Toward 2000: Becoming a Visitor Friendly Church (Image Vol 9, No 6 – Nov/Dec 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

By Kevin Withem

On a recent trip, friends of mine visited the local Church of Christ near their hotel. They arrived late due to incorrectly advertised times in the yellow pages and on the church sign. The times they had read indicated that Bible class should be under way; instead they heard sounds of a worship assembly. No one was at the door to give them directions. They were finally able to wrest some unvolunteered information from a brother making his way to the rest room. He did volunteer that they were having difficulty with the times, because “the Korean church had to use the building too.” He said this would have thought if they were seekers, with no church background. They concluded that this church wouldn’t make their “can hardly wait to get back to” list.

What kind of an impression would your church make on a first time visitor with no background in Christianity? Would the impression compel them to return?

Consider for a moment the real-life experience of some “guests” in our churches:

  • A woman in her 40s asked a person in the hall of a congregation if there was a single’s class. She was promptly told “yes, but not for you, it’s for young singles.”
  • A young man finally persuaded his father to attend a church of Christ in the town where Dad lived. The Bible class became heated over a church issue. The father, tongue in cheek, told his son, “If I wanted to spend Sunday morning in argument, I would have stayed home and argued with your mother…”
  • A friend looking for a home congregation in a new town visited a church where the “one appointed” failed to show for closing prayer. The brother sitting behind my friend was called. He complained loudly enough for the church to hear that “he always gets called when someone doesn’t show up.” My friend showed up elsewhere the next Sunday…
  • In one church of my acquaintance, a longtime member actually asked a visitor to find another seat because he was “occupying” her pew. To steal a credit card slogan, I guess “membership has its privileges…

Extreme cases? Probably. Rare? Maybe. But it forces us to ask an important question. What do we communicate to the guests who visit our churches Ample evidence suggests that not only are we having difficulty drawing visitors, but we’re having trouble getting those who come to return a second time. Our difficult could result from thinking that says, “Ig people want the truth badly enough, they’ll return out of a commitment to truth. We don’t have to pander to their consumer whims.”

Maybe some of us do what a prominent theologian suggested. We “hurly the gospel at them like a brick.” If they want it badly enough, they’ll catch it. I can picture an usher in a church foyer now, pitching a Bible, with tract inserted, at a guest upon entry and shouting, “here, read this!”

As we approach the 21st century, we must reevaluate our approach to outreach. We can begin by examining the way we receive our guests. In a sense, we are at times guilty of being “visitor hostile” – not in overt ways, but in covert ways. Some churches perceive themselves as friendly – and they are friendly to their friends – but if they stood in a first-time visitor’s shoes, their perception might change.

The need for visitor-friendly churches is urgent because seekers today have little time for what they consider “poor service and bad quality.” We shouldn’t accept wholesale consumerism in Christians, but we must enhance our opportunities to receive a hearing from unbelievers.

Nordstrom department store states that “the only difference between departments stores is in the way they handle their customers.” Merchandise being equal, it’s service that draws people to one store over another. In church outreach, the only difference guests initially notice between church A and church B may be in the way they treat their guests.

Paul indicated a grave concern for the impression churches make on unbelievers He wrote, “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? (1 Cor. 14:23). Mission-minded people are concerned with perceptions.

Well-intended congregations might be unaware of the subtle ways guests are neglected and opportunities are missed. They to is found in Jesus’ statement, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them to do you” (Matt. 7:12). In other words, stop and put yourself in your first-time visitor’s shoes. Think through the following issues by looking through their eyes.

Take Inventory

What anxieties do visitor’s face when they visit your church for the first time?

When you go to a new place the first time, you often arrive with many questions and some anxiety. If you are a regular attender, your concerns are different from your guests. You may be rushing to get kids to class, or reviewing to teach. Your guest arrives with different concerns. He or she wonders, “Where do I go?” “Will there be a test?” “Will I be called on?”

The worship hour provides new questions. “Will I know when to stand?” “Will I kneel? Lie down? Jump up and down? Raise or fold hands in prayer?” “Should I take communion?”

What is helpful when you go to a new place for the first time? You appreciate a warm, friendly reception. You hope that regulars will not assume you know your way around. You don’t want to feel like you’re putting people out. You hope there will be signs to point you in the right direction. Class summaries, maps, and worship guides would be helpful. You don’t want to be overwhelmed, but you want to be able to feel your way through the experience.

What impression will your building and grounds leave?

Your building’s appearance communicates volumes. Chipping pain you’ve grown accustomed to makes a lasting impression. Neglected lawns demonstrate lack of concern. That month-old vomit stain in the nursery will tell a young mother about the quality of child care. Foyers filled with back issues of dated church publications communicating that the church is a dumping ground. Outdated and obsolete equipment sends the message that the church stalled somewhere in the 60s. Church bulletins hammered out on old hit-and-miss typewriters have “out of touch” written all over them.

The way we keep our houses speaks about the way we tend our lives. A well-ordered house doesn’t necessarily mean a well-ordered home; however, a neglected house and yard is a sign of laziness, busyness with other concerns, and possibly family disarray.

Churches that take little pride in the place of worship likely demonstrate a lack of commitment to excellence in other areas of the Father’s business.

What will their impressions of worship be?

A number of years ago I contacted a young man and his wife who had visited the church where I was preaching. He commended several aspects of the service. Then he paused for a moment and said, “but about the music…” I was expecting the obvious question about the lack of instruments.

He continued, “It was very…” he fished for the right word and found it, “archaic.”

“Many of our songs are…well…old” I admitted.

He then said, “I understood the sermon more clearly than the songs.”

Our worship had contained songs that the churches of Christ in Anywhere, USA, would include in a service. I soon learned that some of our own members were also fuzzy on the meaning of “ebon pinion” the “panoply of God,” and “raising our ebenezers.” I realized that a course in hymnbook exegesis would be helpful. Most churches are less reluctant to change a Bible version than they are to tamper with our sacred music.

Another consideration is our mix of songs. We move rather quickly from what appears to the guest to be a stiff, funeral dirge to a foot-stompin’, chicking-frying, rip-snorting, chuck-wagon song. To the guest it might be a strange brew indeed (I once visited a church that sang, “Rise Up, Oh Men of God,” and moved right into a rendition of “Rawhide” with Christianized lyrics).

Churches wanting to reach modern men and women will seek to communicate effectively in both their preaching and singing. This will require using quality, contemporary songs. Some fear that contemporary means trite or unbibillcal. I’m not suggesting that we do as one group who put the gospel lyrics to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island.” I don’t prefer an image of “the Skipper” in my mind as I worship. However, Luther wrote “A Might Fortress” to the tune of a German Beer drinking song. It was music that communicated to his generation, just as “devotional” style and “meditative” hymns speak to some of us. Unlike the Bible, the hymnbook is not a closed canon.

We must ask, “What are we communicating in our assembly?” If singing is meant to teach (Col. 3:16), then who and what are we teaching? Although there’s reinforcement in repetition, we could sing some of our songs in our sleep. And we sometimes do. I suggest that very little “teaching” is taking place in some of our assemblies. Instead, we may be satisfying our nostalgic yearnings. More contemporary songs should be blended with our traditionals – not to pacify those who get excited by a Hallal presentation (no one wants pacification), but to communicate to that searching guest who comes to the assembly. Many time-honored hymns accomplish this, and their continued use is demanded by their quality. However, we also need the fresh winds of creativity which indicate that life and vibrancy are still a part of our movement.

Take Action

Becoming more visitor friendly requires planning and purpose. Let me encourage your congregation to consider the following course:

Observe your church on a Sunday and watch the interaction of members and guests
Are quests welcomed at the door and provided direction and information? Or are they left to find their own way around? Do first-time guests return for a second and third visit? How many eventually become a part of the church?

Analyze the assembly with the eye of a first-time guest
IF you had no church background, what would your impression be? Would the singing inspire? Are the hymns easily understood? Are steps taken to insure that equipped and enthused leaders set the direction?

Equip and train people for visitor-friendly ministry
No need to get complex. Small, simple steps make an excellent beginning point. Our congregation now has its “front line” ministry intact, including an information cart, parking lot greeters, classroom escorts, and foyer greeters. These are manned by carefully trained people who understand their objective. It has significantly enhanced our outreach to visitors.

Here is the key ingredient: look at your church through the visitor’s eyes, then take steps to improve your outreach. It will be tough to reach our communities if we cannot effectively reach those who come to investigate us on a Sunday morning.

categoria commentoNo Comments dataJanuary 30th, 2017
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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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