Church visitors are probably more important to the Lord than they are to the church they visit! The fact that they willingly endure the rigors of trying a new church shows God is working in them (I touched this briefly in a previous post) Church visitors are an opportunity and a challenge to static, declining and dysfunctional churches.
The opportunity? A fresh chance to redesign the way the church extends hospitality.
If the Transition Pastor (aka interim pastor) fails to guide the church to new ways of extending hospitality, the status quo ante results; beneficial change is stymied, visitor retention rates hover in single digits, and the death spiral continues unabated.
Transition Pastors Ride Fast Horses
The Transition Pastor needs to move quickly to establish new paths for church hospitality. This is easier than you might think if you negotiate the proper authority in the contract for employment.
Note: We use “Interim Pastor” to refer to a minister who keeps the lights on while the church searches for the next permanent pastor. “Transition Pastor”, in our lexicon, refers to clergy employed for the express purpose of implementing change that removes hindrances so the church is poised to reach its God-given potential when the next Pastor arrives.
As an explicit change agent I have been able to mothball several church organs, banish “holy furniture” from platforms, renovate dilapidated sanctuaries, discard worn hymnals, introduce contemporary music, amend church constitutions and by laws, change dress codes and a host of other accomplishments – because I made sure the church understood that I was there to change things.
Believe me – if you negotiate the authority you can implement change rapidly. That’s not to say you won’t sail into rough water at times but when you do you’ll have the church leaders keeping things on course.
So, the church has retained you as a Transition Pastor. You are a change agent. You have permission, responsibility and authority to get things done. They’ve got to be done quickly if you’re going to rescue the church from its death spiral.
Church Visitors: 10 Quick Steps
Here are ten things you can implement next week to move your church toward effective hospitality:
1. sermon introductions should consider church visitors
Don’t dive into a sermon without an orientation. Link today’s sermon to last week’s. Tell them how the imminent display of the homiletic arts connects to what has gone before. A sixty second “before we jump” orientation eases the church visitor into the sermon and invites them into the dialog. Failure here insures they’ll come into the sermon perplexed about the context of your remarks. Do not let them feel that vague sense of disconnectedness.
For example, you might say,
“This morning we’ll be working from Galatians 1:8-9. As we unfold the verses you’ll see how it connects with verses 6-7 that we looked at last week. Last Sunday we discovered Paul’s surprise that the believers in Galatia had wandered from the true gospel. This morning we will see just how troubling it is when a believer retreats from God’s grace to follow another gospel. That is revealed in Paul’s shocking wish for the false teachers in Galatia.”
Your church guests will understand how the congregation has experienced the Word in the previous few weeks. They’ll have something to hold on to if they feel disoriented.
As an added bonus, your brilliant pedagogy reinforces your audience’s learning.
2. Eliminate insider language that isolates church visitors
“Insider language” isn’t biblical and theological terms like justification, imputation, penal satisfaction. Insider language uses terms and allusions to past shared experiences. It is an efficient way of communicating meaning to those who get it, but it leaves those who don’t know the code feeling like they’ve missed something.
For example, mention of “last year’s spaghetti supper” in some Midwest congregations is a secret code for “the upcoming church fundraiser open to the community.” Liberal use of terms like Sparkies or Cubbies brings the AWANA program to mind for the regulars but church visitors will feel bereft of insight.
Study what people in the congregation say when you first arrive. Listen for insider language, make note of it and then be sure you don’t use it on the platform!
3. Skip announcements
I’m sure this will be met with the skeptical, “No way!” Sunday morning announcements are a sacrament in many churches, right up there with baptism and communion.
Announcements are a waste of air time for various reasons:
- 90% of the people won’t remember the announcements by the end of the next song
- Announcements are communicate to auditory learners but leave visual and kinesthetic learners are disadvantaged
- They become a crutch that helps us avoid the harder work of communication
- People need to hear a message seven times, preferably thru a variety of channels. Information is communicated more efficiently via handouts, mailers, email, twitter, Facebook and text messages. Use them all rather than putting all your chips on one bet
- Announcements are “dead space” for church visitors. They’ll realize that this is “family talk” and it doesn’t pertain to them.
- Members recruiting volunteers or promoting an event should be communicating face to face with people in the congregation. This is by far the most effective way to get information to people.
4. Teach Greeters two short questions to ask church visitors
By and large church greeters mean well, they just don’t realize how their words and demeanor effect church visitors. This becomes a problem in larger churches, too.
The most effective introduction a greeter can offer to a church visitor consists of two short questions:
- “Hi, my name is ___________. What’s yours?”
- “How long have you been attending our church?
The first question connects on a personal level. It’s hard to think of anything less welcoming that a perfunctory handshake followed by having a bulletin shoved in your hand.
The second question (primarily for larger churches) avoids that awkward “I’ve been attending for four years now.”
5. Designate official “sitters” for church visitors
Church visitors will feel the love if a regular sits with them before and during the service. Appoint “rovers” to patrol the auditorium for first-time guests. If you, the wise Transition Pastor, circulate (see #8 below) you can a signal for a rover to come over, be introduced, and then sit with the first time guest thru the service.
If the guests arrive after the service has started (along with the other half of the congregation) the task of introducing guests and rovers can be handled by an usher or greeter.
Church visitors will leave knowing someone in the congregation, feel appreciated, and be more likely to return.
6. build your landing page to attract church visitors
The research is clear: most church visitors today determine where to visit based on what they see on the church website. So a lot of churches load their Internet home page with lots of whiz bang graphics (I’m a “gee whiz” kinda guy with it comes to that cool stuff). The result is information overload that needlessly confuses the potential church visitor. Why make it hard for them to find out what they need to know? At the top of your church’s landing page should be:
- Service times
- Child care
- Dress code
- A picture of the pastor
In addition, there should be a “Come On In” button for access to the rest of the information you want out there for the public.
If this doesn’t suit you, then at the very least put up a prominently displayed link potential visitors can’t miss. Canyon Bible Church’s (Prescott Valley, Arizona) website is exemplary.
7. Move to smaller quarters
A dwindling congregation meeting in a large sanctuary should move the worship service to smaller quarters. Nothing sucks the energy out of a service faster than a small group in a cavernous auditorium. Church visitors immediately realize the church is in serious decline. They can’t wait to beat their feet out the door to look for a place where things are happening.
Move into a smaller room elsewhere on the campus. If you don’t have a smaller space, remove seating from the back of the auditorium, put up curtains or room dividers and turn the space into a hospitality center.
8. Become the lead greeter
The Transition Pastor should be the lead greeter until the church hospitality system is up and humming.
In order to free up time to greet guests before or after the service you may have to teach church members that they can’t bring “last minute announcements” to you. If they have important information, train them to write it down and hand it to you – after the service!
Remember, you’re the transition pastor because the church is in serious trouble. If you’re not able to guide it through the mission critical changes – including how the church responds to church visitors – it will likely fail. Turning church visitors into church members is crucial to that process.
When the congregation sees you actively extending church hospitality to the guests, they’ll see the value modeled. In this way you’ll earn the right to address their inhospitable behaviors and precipitate beneficial change.
9. Pray for church visitors
See my previous remarks on this in an earlier post. On their first Sunday this is probably the gracious gift you can offer them: unconditional pastoral care.
10. Make the metrics matter
The first time someone reports the number of church visitors to you, reply with the question, “How many second-time church visitors?”
This is a far more important church metric for two reasons. First, it tells you how well the church hospitality ministry is functioning. If you don’t have any repeat visitors something isn’t working! Second, repeat church visitors are far more likely to become part of the church family.
(There’s another post in the offing about how to turn first time church visitors into repeat visitors. In the meantime, check out this blog post.
These ten steps rest on one big, nasty presupposition: the church can deliver “the goods” church visitors will be looking for: excellent child care for infants and toddlers and an engaging children’s program for grade schoolers. If you’ve got those nailed down it’s considered a bonus if the worship service is uplifting and the property doesn’t show signs of neglect.
In future posts we’ll examine creative ways that churches with minimal resources can shore up these parts of the ministry with what the resources that are easily accessible.
For now suffice it to say that if those pieces aren’t in place you can have the slickest church hospitality system in the world but you’ll see visitors come in one door and go out another.