Is your church visitor-friendly?
When Sarah Stirman and her family moved to the Dallas area last summer, they visited half a dozen congregations.
At each, their experience was basically the same.
“Our family sat alone and was ignored before service started. If we were lucky, we were greeted during ‘shake and bake,’” she said, referring to the forced greeting period when the worship leader asks everyone to stand and welcome those around them.
Undoubtedly, no Church of Christ would describe itself as unfriendly.
Too often, though, congregations fail to show Christ’s love to strangers, said many members and leaders interviewed by The Christian Chronicle.
“Most congregations are filled with very pleasant Christians who are so enjoying each other’s company that they often don’t notice those who visit their assemblies,” said Mark Blackwelder, a Bible professor at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn.
Michael Ray, minister for the Laurel Church of Christ in Maryland, said churches like to talk about how friendly they are.
“What they really mean is that they’re friendly to each other. But guests? Not so much,” said Ray, who urges members to observe a “two-minute rule” after the closing prayer and talk only to people they don’t know before seeking out friends.
John Scott spent 19 years as minister for the Saturn Road Church of Christ in Garland, Texas, before going to work for Christian Care Centers last year.
Scott and his wife, Teresa, have visited about 30 congregations in the past 15 months — often with him as the guest preacher.
“We have been dismayed by the rampant self-delusion of local congregations about their perceptions of themselves,” he said. “Sure, folks are friendly and gregarious — to the people they know.
“But the poor Joe Schmo that wanders in not knowing anyone is usually only minimally engaged by the congregation despite our fancy ‘welcome centers’ or coffee bars.”
ALL ALONE ON A PEW
It happened years ago.
Still, Laura Tokosh remembers being a young mother with an infant and visiting a church where no one spoke to her.
“It left such an impression on me that I always try to reach out to others, whether I’m a visitor or not,” said Tokosh, an Ohio resident who worships with the Ravenna Church of Christ on Sundays and teaches a Wednesday night class at the Kent Church of Christ.
Two decades ago, Laura Leach was the “new girl” at church who came in late, sat in the back and left early.
Now, her husband, Rick Leach, preaches for the Central Church of Christ in Bedford, Ind., and she makes greeting visitors a priority.
“The first 10 minutes someone steps in your building will determine if they ever return,” Laura Leach said.
“Too often, churches are stuck in cliques and cannot get past their few friends to say hello to any new folks,” she added, stressing that she was speaking in general terms and not about her home congregation.
Nonetheless, such stories abound.
Steven Hunter, minister for the Tompkinsville Church of Christ in Kentucky, won’t ever forget one church where he spoke.
The preacher who invited Hunter greeted him but excused himself to take care of a class situation.
“When left to myself, not one person acknowledged me,” Hunter said. “I often wonder what they thought after I was introduced and got up to speak. I told my wife that if I had been a visitor looking for a church home, they would have been ruled out.”
STRATEGIES FOR CONNECTING
Besides teaching at Freed-Hardeman, Blackwelder serves as a minister for the Estes Church of Christ. He described moving to a rural community years ago.
The community had two mid-sized churches. Blackwelder and his wife, Dana, decided to visit both.
The first church had a nice building and an appearance of prosperity and progress, he said. But only one person besides the preacher greeted the couple.
The second church met in an older facility in a less-affluent part of town.
“We were warmly greeted by many, and one of the families invited us to their house for lunch,” Blackwelder said. “You can guess which church we chose.”
Blackwelder, who presents seminars on church growth, recommends three specific strategies to reach out to visitors:
• First, the church’s culture must be shaped to focus on others. “An outreach mentality should be developed so that Christians see their primary function not as maintenance but growth.”
• Second, leaders must overtly exhort members to approach others. “This is a function of communication. The members need to hear from the leadership that we can do better and why it is important.”
• Third, specific actions must be enacted to ensure contact. “This can include the usual greeters and ‘goodbyers,’ but it needs to extend beyond that. Inviting guests to sit with you, expressing genuine interest in the visitor through more extended personal conversations and invitations to lunch, pizza, coffee, etc., are examples of specific actions.”
Blackwelder stressed that such strategies primarily affect transfer growth.
“Most people who are not already members of Churches of Christ are unlikely to be comfortable visiting church services anyway,” he said. “Growth among the unchurched or denominational sectors generally comes through personal contact away from the building.
“However, that important transition from non-Christian to new Christian … can be heavily influenced by the church’s friendliness and a growing number of meaningful relationships with members.”
After their Dallas-area visits, Stirman, her husband, Troy, and their two teenage children chose the Greenville Oaks Church of Christ in Allen, Texas.
“We landed at a church where we knew a few folks and were greeted warmly,” she said.
Hebrews 13:2 says: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing.”
The experience of Stirman’s family has heightened her awareness of potential angels.
“When we wear the name of Christ, it is our responsibility to be hospitable to those who walk into the building where we worship,” she said. “Granted, some Sundays we need the love and comfort of our church family to surround us more than we can be the hands and feet of Christ to others. But if each of us took this simple action seriously, each visitor would be welcomed every time they walked into the building.”
FeedbackWhen I went to Catholic Schools one of the things I enjoyed when I went to services was the reverence from the time you entered the door until the time you left. You could be as
anonymous as your personality dictated. You didn’t have to be gregarious and extroverted. When I started attending Bible classes at the church of Christ and ever since I always pose the question, “Can an introvert be saved?” Some don’t seem to think so. Yet the high churches are as close a fellowship as you will find anywhere.Jçhn Paul HundleyL’Eglise du ChristBrussels, Brabbant
BelgiumJune, 21 2012I moved from CA to Dallas, TX three years ago. I really felt the sting and the loneliness when I started visiting churches. Thankfully, Preston Crest had a ministry for single adults called “Divorce Care”. It was a good fit and not all churches cater to needs of professional singles. Yet, churches may want to think about what they could offer that people, who are visiting may be struggling with (i.e. loneliness, homesickness, parenting, marriage, job loss, etc.). I see many families through my work, who are not members of the church of Christ, but don’t care where they worship. They want to reconnect to God and Christ and find a place for their children to connect with. Remember, the local church is a mission field.Maryann LowryPreston Crest church of ChristDallas, TX
USAJune, 16 2012The cynical comments from Louisiana notwithstanding, I think this is a huge issue and directly related to any congregation’s effectiveness at being salt and light in its community. Thank you CC for raising the topic. Make a pact with some of your friends where you worship to greet visitors first, then each other. And agree not to feel snubbed if the visitors take so much time you get un-greeted one Sunday! Invite visitors to sit with you. “Take a visitor to lunch today” (to borrow a line from Stan Frieburg).John FChurch of ChristLos Angeles, CA
USAJune, 14 2012The Chronicle has gone the way of the “blog”. They simply ride the same hobby horse year after year. “Friendly Church” is one of your favorite ones. Can’t wait for “Most Segregated Hour” re-blogs. Why not try something informative and enlightening. BTW your suggestions at the end of this article kinda conflicted with your problems with supposed unfriendly congregations. Please keep those rehashes coming… I am a hash loving guy.Don NeylandChurch of ChristMontegut, LA
USAJune, 14 2012Thanks for the article! We all need to be reminded of how important is the first impression to our visitors. We try to do our best welcoming our visitors, but we also understand that members have different personalities; each member may welcome the visitor in their own way: some shake hands, some give hugs, some give gifts, some just share a smile, while others like inviting visitors to lunch. Some call them afterwards and some send a postcard to their address. So there are many ways to welcome visitors and we need to share all these different ideas to our members. The more evangelistic oriented the congregation is, the less problems will it have welcoming visitors well.Jose PachecoIglesia de Cristo Silver SpringLaurel, Maryland
USAJune, 12 2012The illustration is almost a carbon copy of one of my experiences at a congregation in CT during the early ’90s (I’ll spare them the embarrassment) except that two members reached across me to greet one another. A promotion brought me to the area and it was devastating to say the least. When my family visited from MI, no one welcomed them and that was really embarrassing. I would occassionally visit congregations in NY but this congregation was so close to my home that I stayed until my next transfer to PA. Years later I wrote the minster and shared my experience.
This was quite diffenrent from my experience at the Fox Hills Road Church in Hampton, VA. where I was really embraced and welcomed into the congregation.Monique WhiteWyoming Avenue Church of Christ – Detroit, MISouthfield, MI
United StatesJune, 12 2012Several years ago I visited three congregations while interviewing for a teaching position in a local college. All three of them were the only congregation in town. They were all small and two of them were located in what would be called a “mission” area. In each case, I was in a group of not more than 30 people and obviously a visitor. Sadly, I was totally ignored by the majority of the people. One or two people spoke to me, but even these people took little interest.
Eventually, I took a job in another city. Even if I had been offered one of these three jobs, I do not think that I would have taken it, not because of the location or the job itself, but because of the unfriendliness that I experienced from the church members.Phillip EichmanPalmetto Church of ChristIrmo,, SC
U.S.June, 12 2012One problem is people who stare and not speak to visitors. At a church in Plumerville,Arkansas, an elderly woman would turn around and stare at me for long periods of time when I have visited for gospel meetings. I am single and wonder if that was why.
Visitors are fodder for gossips. Gossips gossip about those who stand out. Also, visitors may be shunned for not following unwritten rules. I used to visit a church in west Little Rock that has a single’s ministry. In the past, many people in the group who graduated from Harding would shun and not associate with people who did not go to Harding. I also had a member in that group tell me I was suicidal because I wore sweatshirts to church on Wednesday night.Johnny MullensChurch of ChristEl Paso, Arkansas
USAJune, 12 2012I think it’s important to note that visitors also need to take some responsibility in making themselves available–through their time and demeanor–to be greeted and proactively greet members. Too often visitors come late and leave early (sometimes even before the service has ended), leaving no oppurtunity to be greeted. I don’t want to diminish at all the importance of having members be welcoming, but the visitors shouldn’t take a passive role.Matthew R. BoydstunMemorial Road Church of ChristOklahoma City, OK
United StatesJune, 12 2012