wycliffe College, School of Evangelism
The Inviting Church: A Study of New Member Assimilation Roy Oswald and Speed Leas Albion Institute, 1987 Albion Institute, 4125 Nebraska Ave. NW Washington, D.C. 20016
Welcome: Tools and Techniques for New Member Ministry Andrew Weeks, Albion Institute 1992
How To Warmly Welcome and Effectively Enfold People in Your Church Resource Kit from Church Development Resources 3475 Mainway, Burlington, Ontario, L7M 1A9 (800) 263 4252 (905) 336 2920
What Visitors See: Seeing Your Church Through The Eyes of a Visitor By Carl George Workbook and audio cassette (1988) Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth P.O. Box 91990, Pasadena CA 91109-1990 (818) 449 0425 (800) 999 9578