Visitors or Guests?

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.

Overgrown Church

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.

Turning your church inside out

Most churches are pretty good at taking care of our people. We offer a comfortable worship service where we sing familiar songs or hymns. We organize Sunday school classes to help people learn more about Christianity and the Bible. Many of us even politely greet unfamiliar people who happen through our church’s door on Sunday morning. These efforts are commendable, but God calls us to more. Too often, we attempt to live out our faith while confined within the walls of our church’s building. What would it look like if we were to turn our churches inside out?

In their book, The Externally Focused Church, Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson challenge church leaders (both lay and clergy) to invite people to meaningful service in the broader community. Through service, existing members will grow spiritually as well as establish relationships with those who might not know God’s love or be connected to a faith community. Rusaw and Swanson point out that Christians need more than spiritual sustenance to grow—we need to be challenged to put into action that which we believe (or think we believe). Most of us know that a good diet alone will not keep our physical bodies healthy. We also need exercise. Similarly, our churches provide us with a good spiritual diet, but we need to go outside to practice our faith. Living as a Christian in church is very different from living as a Christian in the broader community.

Exit DoorThrough addressing community needs through service, we’ll also begin to form meaningful relationships with people who might not know Jesus’s love and forgiveness. Such relationships create bridges by which people may enter into Christian community. After all, few unchurched people will come into a church without a connection. No matter how friendly we think we are, others find our churches rather intimidating.

As we turn our churches inside out, we’ll live out our Christian calling more faithfully. In the United Methodist Church, we have a shared mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. If we maintain an internal focus, we’ll fail to reach or be relevant to those whom Jesus wants to follow him. How would being an inside out church change your community?

You need me to do what?

Have you ever been asked/begged/beseeched to serve on a church committee that you didn’t truly understand? Did you eventually agree because of the recruiter’s encouraging/pleading/desperate tone? (Was your agreement an act of mercy, perhaps?) If you’ve recently found yourself on a committee you don’t understand, fear not! There are several places to find guidance.

On the Central Texas Conference website, we’ve created a section dedicated to resources  that will help you understand your role and serve your church more effectively. First, we’ve noted some basic characteristics of healthy committees/teams, such as clarity of purpose. Regardless of your group’s particular focus, some general principles apply.

For specific roles, Discipleship Ministries  (GBOD) offers suggested job descriptions and resource pages for common UM church committees. (To prevent being overwhelmed, click the box next to the topic in which you are interested.) In addition to written resources, check out the archived webinar videos .

Guidelines_Pastor ParishCokesbury has also published a series of brief, affordable booklets in the series Guidelines for Leading Your Congregation, 2013-2016 . To save on shipping, you can purchase each title as a downloadable PDF.

Confusion of purpose frustrates existing team members and discourages new leaders. By understanding your committee’s role and responsibilities, you’ll be able to make a significant contribution to your church’s ministry. Churches depend on dedicated and gifted lay leaders.

Even if your agreement to serve on a committee was reluctant/confused/coerced, your service is valuable to your church. Before you know it, you’ll be inviting others to serve with you. How to do so without pleading/begging/coercing will be the subject of a future post. . .

Laity Sunday

When you think of someone in ministry, whom do you picture? For most people, the first person you think of might be an ordained pastor—perhaps one who has helped you through a difficult time. If you were to broaden the focus, who else would be included? What about that friend in church who prayed with you after your small group? What about that nurse whose faith infused the way he or she cared for you in the hospital? As United Methodists, we affirm that God calls all baptized Christians to ministry. God calls some, such as clergy, to ministry as vocation. God calls others, the laity, to vocation as ministry. No matter where your work or personal life might take you, God calls you to some form of ministry.

The UMC recognizes this Sunday, October 19, as Laity Sunday—one of ten officially recognized special Sundays. On this day, we encourage churches to celebrate the ministry of lay Christians both within and outside local churches. Congregations recognize lay ministry in various ways. Your church might share a story or two about members who are actively engaged in ministry. Lay people might take on a greater role in planning a worship service. Your pastor might invite a layperson gifted in preaching to offer the sermon. The General Board of Discipleship (GBOD) offers some great resources to help you celebrate Laity Sunday in your church.

Too many people in our churches view ministry primarily as the task of trained pastors. We often feel that we are unqualified or too busy. Trust that God will multiply your skills and efforts through the Holy Spirit. The leadership of ordained clergy remains central to our congregations, but pastors cannot and should not do the work of ministry alone. God calls all of us to lives of ministry. Take Laity Sunday as an opportunity to show how God is already doing this in our midst.

Mission u

Last week, I had the opportunity to drop by the United Methodist Women’s (UMW) Mission u programs hosted by First UMC in Temple and Genesis UMC in Fort Worth. For those of you who don’t know, Mission u is an educational event where people gather to study and discuss issues connected to living as Christian disciples in a worldwide context. This year, class options included a study of the church and people with disabilities, a cultural study of the Roma people, and a class focused on spiritual growth. During my visit, I was welcomed by a group of dedicated and enthusiastic laywomen who are actively engaged in UMW as a way to nurture Christian disciples for the transformation of the world.

As an organization, the UMW has a long history of inspiring and supporting missionary efforts across the world. The UMW traces its beginning to the formation of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society in 1869, which a group of Methodists organized to support missionary outreach to women in India. To this day, the UMW focuses on global issues of significance to the church as we seek to live out our calling in an increasingly connected world.

The UMW Mission u events are open to all—including men. If you missed this year’s program, I encourage you to keep an eye out for it next summer. The UMW is one of the many ways that lay people in the UMC gather together to inspire each other and to combine efforts toward the mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world.