The first 10 years of marriage between me and my wife were marked by a remarkable degree of instability. The longest we have lived anywhere in our first 10 years of marriage was three years. In those 10 years, we lived in eight different “homes.” (I do not recommend that you try this at home.)
As a result, we have a lot of experience being first-time visitors to churches! And, yes, I know. You are supposed to call newbies “guests” and not visitors. But, from our perspective, the word visitor almost always feels more fitting than guest. I’m pretty sure we could start a successful consulting business.
At one level, Melissa and I are the ideal first-time guests. And yet, we have been surprised at how difficult it has been to find deep and nurturing community in the local church. We have often been discouraged, because our initial strategy for finding new community when we have moved has been to try to quickly plug in to a new church. There have been a few times when the church did not seem to need or want new people. Of course, they would say that they did, but their actions communicated more loudly that the community was content the way it was and did not want to be disrupted.
From what I have learned in the past 10 years, here are five reasons why first-time visitors become a part of the family of faith:
5. The church truly has a culture of expecting new people to show up.
Every week your church expects there to be new people in worship. People are actively looking for new faces. And there are specific people at the church who are particularly on the lookout for first-time visitors.
4. The church proactively thinks about the questions and concerns that first-time visitors will have. I cannot tell you how many times I have gone to a church that did not have a clear process for where to go with your kids, or even how to get your questions answered. I have had to learn to be pretty assertive and direct in telling people that we are new and don’t know what to do. There were times where even that information did not lead us to getting the help we needed. Churches that have exceptional hospitality anticipate the questions that first time guests will have.
3. The church has already thought through the answers or solutions to those concerns, to the extent that they can be addressed. It should be obvious, but it is not good enough to think about what the questions are the new people will have. You need to carefully think through how you will respond to their questions. Churches that are exceptional at hospitality think about the visitor’s perspective in how they help answer questions or provide solutions. A volunteer at the church we currently attend noticed on our first visit that one of our kids seemed very uncomfortable being separated from a sibling. The volunteer told us that there was no problem with this child attending the other child’s class if that was ok with us. We appreciated that they noticed the feelings our child was having and affirmed that we were the parents and asked us what we wanted to do. That one detail made a huge difference to both kids feeling comfortable that first Sunday, and made a big difference to us.
2. The church has a culture of not only expecting new people to show up, but truly wants them to become an integral part of the community. First-time visitors have a pretty good sincerity detector. If you are reaching out to new people because it is what you should do, but your heart isn’t really in it, people will pick up on this right away. Churches that have exceptional hospitality convey that they really want you to become a part of the community. The most important thing is connecting people to other people in the church, helping them get to know others. We recently benefited from the pastor at our church embodying this. He knew that we were new, and from a brief conversation with us recognized that we were really hoping to make connections with other couples in the church with kids around our kids’ age. After the worship service one Sunday, he went out of his way to introduce us to several of the couples in a small group that someone else had already mentioned to us. Being introduced to the actual people in the group made it much more easy to envision actually attending the group than a generic invitation to join a small group would.
1. The membership of the church, the rank and file, are individually looking for new faces and seeking to get to know them. My pastor recently said that when it comes to finding a new church people are not looking for a place that is friendly, they are looking for friendship. From my perspective, that is exactly correct. We need community, not smiles and handshakes during a worship service. We need relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ, not a perfectly polished performance on Sunday morning. I think by far the most important element in people coming to belong in a new church is finding connections to other people who have already found their place. Sadly, in my experience, very few churches actually have a plan for how new people are going to make these kinds of connections.
How does your church plan to help first-time visitors become a part of the community at your church?
What did I miss? What do you see as crucial to helping first-time visitors come to belong to a church community?