Visitor in a Foreign Land...I Mean Church! by Jeff Miller

I recently visited a new church for the first time, not knowing anybody and by myself.   Having never been in the building before, it reminded me just a little of how difficult and even unsettling it can be to walk into one of our churches on any given Sunday – as a visitor.  Even though I have visited hundreds of churches, it was awkward and intimidating to pull into the parking lot and to walk through the front doors into the entirely unfamiliar.  Being well versed in church culture and speaking the lingo, I had the advantage of being aware that some regular church attenders have sacred seats in the sanctuary that I as a visitor ought not to sit in.  That made me even more uncomfortable.

Though this was not a Christian and Missionary Alliance church, it could have been.  It was incredibly similar to the churches that I visit all around the Central District.  They put their best foot forward musically. The building was bright and positive with good signs to point me in the right direction.  They had given good attention to the atmosphere of the sanctuary.  The person doing music did not simply play and sing well, he led worship.  They used video projection wisely. The pastor who preached was engaging, strongly biblical, and clear with application. They communicated well what they were doing so that I did not have to fear their liturgy.  (All of our churches have liturgy but sometimes we just assume and forget to communicate it to the unchurched.  Things such as….when to stand and when to sit and why, the reason for the basket or plate they pass around, and why all the kids suddenly evacuated.)

There was one other way that they were like many, many of the Alliance churches that my wife and I visit around our district (at least before they know who we are): Not a single person talked to me.  No one prompted a conversation.  No one asked my name or why I came.  No one invited me back or helped connect me to other people and ministries of the church. No one inquired as to what was going on in my life (which may have been significant in why I went in the first place).  No one. 

So are they an unfriendly church?  I don’t think that they would evaluate themselves that way, nor do I think that is their intention, but it raised a fresh concern for the visitors of churches in general and specifically – our churches.

The things that they did have in place made sense.  They had the requisite person at the entrance to hold the door open for me with a cheery “Hello.”  There was a welcome center inside staffed by a nice looking person waiting for anyone to walk up to her.  There was a pleasant usher to hand me a bulletin.  The bulletin had a nice printed greeting to any and all visitors.  After a couple of songs someone from the platform welcomed guests.  There were connection cards in the seat backs that could be filled out and placed in the offering basket.  All of these are wonderful and I am highly in favor of each.  They had a friendly veneer but there was a lack of personal engagement.   No one ever personally addressed me.

Some might argue that I had just as much opportunity to engage them as they did to engage me.  That certainly is true but that puts the entire burden on me, the visitor, and a stranger in this strange place.  In business vernacular, that is like putting all of the responsibility on your customer.  Let’s say you walked into a furniture store with a real need for a good sofa but none of the sales people approached you to introduce themselves or inquire about your need.  Rather, all the sales people were otherwise engaged in office work, reading literature about their latest promotion, moving furniture to make the display more appealing to the eye, etc.  They are still doing their job – but they are missing the most critical component of their goal:  reach the customer, find out what they NEED, meet the NEED and produce the RESULT that is good both for customer and company.

Furthermore, let’s say as the customer heads out the door and on to another store, the sales staff is overheard lamenting to one another about the fact that, yet again, another prospective customer has walked out the door empty-handed.  The staff are left to wonder about the sad state of the customer, as so few seem to want what they have to offer.

Others might counter that we should not use business illustrations to describe the church.  After all, we’re not hucksters looking to make a sale on religious merchandise or Christian programming; we exist to introduce people into a wonderful relationship with Jesus.  Though I agree, that does not mean that the bar of expectation should be lower.  Rather, it should be much higher.  We are not simply around to add a few new names to our membership rolls – we are here to introduce people to the King of kings and Lord of lords.  So how could we ever, even once, see someone in our church that we don’t know and not walk up to them and engage them in conversation?!  I fear this is exactly what is happening in church after church and it needs to change.

Some thoughts toward a solution:

  • Train your congregation how to be engaging.  Rather than pushing them toward it or telling them that they ought to do it, teach them how. I would love to see pastors who have a strategy like this in place: a strategy to train the flock in welcoming new sheep.  My deep concern is that instead we are just hoping for the best, doing it ourselves, or complaining about the people who don’t help. We may even be hiring a professional to do the assimilation for us, believing that as long as he does his job we are an engaging church.  The long and short of it is – it is in our best interest not to assume that everyone knows how to do this – it doesn’t come naturally to most.
    • When I walk into a restaurant or store and not only the manager but also employee after employee welcomes me, offers to assist me, and pauses to talk with me, I immediately know that I have stumbled upon a group that is well trained. The expectations have been clearly communicated and they have been developed to accomplish it.  We ought to have the same goal as churches.
    • Training is more than instruction.  It is best done as an apprenticeship.  That means that every time you go to have a conversation with someone you think is new you ought to grab the closest veteran churchgoer to join you in the conversation.  Identify some multi-relational people who engage others easily (the kind of person in your church who never met a stranger). Have them start apprenticing others.  When you apprentice people, you help them learn well to overcome the hurdles of talking to strangers AND you multiply your engaging touchpoints with newcomers since automatically more people are talking to each visitor.
  • Give your people good conversation questions to ask:

o   “I’m not sure we have met.  My name is ______.  What’s your name?” [Special note: use their name out loud in your conversation with them, it will connect you to them quicker and will also help you to remember their name.  As soon as you are done talking with them, - write their name down somewhere – perhaps on a paper you keep in your Bible – so that next week when you see them at church you can address them by name.]

o   “How long have you been a part of this church?” (When you don’t know if someone is new to the church or not - this is a safe way to ask without risking an embarrassing moment.)

o   “Do you know anybody who attends this church?”

o   “What made you decide to come to church today?”

o   “Why did you decide to come to this church?”

o   It is typically okay to ask what kind of work someone does.

o   Teach them to listen for clues: “We recently moved here and are looking for a church.” can easily lead to a question like “What kind of church did you attend where you previously lived?” or “Did you have a job transfer?” or “Do you know anyone here in this area?”

-          Warn against assumptions:

o   Never assume that a new couple is married.

o   Don’t assume someone is a believer. Don’t assume that they aren’t.

o   Never assume a woman is expecting.

o   If you don’t see children don’t ask if a couple has kids (many struggle with the pain of infertility).

  • Teach your people to engage, not preach. For most this won’t be a problem.  There are, however, a few in every church who will feel it is their God-ordained responsibility.  It is fine to walk a spiritual pathway with them right away IF invited but otherwise let’s build friendship before faith, show grace before pushing holiness, earn trust before meddling, and ask much more than tell.  This is the order in which Jesus did these things – probably a good model for us.
  • Coach toward the “3-minute rule”.  One pastor of a large church instituted the three-minute principle in his church.  It is simply this: as soon as the worship service is dismissed, use the first three minutes to engage in conversation with someone you don’t already know.  Why? Because visitors will be out the door within about three minutes but your church friends will still be around after that.
  • Employ accountability.  In staff meetings, elder meetings, board meetings, Sunday classes and small groups, start asking about engagement.  For example, “A new couple, Tim and Mary, have been in church the past three Sundays – raise your hand if you have had a conversation with them.”  Then ask the group “So what can you tell me about Tim and Mary?”
  • Practice hospitality.  Relationship is built around the dinner table. It is a biblical concept…and a mandate.  So find some people to practice hospitality.  Feed them the names and contact info of newcomers.  Have these visitors invited over for dinner or dessert.  Budget some church outreach money to have guests taken out to a restaurant for dinner. Tell your hospitality people to ALWAYS invite a third party to the table so that the relationship connections are multiplied.
  • A little meddling: Pastors, elders and worship leaders.  The prime time to be out among the people that you are about to minister to is the last fifteen minutes before the service starts – so take advantage – don’t use this as prayer time.  Yes, meet for prayer…but do so thirty minutes or more before the service starts.  Don’t be absent at the time of greatest opportunity to touch the most people in the shortest time.  It is still true in our church culture that once a week the majority of the flock, of their own initiative, come to the shepherds.  We don’t want to squander this key relational touch point.  Get out with the people.  Greet newcomers. Love on the family.  Let your excitement for meeting Jesus, enthusiasm for the meat of the Word, and expectancy of the work of the Spirit be contagious!
  • A little meddling, part two.  Greeting times are essentially liturgy that means little in most of our services.  As it relates to welcoming newcomers please remember that greeting times are not the same as conversation.  Shaking hands and saying “Hi” to seven people standing near me in a greeting time is not engaging.  Most visitors don’t perceive a greeting time like you might think they do: they tend to find it awkward and intimidating.

Step away from the illusion that our great buildings, programs, worship style or services will win the day.  Guests may come to visit because of these reasons, BUT for the most part, they will only stay because of relational glue.  Jesus understood this (He invented it) and He promoted it.  He stated clearly that the world (including visitors to our churches) would know we are Christians by our love.  Love is always, always relationally based.  We love as we relationally wade into people’s lives.  Building relationships requires that we engage; we cannot be engaging without personal conversation.  Let’s begin that engagement the very first time they encounter our church.  We want them to see Jesus.   They likely need to see Jesus in our lives before they can envision Him in theirs.