How To Become A Visitor Friendly Church
By Jeanette Gardner Littleton
The first time Kym-Marie and Rod visited a church, they handed their visitor information cards to an usher. Later that week, the pastor of the church called and asked if he could visit.
“He was very laid back and interested in us,” Kym-Marie recalls. “Basically, he asked what we wanted from the church.”
Kym-Marie wanted more information about Christianity. The pastor met that need by arranging to meet with the couple for further study. Kym-Marie and Rod eventually accepted Christ and joined the church.
A Warm Welcome
Millions of Americans today are not members of a church, according to Tom Clegg, consultant for Church Growth Institute and Church Resource Ministries. Yet an overwhelming percentage of local churches are either hitting a plateau or declining. And thousands of churches are closing every year.
Clearly there’s a problem. Churches that have stopped growing aren’t reaching out to the unchurched in their communities. And even when people such as Kym-Marie and Rod drop in, church members aren’t offering the kind of welcome that keeps them coming back.
Here’s what churches can do to become more visitor-friendly:
* Look friendly. “Churches must be sensitive to the mindset of unchurched people,” says Victor Mertz of the Church Growth Institute. “We should begin with the first impressions. A church must look good and offer a nice overall ambiance to make a visitor return” (see “Visitor Friendly Checklist” below). Clegg agrees. “When visitors walk through the door, they will decide in three to eight minutes whether they’ll take you seriously and whether they’ll return,” he says.
* Offer a guest-friendly service. “We view our church service as part of the visitor follow-up,” says C. Craig Burns, pastor of Vienna Assembly of God in Virginia. “The service itself is designed to make the visitor’s experience a little easier.”
That means offering visitors a full-service bulletin that lists the order of service and the words of each song to be sung. “We have to remember that the unchurched don’t know most of our lingo or songs or even church etiquette, such as when to stand or sit,” Mertz says. “They feel threatened because they don’t know those things. We need to help them in those areas.”
Mertz also suggests becoming more sensitive to vocabulary that might offend newcomers. “We need to call them guests instead of visitors,” Mertz says. “And when our guests leave, we shouldn’t say, ‘Thank you for worshiping with us’—that puts them on the outside. We should say, ‘I’m glad we could worship together.'”
Clegg says churches should have a place where guests can meet with church members and pastors after the service. He also recommends that people be assigned to each exit of the sanctuary to speak to newcomers as they leave.
Whatever you do, don’t ask guests to rise during a worship service and identify themselves, Clegg says. That may embarrass them to the point of never returning. Let them have anonymity unless they voluntarily relinquish it.
Find a graceful way to find out who they are. Every church has a different system. Some churches put visitor information cards in their pews or bulletins, which they ask guests to sign. First Church of the Nazarene, Kansas City, Kansas, has registration pads in each pew, which it asks regular attenders as well as guests to sign.
Clegg warns churches not to ask visitors to drop cards in offering plates, however. “That reinforces the distorted message that the church only wants money,” he says. A better way is to have hosts in various parts of the church pass out and collect the cards. Or guests can put the cards in a box after the service.
* Activate follow-up. For some churches, follow-up simply means giving visitor cards to the church secretary to send off welcome letters. Some churches may need a more complex system. At First Church of the Nazarene, for example, an office worker copies visitor information from pads onto a chart, which is then evaluated in the church’s weekly staff meeting. The names of first-time visitors are given to the “Pie Call” home-visitation team (see p. 70) and to appropriate Sunday school teachers for further follow-up.
Guest recording can get quite complicated. Here is some computer software that can help streamline the process:
To integrate a visitor into the church, a congregation should touch visitors often via visits, phone calls, and letters, advises church growth expert Elmer Towns. Those efforts should start soon after a person’s initial visit—but not to the point of overwhelming them.
It’s good, too, to have someone other than the pastor make some of those calls. Such visits have made members of many visitors at Vienna Assembly of God. “We have a couple who loves making visits. This has helped our visitor retention,” Burns says.
Little gifts are nice, too. Some churches give visitors candy-filled mugs. One church presents a card to visitors with their names done in calligraphy by an artist in the church. Other gifts for visitors include coupons for service, such as babysitting, lawn mowing, or snow shoveling, or certificates to a local restaurant or store.
Give Them Space
Some churches prefer a hands-off approach with visitors—at least initially. “A person is often just looking and doesn’t want the pressure of a visit,” says one church staff member. “We’ve found that if visitors are truly interested, they’ll return. Then we’ll make an in-home visit.”
People at Jerusalem Baptist Church, near Washington, D.C., think it’s best to phone before making a home visit. “We have found it’s more considerate if we call people several days ahead of time,” says one staffer.
Visitor follow-up is a good time to present information on church programs. First Church of the Nazarene includes such information with its bakery gifts. Burns gives each visitor a cassette tape explaining various aspects of the church and answering questions visitors have asked over the years. Pastor Glen Martin of Community Baptist Church, Manhattan Beach, California, gives visitors a videotape explaining the church programs.
A reminder: such material should include the name and phone number of someone a visitor can call for more information.
Plug Them In
The best way to keep visitors in the church is to plug them into its programs and people. “People are like Lego blocks. The fewer the pegs plugged in, the easier to break them apart,” says Clegg. “When they’re all plugged in, they’re harder to pull apart.”
Cleggs also suggests that churches help new members find a place to serve with their unique gifts. “We have seven months to help a person belong—to move them from ‘their church’ to ‘my church,'” he says.
That Loving Touch
To integrate people into the church, we must remember what it feels like to be a stranger, say Clegg and Mertz. “We often fail to reach and keep others because we’ve lost the ability to be loving, other-oriented people,” Clegg says.
Mertz says that pastors or church staffers can’t be the only ones responsible for visitor contact and follow-up. No matter how personable the pastor, if the congregation doesn’t have the same attitude, people will not stay in the church.
Visitor Friendly Checklist
* a neatly mowed and trimmed lawn
* well-pruned bushes and trees
* swept, crackless, and grassless sidewalks
* friendly, accomplished staff
* proper check-in and check-out procedures
* safe, washable toys
* up-to-date furnishings
* an adequate number to handle church crowd
* clean, well-stocked
* in hallways
* in meeting rooms
* in the parking lot to help people find parking spaces, to escort them into the building with umbrellas, if it’s raining, or to steady them over snowy or icy surfaces
* at sanctuary doors, to talk to people as they enter and leave
* pleasing, welcoming smells inside the church, such as coffee, candles, or potpourri
* to various parts of the church, with easy-to-follow directions that can be read, even if halls are filled with people
* for guests to mix with church members after the service.
Pie Calls for Visitors
The name of every visitor who signs a registration pad at First Church of the Nazarene, Kansas City, Kansas, is passed to Sharrette Cooper, director of the “Pie Call” visitor follow-up program.
Cooper and her team of helpers bake home-made goodies each week. On Wednesday, they pack the food in boxes decorated with ribbon and a pie-shaped card stating a welcome from the church. The boxes also include information materials about the church.
The boxes are addressed to visitors and sorted by zip code. The codes are listed on a chart in the church lobby, where laypeople can see them as they leave Wednesday-night church events. Volunteers then take the goodies to people who live near them.
The volunteers simply drop off each box—unless the person they visit invites them in. After the visit, the volunteer fills out a form, describing the response of those receiving the goodies. The forms are then returned to the church office, along with any requests for additional information or follow-up. Pastors and other church staffers then make additional calls.
The Pie Call ministry is flourishing at First Church. Cooper and crew currently make up to eight visits per week.
This article “How To Become A Visitor Friendly Church” by Jeanette Gardner Littleton is excerpted from Christianity Today International/Your Church magazine, Jan/Feb 1998.