Have you ever walked into an unfamiliar church and become utterly confused–you’re not sure where to go or what to do? In many instances, it’s difficult to figure out which door to use even to enter the building. In my last post, I wrote about the need to focus your church outward to engage your community through service. Today, I challenge you to consider the experience of newcomers to your church. While we certainly can’t sit-around waiting for new people to come to us, we do need to be ready to welcome those who come our way.
In his book, Beyond the First Visit, Gary McIntosh provides some great practical suggestions for ways churches can welcome newcomers and (eventually) connect them to the ministries of the church. Most helpfully, McIntosh encourages church leaders to think in terms of guests rather than visitors. A visitor is someone who shows up unexpected. If a visitor appears at your house, you can try to make him or her feel welcome, but you haven’t had time to prepare. A guest is someone you’re expecting. You make appropriate arrangements to ensure he or she is comfortable and can have your full attention. When a church expects guests, its members notice when they arrive. They walk them into the building. They introduce them to other members. They make sure the guests know where to go and settle them in comfortably before attending to other ‘family’ business. After the worship service, members thank guests for coming and invite them to return.
In addition to addressing a congregation’s welcoming culture, church leaders need to rethink their church facilities from an outsider’s perspective. What does the church look like from the street? Have overgrown trees or bushes begun to obscure the building? How easy is it to park and find the front door? Once inside, how does a person know where to go? Are there clear signs? When we’ve been in a church for a long time, we become desensitized to many of these potential problems. We know that the old front door leads to a hallway used for storage. The real entrance is around the side. We fail to notice the dead bush or the neglected flowerbed. We know where the bathroom is, and we might not mind its 1980s decor. To get a fresh perspective, invite a friend from outside your church to visit and offer his or her reflections.
When we look at our church through the eyes of outsiders, we can help guests feel more welcomed. Perhaps some will choose to join the community. Our mission to make disciples will clearly require us to focus our churches outward, but we should also ensure that those who come into our buildings experience Christ through our hospitality.