Chapter One: Truthful Advertising
Jim Long,(note:1) a man in his late thirties, sat across a banquet table from me. A new Christian, he had just been released from prison. His conversation with the people who sat next to him intrigued me. He was a newcomer to their church; they were longtime members. He told them, "The church is going to have to change, that’s all there is to it. If we’re going to have new people coming into the church, we are going to have to change the way we deal with them.
"Just think of me. How are people feeling about me? And look at the people [mostly ex-offenders] I’ve been bringing to church. How do church people feel about them? If they don’t want to accept these people, they’ll need to take that ‘Welcome’ off the church sign."
As he spoke, his voice rose. His tablemates said they had never really noticed the church sign. But they agreed that if the sign said "Welcome," people should indeed be welcome. Otherwise, the sign should be changed or removed.
A few days later, I drove by the church building where these folks attended. The church sign announced in bold letters: WELCOME TO ALL. For most of the members of that church, the sign probably meant little. But for the new attender, the message was crucial. After all, businesses are expected to honor the messages on their advertising signs and bulletin boards. Should we expect less of the church?
Like the man at the banquet table, many people in today’s world long for a place where they can experience true acceptance and love. Sadly, people often don’t find the answer through Christ and the church. Instead, they turn to alternative sources to try to fill the emptiness inside. Many turn to drinking and drugs.
In his book A Drink at Joel’s Place, Jess Moody asks,
Can an average man really find more compassionate understanding at his church than he can at Joe’s Bar? Is his pastor as willing to listen as a bartender? (note:2)
A bar is always true to its name. When a customer comes in, they don’t inform him that the only thing they serve is warm milk. If they were to do this, as many barflies would stay away from Joe’s Bar as church members stay away from Sunday worship. The church had better come up with the choicest product brewed at Joel’s Place, called "This is that."
"This is that which was spoken of by the prophet Joel; … it shall come to pass in the last days … I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh." Acts 2:16-17 (note:3)
Al and Roberta Wollen, a retired pastor couple from Portland, Oregon, tell about a memorable visit to a church in London. They had flown from Portland and arrived in London on a Sunday afternoon to help prepare for evangelist Luis Palau’s "Mission to London." When they asked about a place to eat, they were directed to the Ostrich Inn. As they prepared to enter the inn, they noticed a church building across the street. Since it was time for the evening service, they decided to attend—and eat afterward.
The service was already in session. A speaker and two others were on the platform. Four persons made up the congregation. Since the entrance brought the Wollens into the side and front of the sanctuary, they sat in the front row. The preacher seemed happy to see a 50 percent increase in his audience!
After the service, they found people were quite friendly and ready to converse. The church members proudly noted that the church had held Sunday morning and evening services for 400 years without interruption. In the course of conversation, the Wollens mentioned the circumstances that had brought them to London. They noted that they had stumbled on the church fellowship while on the way to the Ostrich Inn.
The fellowship turned cold. After informing Al and Roberta that the Ostrich Inn was a pub, the gathered group would no longer speak to them. These strict Christians treated them as outcasts because they had plans to eat at a public house. Yet no one offered to give them a meal or suggested another place to eat.
Somewhat daunted, the Wollens went across the street to discover a crowded eating house. When the proprietor heard their American accent, he announced their presence to the other customers. He warmly welcomed them to London and the Ostrich Inn. He went out of his way to make them feel at home. He showed them to a quiet room on the second floor, so they could relax after their long overseas flight.
As the Wollens left, they reflected on the stark contrast between the welcome they had received from the two groups of Londoners that night. Now they understood why the church had only seven people attending, while the Ostrich Inn was overflowing with people.
What should people rightfully expect when they visit your church? What do you offer to newcomers? Do you promise love? Acceptance? Forgiveness? Belonging? Identity? Fellowship? Security? Significance? Purpose?
If you’re part of a local church fellowship, think about the "advertising" on your church sign, in your worship bulletin, in the newspaper, or elsewhere. Then think about the way you receive new people into the church. Might these people ever feel tempted to accuse your church of false advertising?
Although the church is not a business, churches can sometimes learn from people in business. In the same way that businesses seek to maintain satisfied customers, churches seek to have satisfied members.
Most churches believe they are friendly and caring. For the most part, this perception is held by longtime members who enjoy being part of the fellowship. But what about the "dissatisfied customers" who aren’t part of the church?
Years ago, a traveling salesman wrote a letter which appeared in the "Dear Abby" newspaper column. This salesman visited a different church every Sunday morning and night. He would sit near the front of the church, then wander back through the congregation at the close of the service, giving people a chance to welcome him. At the time he wrote the letter, he had visited 190 different churches. During that time, only three people (other than official greeters) had greeted him and welcomed him to their church.
What if this man had visited your church? What would he be saying to Dear Abby or someone else? Every "customer" who voices a "complaint" about your church may represent many others who have similar feelings but say nothing. These people may have chosen to "talk with their feet" by walking out and not coming back.
There are at least three kinds of "dissatisfied customers" who may have visited your church. First are the visitors who chose not to return after one or two visits. On what basis did they make their decisions?
Second are the people who attended your church for some time but are no longer active. What caused them to drop out?
Third are the people who transferred to another church, but who didn’t change their place of residence. Why did they leave?
Consider the persons who are currently new to your church, who are still deciding whether or not they will stay. What kind of welcome are they experiencing?
If you’re interested in determining how "truthful" the advertising on your church sign is, it may help to listen to some dissatisfied customers. Let’s consider briefly examples of what one might hear.
Clara Sell tells the story of her visit to a new church. A woman approached her and asked her to give her name. She replied "Sell."
Since it was an unfamiliar name to her, the inquiring woman asked, "Zeil?"
"Sell? Humph! What kind of name is that?" And the inquirer walked off, leaving behind her a shocked Mrs. Sell.
Kip and his wife moved into a new town and attended one of the churches there. After visiting for five Sundays in a row, they decided it wasn’t the place for them. During that time, the only person who had spoken to them was the minister!
In the hustle and bustle of church life, it may take all the energy members can muster just to keep the church program going. In the busyness, it’s easy to lose sight of the real purpose of the church. The church exists not just for the sake of the members. It exists also for the sake of Christ, and for the sake of those who don’t yet know Christ. The church is a place for new Christians to become part of the body of Christ.
Do New People Feel Welcome at Your Church?
The following questions can help you to determine
the warmth of your welcome to new members.(note:4)
- Are there large numbers of people who have transferred out of your church and have joined churches nearby?
- Is there a significant percentage of people in your church who have no specific role or task, or who don’t belong to a small group?
- Is there a large gap between your church membership and the average worship attendance?
- Is there a large gap between Sunday school enrollment and attendance?
- Is there a large percentage of the membership whose worship attendance is sporadic?
- Do large numbers of your people feel left out?
- Are there large numbers of visitors who don’t come back a second time?
- Is there a high percentage of new members or converts who have not been previously exposed to the ministry, programs, and people in your church?
- Are there a large number of new converts or new members in the church whose friends and relatives have not been exposed to the church?
- Are there people whose level of involvement has declined?
- Are there unmet needs among the membership and participants in your church or community which are appropriate for the church to meet?
If so, this is a strong indication they weren’t properly incorporated into your church.
If so, they’re probably not vitally involved in the church. The exception to this rule may be older members who have been in the church for a long time.
If church membership is larger than the average worship attendance, this indicates lack of involvement and lack of meaning in church membership. If average worship attendance far exceeds church membership, this is a healthier sign. However, it is also important to welcome these attenders into congregational membership.
Lack of involvement in Sunday school generally indicates a need for better incorporation of new people into this small-group environment in the church. There may be need for better teaching, new classes, or a different curriculum.
Sporadic worship attendance is one indication of a lack of incorporation. If church attendance becomes sporadic, there is a danger a person may drop out of church altogether.
Feeling left out is a sure sign of lack of adequate incorporation. Fully incorporated members feel a sense of belonging.
If you have a large number of visitors who don’t return after their initial visit, this may indicate there is something in the worship service which puts people off. The obvious exception to this rule is the out-of-town guest.
If so, this may be an indication that your church is not being properly "promoted" by the members. Your community may not be adequately aware of the services your church has to offer.
The church grows primarily from contacts made by friends and relatives. It is thus essential that there be adequate follow-up to friends and relatives of new people in the church. This is the best pool of prospects for church growth.
If persons are becoming less involved in congregational programs, they may be feeling left out. Lack of involvement in the church will soon lead to dropping out altogether.
Persons will generally stay where their needs are properly addressed. Those with unmet needs may soon seek other places of involvement.
If you answered "no" to all the above questions, you may be doing quite well at welcoming new people. Nevertheless, keep reading. You will surely find some sparks of insight from the experiences of others who have worked to welcome new people. Or perhaps you should get a "second opinion" on the health of your church. You can do so by asking the above questions of a dissatisfied customer who knows your church.
Perhaps you were unable to answer many of the questions. To readily know the answers would require careful observation, and a deep interest and concern for new people. This book will help you learn to think biblically about the needs of newcomers. This can, in turn, prompt careful observation and planning in your church.
If you answered "yes" to any of the questions, keep reading. This is just the book for you!
For Review, Study, and Action
- Have you ever had an experience of not feeling welcomed by a church? Briefly share with the group how it felt to be in that situation.
- Try to estimate your church’s "welcome quotient" on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best rating possible.
- Talk to three people who have recently visited your church. Ask them how they were welcomed.
- Try to identify barriers which may keep you from providing a healthy welcome to new people.
- Respond to the story of the Wollens in London. Do you think your church is more or less welcoming than the local public house? Share any appropriate stories.
- If you haven’t yet gone through the questionnaire above, do so now. Then go through it with someone who is new to your church. How do their answers differ from yours?
- Write down the names of 10 people who were once a part of your church but no longer attend. Are they "dissatisfied customers?" If so, try to place these names into the three categories discussed in this chapter.
- Ask at least two of the people on the list from number 7 above why they left the church. Perhaps you could ask them in this way: "I notice you no longer attend our church. Would you mind telling me why you decided to drop out?"
For Further Help
Assimilating New Members, by Lyie Schaller (Nashville: Abingdon Press). A practical guide to new-member assimilation by a seasoned church consultant.
The Inviting Church: A Study of New Member Assimilation, by Roy M. Oswald and Speed B. Leas (New York: Alban Institute, 1987). This booklet is a helpful guide, particularly to mainline denominations.
Close the Back Door: Ways to Create a Caring Fellowship, by Alan F. Harre (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1984). A look at church dropouts, and how they can be reclaimed. The book also has practical advice on how to keep people from dropping out.