“First impressions last.” Whether in job-hunting or in looking for a lifetime partner, in many things, the statement holds true. So it does with church. Many first-time church visitors come and go, not necessarily because of faulty preaching or bad air-conditioning but because of an unwelcoming atmosphere.
They will try another church the next Sunday.
We don’t want our visitors to leave. We want to make them feel warm and welcome.
I. Foundational Principles
Here are four foundational principles to consider with respect to inviting and welcoming visitors to our churches:
1. Worship (Ps 150:6)-We want the whole earth to be praising the Lord. “O for a thousand tongues to sing our dear Redeemer’s praise!” “We long to see Thy churches full.” The more people that worship, the more we rejoice. We want God’s name to be lifted up before a multitude. Don’t be satisfied with few; invite many!
2. Evangelism (Mt 28:19)-Christ’s commission to the church is to make disciples of all the nations. Thus, we invite visitors and preach the gospel to them. We do Bible studies with them. We pray for their salvation. We encourage ourselves with the reality that God’s word will not return unto Him void (Is 55:11).
3. Sovereignty of God (Ps 115:3)-There are disappointments and there are surprises. There are highs and lows of church attendance. We do our duty and leave the results to God. This keeps us from being discouraged when expectations fail; it also keeps us from pride when expectations are more than met.
4. Truth (2 Tim 4:1-4)-Our settled convictions must not be compromised for the sake of accommodating visitors. This has happened to many a church. We want to be visitor-friendly churches but not at the expense of manipulating truth for the sake of greater attendance.
II. Specific Directives
Here are fifteen specific directives to make our churches visitor-friendly:
1. Do not locate your church in a place that is highly inaccessible. Do not give people a hard time locating and accessing your church. It can give the impression that you don’t want visitors. The best place to be may not be one that is pleasant or practical however remote. It is to be where the people are and not where the people are not. We must pursue sinners and not let sinners pursue us.
People hate to be inconvenienced. Having a place situated in some remote, difficult-to-reach corner is a negative for high attendance.
2. Have a visible, no-frills, easy to read, and updated church sign. A church with no sign is a sign of no church. “Visible” means it can be read by passers-by or by motorists. “No-frills” means no comical pick-up lines, like “Do you know what hell is? Come hear our preacher.” Or, “Don’t let worry kill you. Let the church help.” Or, “Now is the time to visit. Our pastor is on vacation.” They may be humorous punch lines that attract attention but they sure do reflect what kind of preaching to expect inside.
The sign must be readable; don’t use fancy, complicated lettering which cannot be deciphered from two feet. Update your information-don’t display numbers that are non-existent or web addresses that haven’t been updated in 20 years.
3. Establish a good ushering system (1 Cor 14:40). Although our churches may be small and we cannot afford to have official ushers, if we have sufficient manpower, ushers must be installed at the entrance to welcome visitors. They are the official greeters.
Having welcomers puts visitors at ease. Therefore, the ushers must not be masungit or suplado but winsome, people-friendly. They must be decently dressed. At one time, we even required our ushers to wear name tags.
At MCBC, they are the ones who greet visitors as they arrive, give them a hymnal or a Bible and point them to where they ought to be seated. They also give visitors’ slips for first-timers to fill up.
The ushers also ensure that order in worship is maintained. We do not want the solemnity of God’s worship to be disrupted by unruly visitors, undisciplined children and tardy attenders looking for a place to sit.
4. Make your church premises visitor-friendly. Take into account that senior citizens and nursing mothers attend church. It is hard labor for people with creaky joints to go up even two flights of stairs. The oldies might prefer to exercise on weekdays rather than be sweaty or gasping for breath during worship.
Allocate a place where nursing mothers would not be embarrassed caring for their babies.
Make your auditorium visible (at least partly visible) from the outside so that visitors would know what’s going on inside and no impression is made that the church is a secret society and off-limits to non-members.
Provide nearby parking. Compared to twenty years ago, a lot of people today own vehicles and bring them to church. We don’t want them to park a kilometer away and walk the rest of the way to church–especially under a hot sun or in pouring rain.
Have clean bathrooms available, and situate them well.
Not the least is to ensure enough seating capacity. How can visitors be encouraged to stay when looking for a place to sit is like looking for a needle in a haystack? Expand or look for a bigger place when a high percentage of seating capacity has been reached.
5. Engage visitors with a spirit of hospitality (Heb 13:2).
Welcome them publicly in worship–not necessarily with a welcome song that may embarrass them. You need not even mention their names or ask them to stand. A simple recognition of their presence by the worship leader will do.
Engage them in conversation after. Make them feel welcome. Hospitality is not just the ushers’ or the pastors’ duty; it is the duty of all of the members.
Encourage them to return.
Establish friendships with them; secure their trust-that you are not after anything except their soul’s good. Ask them if they want to have Bible studies but do not be too aggressive.
Hand them tracts and church brochures. Let them fill up first-time visitors slips.
Tell your members to sit beside them to help them find the verses in the Bibles that the preacher refers to.
At MCBC, we don’t even request them to give to the offering, unless they voluntarily do so.
6. Encourage members with gifts of evangelism to be at the front lines (1 Pet 4:10-11). We know who our people are. We know their strengths and weaknesses. There are those who find it easy opening up to strangers and letting strangers open up to them. There are those who have an ability to disarm people’s resistance to teaching and make them listen. There are good conversationalists. They must be encouraged to be at the front line of dealing with visitors.
7. Engage in follow-up and visitation. Keep a data-base of visitors. You can send follow-up letters appreciating their coming and asking them if they want a visit or a Bible study. At MCBC, we meet the congregation in order to organize visitation and follow-up. We encourage church members to volunteer.
8. Exercise caution when receiving visitor applicants for membership. Though we must not be overly stringent in our terms of accepting members, we must know our visitor applicants well enough so that they would not disrupt the unity of our churches whether doctrinally or practically. They must have been in the church long enough for them to know that we have settled convictions and principles of life and conduct that we follow.
9. Pray to avoid dangers and difficulties. We cannot screen people before they enter our church doors. We don’t have airport x-ray machines. We don’t search people for weapons or judge people by appearances. But we can pray that the Lord would deliver us from opportunists, thieves, and any other bad elements who would seek to harm God’s people and disrupt His worship.
10. Coordinate with sister churches. In the spirit of fellowship, we ought to communicate with sister churches when a known member of a sister church regularly attends our services or even applies for church membership. This would avoid tension between churches. As a matter of procedure, it might be good for us to seek a recommendation letter from the pastor of the church that the person is leaving.
11. Organize a new members class. We have just organized a new members class for the purpose of orienting interested attenders as to what our church believes in and how things are done in our congregation. As suggested, this class could further be broken down into specific groups, like: long-time attenders, children of members, previous members of non-Reformed churches.
12. Avoid profiling (Jas 2:1ff). Do not profile people and lump them into categories like rich or poor, educated or non-educated, Tagalog or Bisaya. The gospel is for all. Do not rejoice that a rich or a famous person has attended your church and be embarrassed that a person in rags found his way to your gathering.
13. Pray for their salvation (Rom 11:1). Like Paul, we must have a burden for the souls of all of our unconverted visitors. Let it be a permanent portion of your prayer meetings to pray for the salvation of the unsaved.
14. Advertise your church on line. We live in a day of social media. Let’s make good use of the internet by advertising our church on line.
15. Last but not the least, let the love of the brethren flourish. Many times have I heard not how well the word was preached but how well the people loved each other. In a world of hate and conflict, an atmosphere of love speaks volumes. Known conflicts among members are a turn-off. The great attraction of our churches should not be our buildings and air-conditioning but the truth faithfully preached and a people that love each other as Christ has loved them. Who else can be the best welcomers?
Is your church a visitor-friendly church?
Note: The preceding was a message I preached at the REBAP Pastors Fraternal held at the Trinity Reformed Baptist Church, JP Rizal St, Makati on Sept 18, 2015. It is reproduced by request.