Beyond the first visit

Welcoming is a gospel issue. Our God is a welcoming God. Jesus died so as to welcome people into relationship with God and with each other. He calls his followers to show hospitality to others as an expression of God’s love and grace. So how can we make this a vital feature of our congregations? One way is to be genuinely friendly when people come to our church. Next is to take the initiative in welcoming, follow-up, hospitality, and inviting people to join with us in what we are doing. Nearly every church assumes it is friendly and welcoming, but it’s not what the insiders think that really matters. We need to learn to see things from the outside in. How do we come across to visitors and guests? This book invites us to take a look.

Beyond the First Visit: The Complete Guide to Connecting Guests to your Church by Gary McIntosh is a book worth reading. I’d advise following the author’s suggestion:

To get the most out of this book, as you read each chapter, make notes in the margin of the book, scribbling your thoughts and ideas. Then make a list of action steps that you want your church to take during the next year to get ready for company. (p14)

McIntosh begins by suggesting we review our terminology – stop speaking about visitors and think of guests instead. We don’t always want visitors, but guests are expected. Visitors are expected to leave, but we plan for guests to stay and we make arrangements so they can. A guest mindset is what we need in our churches. This book encourages people in our churches to become great hosts. The following checklist is a good way to assess how and where we can improve:

  1. Invite your guests with a personal invitation.
  2. Arrive early to make sure everything is ready for the guests’ arrival.
  3. Greet the guests warmly at the entrance and escort them to their seats.
  4. Assist guests in understanding what is taking place.
  5. Anticipate and answer as many questions as possible in advance, so guests do not have to ask.
  6. Do something extra to make your guests’ visit special.
  7. Walk guests to the door and invite them back. (p17)

Welcoming guests doesn’t always happen naturally. We need to plan for it to be done well and it’s the responsibility of the church, not the guest. It’s worth thinking about how we’d treat a guest in our home, and applying this to church. We’d invite them in, offer to take their coat, show them where they can put their bag, take them into the appropriate room, invite them to take a seat, offer them a drink, ask them how they’re doing, engage in conversation, invite them to the table for a meal, let them know where the bathroom is, and more… And yet, when it comes to church, so often we expect people to work everything out for themselves. Healthy churches will take the responsibility for welcoming people and helping them to get involved in the life of their church.

People will sometimes make assessments of your church on the basis of a single impression. The long grass surrounding the old stone building makes it look abandoned and unused. The out of date website communicates that nothing much happens anymore. The paint on the sign, making it hard to read the service times, indicates that they don’t want me to come. Whereas the attractive brochure describing the Christmas Carols, with pictures of families, and a warm invitation to come along, makes me think my family could fit in here. It’s worth considering all the first impressions we make as a church. What assessments are people making about what we’re like? If we can’t work it out ourselves, then ask others – those who’ve come and those who haven’t.

Churches who have their own properties are urged to think of the impact their facilities have on others. Are they welcoming or alienating? McIntosh suggests a stroll around, examining everything that people will come into contact with when they check out your church. A mother with a couple of young kids isn’t likely to return if her first experience of the bathroom is a gloomy, smelly, dirty, inadequate facility. If all the parking spaces near the building are reserved for church staff, then you get the message of who’s most important. If things are bright and clean, if directions are clear, if people say ‘Hi’ and smile and offer to help, then second visits become much more likely.

The book contains many ideas on letting people know about church. I nearly gagged at the direct marketing/phoning suggestion! The best idea was simply word of mouth! Spread good rumours! If your church matters to you, if it encourages you, if it’s great for your kids, if you love getting to know God with others, if Sunday is a highlight of your week… then spread the rumour! But be warned. Don’t talk things up too highly. People like their expectations to be exceeded – not let down.

Getting Beyond the First Visit helps churches to examine the pathways for people getting involved and belonging. This can be very simple in a church of 100 or so, but may require much more organisation and communication in larger churches. There is no one size fits all. Some smaller churches may be small because they’re not good at letting others in. The danger for large churches is that people come and go and no one notices or cares. This book helps us not to take it for granted.

At one level this is very light book. It’s not big on theology and there’s not much Bible. It devotes a lot of attention to surface issues and impressions, and a few of the suggestions made me cringe. But overall, it’s full of helpful analysis and practical suggestions that will get us thinking about how we can do better. The central issue is so vitally important. At a time when our churches are becoming more and more marginalised, we need to make every effort to connect with people. People need to know God today, as much as they did in our parents’ generation, and as much as they did in Biblical times. Our churches shouldn’t make it hard for people to get to know God. There’s no excuse for unfriendliness. It’s not up to our guests to ‘make themselves at home’ while we go about our own business. It’s our job to welcome, introduce, connect, and build genuine relationships.

I bought this book last year, so as to examine the issues afresh as we began to plant a new church. If you think about the principles being discussed, rather than simply looking for practices to adopt, then I believe you will find it a useful tool. Church planters should get a copy, but so too should existing pastors and church leaders. How long since we reviewed this area of church life? Have we ever? Maybe things are in need of a tune up, or even a serious rebuild. This book can help you to think it through, without spending $1000s on a consultant – unless, of course, you want me to come! 😉

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