HOW TO TREAT YOUR GUESTS
By: James E. White
“Guests” vs. “Visitors”
Most growing churches do not refer to their visitors as “visitors” but as “guests.” The thinking behind this subtle shift in terminology is that the ‘term visitor conveys mostly negative images. When you are called a visitor, you are clearly being told you are not a regular attender and certainly not a member. Quite simply, as a “visitor,” you do not belong.
The term visitor is far from personal, warm, or inviting; a “visitor” is someone who is passing through, temporary, the “odd man out.”
The term guest, however, does not convey those ideas. It is warmer and more intimate; it is inviting and accepting. A guest is someone you clean up for, look forward to expectantly, and seek to please. At Disneyland and Disney World, for example, every person who comes onto the property (or “the set”) is called a guest. As Tom Peters and Nancy Austin noted, “Should you ever write the word at Disney, heaven help you if you don’t capitalize the G.”
Another important reason for using the term guest is that it conveys the idea of someone who has been invited. This is a particularly important notion to convey to existing members who fail to have the mind-set or desire to invite their nonchurched friends and relatives to church.
The importance of having your parking be “nonchurched friendly” cannot be overstated. The best parking at growing churches is usually reserved for those who are guests. The parking is also well-directed by signs or traffic attendants. Ample parking should be provided to ensure that attending church is not a burdensome inconvenience.
One of the principal reasons nonchurched persons have difficulty with church is their perception that money is constantly being solicited. Recent scandals involving Christian leaders should prevent us from being shocked at our reputation among the nonchurched, nonbelieving community regarding money.
Growing churches are responding by giving a disclaimer before the time of offering. The disclaimer sounds something like: “If you are a guest with us this morning, please do not feel obligated in any way to participate in this morning’s offering. This is an offering for our members and regular attenders to willingly give financial support to the life and ministry of this church.”
That one simple statement has a dramatic impact on the entire service. For the nonchurched, it removes one of the principal caricatures they believe about religious institutions, namely that the only concern is for money.
While visiting a church in Georgia, I overheard a couple say to one another following such a disclaimer: “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard a church ask me not to give! Now I think we ought to!” At another church, I heard a man say to his friend, “This is the first church that I didn’t feel wanted me just for my money.”
Christians have a language all their own, and it is a language that is virtually nonexistent outside the life of the church. I could walk up to mature Christians in most churches and ask them if they have been “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” and they would know exactly what I was talking about. A nonchurched person would only envision a repulsive scene. Our hymns, for example, have such phrases as “here I build mine Ebenezer”– now what does that mean to a nonchurched person? Very little. This is what I call “spiritual buzz-talk.” We have countless words and phrases that are ours alone which others do not understand, yet we use them as if they do understand. Now let it quickly be said that the ideas behind these phrases are not the issue. Heaven forbid that anything ever be taken away from orthodox Christian doctrine! Rather it is how we say what we say that is at issue.
As Jess Moody, pastor of Shepherd of the Hills Church (formerly First Baptist Church of Van Nuys) in Porter Ranch, California, says, “If we use the words redemption or conversion, they think we’re talking about bonds.”
Perhaps the single most important element in how guests are treated at growing churches has to do with the granting of anonymity. Most guests do not want to be singled out or brought to attention. Conversely, in many stagnant churches, anonymity is next to ungodliness. Clark Hutchinson agreed: “If an unchurched per: on does attend church, the one thing that person wants is anonymity.”
Bill Hybels, pastor of Willowcreek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, often makes this point with the following illustration.
Imagine your neighbors are relocated and a new family moves in next door. They seem like nice people except for one thing–you find out that they are Buddhists, and you’re not.
You try to put that behind you, and find out that they are really nice people! You have kids about the same age, and they play well together. Your wives enjoy talking on the phone, you feel comfortable borrowing power tools, and one vacation you return and find that they’ve mowed your lawn. One day while watching your sons play Little League baseball, your neighbor turns to you and tells you that you are about the best neighbors they’ve ever had. You say, “You know, I feel the same way.” And then, when you are at that rather vulnerable moment, your neighbor tells you that it would really mean a lot to him for you to be a guest at his church with him next Sunday. All the members are inviting their friends, and he’d like you to come that day. You’re caught off-guard and find yourself saying, “Sure, we’d be glad to come.”
You get home and tell your wife, and she says, “You did WHAT!” You think of all the ways you might get out of it, but none seems plausible. When the morning arrives, the first thing you do is to call and say you’ll follow them over in your own car. Psychologically you are already wanting an escape.
As you drive over, a thousand things are running through your mind, and your conversation is littered with fears and anxieties. You turn to your wife and ask, “You don’t think they’ll make us chant or anything, do you? I haven’t chanted in a long time.” Then your wife says, “Do you think they’ll ask us to sign anything or give our address? I mean, I don’t want to end up on any kind of Buddhist mailing list!” Then you say, “And what if we have to stand up and introduce ourselves? Somebody from work might see us and think we converted!” The bottom line is that what you want most when you arrive at that Buddhist service is anonymity. You don’t want to sing anything, say anything, sign anything, do anything, or give anything.
The irony is that we forget all these emotions when it comes to our own churches, yet that is how nonchurched people feel when they come as our guests. We often violate every one of their fears and anxieties immediately upon their arrival. For example, I was in a church where, at, the beginning of the service, everyone was asked to stand. Then the pastor asked for the members to be seated! One family was left standing, their faces flushed red with awkward embarrassment. Then an usher rushed over and placed big, red “VISITOR” tags on them and began asking them every question conceivable–address, phone number, place of employment. Then the pastor asked the family to introduce themselves and to say a word about their background. The father mumbled out a few sentences after which the family hurriedly sat down. The service went merrily on, but I could tell the family was emotionally devastated.
Numerous studies have shown that the top fears held by Americans in terms of social insecurity and anxiety involve being in a group situation with strangers, giving a speech, or being asked a personal question in public. In the average American church, a guest builds up the courage to attend, only to be rewarded with a firsthand experience of his worst nightmare. Growing churches are sensitive to how a person feels when coming to church for the first time; and more often than not, they grant their guests anonymity.
How do many growing churches gather information and extend a greeting to guests while granting anonymity? Rather than calling attention to their presence in a potentially embarrassing and uncomfortable manner, there is usually a moment in the service when all persons present complete registration forms, providing information to the degree with which they are comfortable. Registering two to three times more with this approach is not uncommon.
At Eastside Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia, the first six months of using this approach resulted in a 40 percent increase in the number of guests who willingly indicated their presence.”
One of the best things a church can do to grow in its sensitivity toward guests is to include a brief response card with a letter to first-time guests. Make it a self-addressed and stamped postcard. Ask your guests what they noticed first about the church, what they liked best, what they liked least, and what you could do differently that would have made their recent attendance a more positive experience. This little exercise can go a long way toward helping a church treat its guests in a way that leads to growth.
The time of announcements in most growing churches is radically different than in nongrowing churches. Rather than long, boring announcements about the internal administrative life or routine of the church, growing churches have their guests in mind in terms of what is announced.
First, what is not relevant to guests is seldom brought before the entire church as a pulpit announcement.–If an internal item must be brought before the church, it should be printed in the bulletin, not read from the pulpit.
Second, the announcements should be chosen for their potential interest to guests, such as support groups, activities for children, topical study classes, and fellowship opportunities.
Third, terminology that is “in-house” is either omitted or fully explained.–For example, if Vacation Bible School is mentioned, it is not continually referred to as VBS, but carefully explained and referred to by its full name.
The issue of the amount of participation has yet to be determined. In some areas, contextual research reveals that the nonchurched wish participation to be kept at a minimum. In other areas, there is clear evidence that the greater the participation level in the worship service, the more attractive it is to the target group.
What can be said is that when participation is requested, it should be nonchurched friendly. The words to hymns should be clearly spelled out; if the congregation is to stand or sit, greet one another, or have a moment of silence, that action should be plainly expressed. The essential principle is to be sensitive to the nonchurched quest who attends your worship service. All guests should be treated with empathetic sensitivity.
Most churches need to reflect on how they treat their guests in terms of being “nonchurched friendly.” Understanding how it feels to come to church as a first-time guest and the specific needs and anxieties such an experience dictates is important. If churches will develop themselves in this area, they will remove countless barriers to growth and the reception of the gospel.
(The above material appeared in the July/Aug./Sept. 1992 issue of Growing Churches Magazine.)
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