Welcoming Guests With Intentionality

Welcoming Guests With Intentionality
By Ken Walker

The average church thinks of itself as friendly even when that welcoming attitude only extends to members, according to a church consultant who leads seminars on connecting with guests.

Gary McIntosh, the founder of Church Growth Network, hopes to persuade congregations to adopt a more comprehensive approach to incorporate newcomers into church life.

Since the average church loses 10 percent of its worshipers annually, survival demands retaining a healthy percentage of guests—McIntosh points out it takes 16 percent retention to see 5 percent growth.

A professor at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology, part of his plan is forever replacing “visitor” with “guest” in church language.

“Friendliness is perceived differently whether you’re inside the church, or outside,” McIntosh says. “If you’re a true insider, it is a friendly place. But that newcomer comes in and they do not experience that level of friendliness in most churches.”

Awareness Growing

Fortunately, an apparent budding awareness of this problem has drawn capacity crowds to McIntosh’s seminars based on his book “Beyond the First Visit: The Complete Guide to Connecting Guests to Your Church” (Baker Books, 2006).

McIntosh says whether traditional, post-modern or seeker-sensitive, churches have a continuing concern with assimilating guests. He puts it on the same level as evangelism and quality worship services.

Recognizing they need to improve their retention rates, many ushers, greeters and church leaders also attend his seminars. McIntosh says they want to avoid the fate of the church he coached that had 197 visitors over two years and only saw three become active, a rate of 1.5 percent.

“I think churches notice that, particularly pastors,” he says. “They notice they have a lot of visitors, but they aren’t staying. Even if they don’t have the statistics to back it up, I think most churches sense that they need to do a better job in welcoming people.”

Pathway of Belonging

McIntosh says one key is developing a comprehensive plan for involving guests beyond the first visit, which he terms building a “pathway of belonging.”

Many churches invest considerable effort in greeters, welcoming people from the pulpit and offering them a gift, but they fail to move beyond that, the consultant says.

The pathway can include such features as:

* Holding a staff reception where guests can meet the pastor and staff.
* A monthly or quarterly pastor’s dessert for those who have visited at least three times.
* An orientation class that reviews such things as the church’s core values, vision, mission statement, philosophy of ministry and how people can get involved.
* Small groups.
* Classes for new believers and new members.
* A placement interview where new members can learn how their gifts fit certain ministries and how they can participate.

“Churches need to sit down and on a white board write out what happens when a person walks in the front door,” McIntosh says. “They come a second time, what happens? A third time? Churches that have a well thought-out process do a lot better than job than those who do it haphazardly.”

Implementing Change

Over the years, the Biola professor has coached more than 500 churches. Those willing to make changes vary according to how much time they are willing to invest in an ongoing relationship with him or another consultant.

While many seminar attendees get excited about his presentation, about 80 percent do nothing when they get home. If a church invites McIntosh to work with them for several months, about half will follow through.

However, when a congregation commits to a year-long process, about 80 percent will implement his suggestions.

“When I work with a church for a year I’m with them every two or three months and I think what it provides is a mild form of accountability,” McIntosh says, noting that when he suggests action and returns later, most people don’t want to admit, “We haven’t done anything.”

One change he encourages churches to consider is adopting a new name. That is, if a new name may better reach the community, if the area isn’t that favorable toward certain denominations, or because of geographic relocation.

Such a shift was a hot button 10 to 15 years ago, but is now so common that McIntosh doesn’t encounter much resistance to the idea. He also attributes that to generational differences, with baby boomers and younger people open to such a modification.

No matter what the changes needed to better assimilate newcomers, he says the pastor is the key because he or she has the main voice before the congregation.

In a small church McIntosh says that means being highly relational and numerous small meetings to encourage adopting new plans; the larger the church gets the more authority a pastor has to state a new direction from the pulpit.

Connecting With Strangers

Welcoming guests is particularly significant given research McIntosh has done since publication of “Beyond the First Visit.” The past two years he has discovered that 20 percent of people coming to church now do so without a friend or family member inviting them.

Whether finding a congregation through the Internet or another method, that means these newcomers don’t have anyone sitting with them to explain what’s happening or to introduce them to people, he says.

“This means we’re going to have to put a higher premium on this welcoming process,” McIntosh says. “People are coming to worship services—that’s their contact. We’ve got to have a process to connect them to the church.”

This article “Welcoming Guests With Intentionality” by Ken Walker is excerpted from www.ChurchCenteral.com July 8, 2008.