December - Matthew 9:9

Becoming a Welcoming Church

Dear Faithful Followers,

Let me preface this by forewarning you that this month’s letter is longer than usual. As I promised you last month, this letter will dive deep into my thoughts recapping the book Becoming a Welcoming Church by Thom S. Rainer. Before I begin, I want to wish each one of you Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! A lot can happen in a year. Personally, we have now lived in our new house for a full year. We still have glitter ceiling in our family room… just don’t bring it up to Rebekah! We have done some minor work around the house and will continue to work on it the next 20 or 40 years. As an educator, you find that keeping everything exactly as it was 20 or 40 years ago won’t get you far with kids and parents. You need to constantly improve your curriculum and yourself as an educator. That is my hope when I read this book. I will also be presenting it to the Tuesday morning Bible Study group. As you read through this recap, read it through the lens of how I can improve myself and St. Matthew as a whole. There may be some items you don’t agree with, and perhaps some items you question what we can do about it. There may be actions you can do yourself that will make us a friendlier Church. In last month’s letter I asked are we a welcoming/friendly Church? More than likely you probably said yes, or I believe we are because we visit with certain members each week, and we have greeters and ushers. More often than not this is true: we are friendly to certain members or we are a friendly Church as a whole because simply we are friendly to one another. I would like to breakdown this recap into an overview of the Top 10 reasons why people did not return to a particular Church and then look more specifically at the main target areas:  


  1. The stand-and-greet time in the service was unfriendly and awkward i. This is directed more at our Contemporary service, but it is worth noting for Traditional service as well. To paraphrase a quote from a current member when talking about the stand and greet time, “Yea I hug some and handshake others.”
  2. Unfriendly Church members. {Is membership needed to attend?}
  3. Unsafe and unclean children’s areas. {Cry Room?}
  4. No place to get Church information. {Welcome Center? We will take time to look at that later}.
  5. Bad Church website. {I remember when I came to St. Matthew our website was a black page}.
  6. Poor Signage. {Or in our case no signage?}
  7. Insider Church language. {When I was going to review this in Bible Class I was going to have the group guess what these acronyms mean from a previous Church I was at: IJAM, SNAC, and SAMS. I will answer them later so you have time to think about what they mean}.
  8. Boring or Bad Church Services. {This isn’t a Traditional vs Contemporary debate, but in their own accord are they boring or bad? What about the Order of Worship each week? This isn't the place to argue about whether we are an entertaining Church or a Liturgical Church. The truth of the matter is, if you have no one in the pews, you are a dead Church}.
  9. Members telling guests that they were in the wrong pew. {I hope you aren’t spitting your coffee out just yet! Although that is somewhat of a laughable trait, because isn’t that what we (LUTHERANS) are known for?}
  10. Dirty Facilities. {Did you find yourself with no paper towels in the bathroom or even worse, no toilet paper?}


The flip side is the Top 10 reasons why guests were happy at a particular Church


  1. Someone asked the guest to sit with her
  2. People introduced themselves to the guests
  3. There was clear signage
  4. There was a clearly marked welcome center
  5. The kids loved the children’s area. {Remember when I said you may not agree with everything? To be open and clear with everyone, I struggled with this top 10 number as I personally believe that kids should be in Church}
  6. The children’s area was secured and sanitary
  7. The guest parking was clearly visible
  8. The Church did not have a stand-and-greet time
  9. The members were not pushy
  10. The guest card was simple to complete. {Did you know we have two places for guests to sign in? Would this cause confusion for guests?}


The Church Language and the three examples I gave you are: IJAM: Immanuel Junior Adult Ministries; SNAC: Sunday Night at Church; SAMS: Senior Adult Ministries. All three acronyms that insiders understood, but guests would have no clue. A look at the most controversial items on the list


STAND AND GREET

In a survey done by the author, they found that 6 out of 10 members do not like this practice while 9 out of 10 guests also do not like it. Stand and greet time is viewed as a tradition or ritual for the members, where members tend to greet other members they know. Our Contemporary Service does a good job trying to reach everyone. With that said, relationship patterns are obvious, and guests are on the outside looking in and feel the greeters are artificial or contrived. 


HOLY HUDDLES

This takes place when members talk to other members they know without acknowledging the people they don’t know. They are not asking to break up the fellowship groups, just be aware that the vast majority of guests feel like they are intruding on a party to which they were not invited (or even worse: a third wheel). A few years ago I tagged along to a graduation party of a child whose father worked with a friend of mine. I didn’t know anyone, and no one knew who I was, but here I am eating their food... talk about being uncomfortable.


INFORMATION

This may be the most important part I read in the book. Many guests want to get more information about the church they are visiting. They are looking for information (and not just on the website). Having a centrally located place where there is an abundance of information about the Church, a Welcome Center can be beneficial. We have a Welcome Center but how are we using it? According to the book we should have items to give away, a friendly and knowledgeable person manning the center, and signs pointing to it. We will address the Welcome Center later with even more information.


LIGHTS AND SOUND

As a ‘tech guy’ and one who stood behind a camera, soundboard, or light board throughout college, I cannot tell you how important it is to have the right use of sound and lights. It is key for someone to have a positive experience. Not that a microphone will or will not save someone, but if someone can’t hear The Word they may never understand or believe The Word. Microphones help even out voice fluctuations even if the speaker is normally loud. It improves recordings as well.


TOO FRIENDLY

I know what you are thinking: if this book is about being friendly or welcoming, how can you be too friendly? Here is a quote from the book itself: “I came away worn out from the visit to the church, the people were all over us. We had seen some of them in town, and they sure weren’t friendly there. But they put on a good show when we visited.” Friendliness can come across as either disingenuous or desperate or both. Are we hypocrites? On Sunday morning we act one way and the rest of the week we are complaining and not being the nicest to everyone we encounter.


WHAT’S NEXT?

Some of our guests are really struggling with matters of faith. They are seeking answers and they choose our church as a place to get those answers. Other guests are believers and making decisions about the church for where they and their families will invest their lives. The big challenge is the lack of clarity about next steps. Where they can get more information, how they can become a part of the church, or what are the ministries that would impact their family. It is crucial that every guest should know what’s next before they leave the parking lot. Along with this every guest should receive some type of follow-up within a short time. We send cards, but not until days later. The same day is preferable but within 24 hours is key. The way I see it, a guest should receive an email the same day, a phone call within 24 hours and emailed/mailed a newsletter that has more information about our ministries, what’s coming up, and invite them to join us again. Hebrews 13:2: “Don’t neglect to show hospitality, for by doing this, some have welcomed angels as guests without knowing it.” 1 Peter 4:9: “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” Ask yourself this question: “What can you do personally to make guests feel more welcome just prior to the beginning of the worship service?”  


DIRECTIONS

We all need directions and we all get frustrated when we did not know how to get there. Our guests who visit our church need good directions. If we don’t have clarity, they may not return.


5 Myths about Church Signage and Websites

  1. Everyone knows where our church is. {No they don’t!}
  2. Our church is small. We don’t need signs for people to get around.
  3. Can you describe how to get to _____ from anywhere in the building?
  4. Cry Room?
  5. Sunday School Rooms?
  6. Gym?
  7. Bible Class?
  8. Restrooms?
  9. Church websites are not really that important. Most guests go to the church website before they ever set foot on church property {Remember we used to have just a black screen}
  10. It’s easy to get around in our church
  11. Signs and websites are human-centered methodologies. They are not central to the Gospel. {Well, that is true, but without people, the Gospel doesn’t get preached. Plus why do we have to make either/or choices?}


We have heating and AC (hopefully) but what do they have to do with the Gospel? {I hope you get my point here} Good church signage is a statement of our hospitality. Are we expecting guests? Do we have a desire for guests to come to our church? Without signage or bad signage means we are focus on ourselves instead of others.  


Here are some items to remember:

  • Signage is not for members
  • Quality signage is very important
  • The primary external church sign is also very important
  • The parking lot should have clear signage (Where do our guests park?)
  • There should be clear signage pointing to the entry point or points of the church. (Do our guests know where to enter?)
  • The two “must have” signs are handicap and guest parking
  • Internal signage must have 3 basic characteristics:
  • Good Quality, Readable Font, Accurate Height
  • All signage should be friendly and communicate an attitude of hospitality
  • If needed mobile signage can be very helpful
  • Denise and I have conducted a signage audit and we have a list, we just need a way to fund it 


WEBSITE

I would love to talk about our website, but we have so much more to do in this realm, that I will skip it for now. Here is a quote from someone who visited a church and it didn’t go well (based on actual testimony from the book), “If I were not a Christian, and if I had summoned the courage for only one church visit, I would have never returned to ANY CHURCH after my bad experience.” It’s not just about signs and sites, it’s about the message of hospitality. That message of hospitality becomes the pathway where we can share the message of the gospel with people.


SO ARE WE PREPARED?

Do we look like we don’t expect company? Are we sloppy, cluttered, not clean, or safe? Guests showing up for the first time notice things that those familiar with the place do not see. I can remember at a previous school where a school board member was upset with me because I told them I can’t sell if we look like we don’t care. We have so much that goes on here and it is a huge building, but with burned out lights, garbage in the hallways, stained ceiling tiles, and no toilet paper in bathrooms, what does that say?


What about safety? The number one quality parents look for with kids is safety. They want to see it when visiting a church or school. I cringe when people say it will never happen in my church. At a previous church, there were two separate incidents of sexual assault with church members. In one situation, the person was a member of many different ministries. The pastor knew but didn’t share the information with me or other key leaders. Here was a church member, who was involved in my areas that had a 20+ year record of issues with assaulting and inappropriate actions with minors. This was a person that I invited into my school and wouldn’t have thought twice if they were in my hallways, because someone thought it wasn’t important to share that information. At the same church, we had a church member inappropriately touch one of my students while doing volunteer work in the church office. Again, leaders didn’t want to believe it, until the church member plead guilty in court with a plea bargain. Sin happens everywhere. So how do we protect our kids? Background checks? Fingerprints? Training? Procedures? What do we communicate on our website to ease parents’ fear?


Do we have a sloppy church? Time and time again we get compliments on how beautiful our sanctuary is, and it is by far in the top 5 of the most beautiful churches I have ever been in. But did you know when I came in how much clutter was under the balcony steps? There were a dozen wheelchairs, a stretcher that looked like it was from the 70’s, boxes, and much more. What about garbage cans? With some of the last few events we had, I heard others and myself ask where a garbage can was. I can’t smell very well, but do we have any bad odors? Our building is 70+ years old, sometimes things start to stink. Speaking of smells, what about unstocked restrooms, just this past weekend I was asked if we had more toilet paper because the women’s bathroom was out.


Do we have unprofessional signage? We have done a great job to fix this and streamline advertising and how it is displayed. This leads us into the number 1 issue we have as do many other churches: out-of-date information or wrong information. When was the last time we had the carpet professionally cleaned? Do we look like we care?


After watching many shows on TV about flipping houses, they say the number one thing to do is to paint. Any faded paint will look good and choosing the right colors will help make things better. Check out the Booster Boulevard near the Fellowship Hall and you’ll see just how much brighter it looks with some paint this past summer! I guess we don’t have to worry about torn and dirty pew cushions like a lot of churches. I mentioned this before, but next time you sit in Church take a second to notice the lighting. Is it bright or dark?


I know some of these items sound petty but look at these issues from a gospel perspective. Many of the guests are not followers of Christ or they are young Christians. If we care about the safety and needs of those who visit they may very well return, and they may very well hear and respond to the gospel.


WE NEED CHAMPIONS

We have so many Faithful Followers and champions, but we need more to make sure the church is clean, safe, and secure. CHURCH SHOOTINGS Do we address it? How? Guests may be worried about this. Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people.” 


GREETERS

Do we have a greeting committee? I’m not talking about Ushers saying hello, rather do we have a Focused Ministry? Do we have individuals that will take it seriously and make it a key part of the life of our church, knowing that one simple hello could be a divine encounter with a guest? Before we get ahead of ourselves though, we have to think about strategic locations to make a first and powerful connection with guests. Where are strategic locations? Parking lot, entrances, Office door/Fellowship Hall/Narthex? If we had a roaming greeter, this person would be in a position to notice if a guest is ignored or uncomfortable, and they can initiate contact with them. Interestingly, the book notes that guests respond more favorably if greeters are on the outside of entrances rather than the inside.


When do we need greeters? Ideally before guests arrive, and they should remain visible to welcome guests who may arrive late. It is important to have a rotation of greeters for both services, in the event a greeter is absent or arrives late themselves. Some of the common mistakes churches make with greeters are the holy huddles mentioned before: arriving too late or leaving too early, calling ushers/bulletin handler a greeter, and failing to introduce themselves. A greeter needs to be free and focused, not distracted with other tasks. The mistake of not introducing yourself to guests is a huge one and unfortunately, I experienced this firsthand at Trevor’s freshman orientation and parent-teacher conference. One of his teachers never introduced themselves. Let me say that it leaves a non-pleasant, lasting impression.


THE WELCOME CENTER

Every church should have a welcome center, so we are always a step-up. When guests are present, someone should always be visible in the welcome center. It is a critical part of the greeter ministry. We should have information about the church to give guests. It may be redundant with information on the church’s website, but that’s ok, and it needs to be checked regularly to assure its timeliness and relevance. We should have gifts for guests to take home-they are more likely to return to the church. It should have an abundance of pens-free for the taking! Lastly, the welcome center should have treats and coffee (which we do very well already!) and it should say we were expecting you, we want you here! 1 Thessalonians 5:26: “Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss.”


This is important—that is why it is in all CAPS WHAT TAKES PLACE IN THE FIRST TEN MINUTES WHEN A FIRST TIME GUEST ARRIVES AT OUR CHURCH WILL LARGELY DETERMINE WHETHER HE OR SHE RETURNS.


We must understand and believe in the importance of becoming a welcoming church. If we don’t buy-in, we won’t emphasize it, we won’t lead it, and we won’t work it. There are Gospel realities to the welcoming church. When non-Christians feel welcomed, they return. When they return, they have more opportunities to hear the gospel preached and to develop relationships with believers in the church. Those relationships are often used by God to bring people to His Son.


3 G’s

  • Going - Church leader should always prayerfully lead the church to be obedient to the Great Commission
  • Groups - Small Groups for members
  • Guests - Invite-Focused


Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves.” The book warns us to be careful of ruts and routines. Any relationship needs an intentional refresh on occasion and most ministries do as well.


We see the church as a fortress to keep us away from the pagan culture around us. We do things the way we’ve done them because we find comfort and security in them. The danger of walling ourselves in is we also stopped reaching people. We are more concerned about our comfort, our fortress, and our desires that we no longer “ARE” the church. Be honest: how many of us complained when Contemporary service took over the late Traditional service? How many still complain when we have special one-service Sundays? Is this just a social club for religious observation?


In conclusion, to the summary of the book, “Welcoming means going.” The welcoming church is not merely a church that waits for the world to arrive at the physical address of the congregation. The welcoming church is more of an attitude or disposition. The mind-set of an outward focus rather than an inward focus. Serving rather than being served. A welcoming church is a “going church.” It is not a place confined to walls, but people determined to go. To demonstrate caring and the love of Christ in their workplaces, in their neighborhoods, in their places they shop, and in all the places where they encounter people in their communities.


This book has a lot of great advice and it is very easy to read. If you are interested in digging a little deeper into what it means to be going to church, I suggest you read “Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard” by Reggie McNeal. He does a good job describing how we know we are doing God’s work and spreading the message to others, besides Sunday attendance. If you made it this far, congratulations! I gave you fair warning that this one would be long. If you would like to discuss any of the points that were brought up in this book, please let me know. You don’t have to agree with everything it said but pray about how can you and how can we be a more welcoming church. Amen.


Serving the Master Teacher,

Dan Burk

Principal