From Fellowship to True Hospitality
If people visit your church once or twice but don’t return, you may have a “guest readiness” issue, according to Dr. Kim Pope-Seiberling, professor at Lindsey Wilson College and elder in the West Ohio Conference.
It is not unusual to hear a parishioner say, “We are a friendly church. Why don’t visitors come back?” Many congregations struggle to understand why they get visitors who seem to enjoy their visit and say they are returning soon, but never visit again. This can be extremely frustrating, especially for a congregation seeking to grow. The question is, “Why don’t they come back?”
Many people can relate to the stories that are shared with me by someone seeking to find a church home. They are generally single or married families who have recently moved to a new area, not really knowing anyone and hoping to find a welcoming community of believers. They are looking for a church where they can grow spiritually, where people have fun being in ministry with others, where you find a real sense the church is supportive of people during difficult times. They are seeking ministry settings that are diverse and inclusive and that offer inspiring and life-giving worship. Too often what they experience when visiting a church are greeters who briefly shake their hands with a smile, show them where the coffee is and then leave them to introduce themselves to others. They are handed a bulletin or flyer with announcements of activities that are poorly explained in worship service.
Visitors then go into the sanctuary trying to navigate the safest place to sit where they can feel comfortable in a setting that feels pretty cold. They are then asked during the greeting time to greet the person nearest to them. People are good at saying, “We are glad you are here” and then turn away immediately to enthusiastically hug their friends – often holding longer conversations that are met with laughter as the worship leader says it’s time to sit down. Guests are then invited to fill out a visitor’s card that they don’t have enough time to complete as the ushers come by.
As the guests are leaving, they are greeted by the pastor who shares appreciation for their coming to worship. They then get into their car and say to themselves: The message and service were good overall, but I felt like an uninvited guest at a family reunion.
The truth is, every church believes it is a welcoming and friendly fellowship, but that is not always the case. Because the friendship circles of the members are so strong, guests are isolated and closed to the meaningful relationships spiritual seekers want today. Radical hospitality is at the core of the Gospel, and we believe that God longs to be in relationship with everyone.
There are several factors that suggest hospitality is more than fellowship with one another:
- Surveys have shown that approximately 80 percent of people who visit a congregation come because they were personally invited.
- The majority of seekers who visit a congregation decide within the first 10 minutes or less following their arrival at church whether or not they will return.
- The motivation for many who will decide to return to a particular church is often the personal connections that were developed by members of the congregation rather than the greeters or even the pastor.
- The follow-up with first time guests is critical to visitors feeling their presence mattered to the worshipping community.
- Such hospitality is a larger part of intentional discipleship.
How do we move from fellowship to a culture of hospitality? What can we do to ensure that first-time guests know they are welcomed, loved and invited to come back again? Let me share a few ways for us to be a good host – to welcome strangers as they yearn for meaning, relationships, service, worship and a place of hope.
Create a hospitality team that has a vision of how its efforts turn casual interactions into meaningful engagement with newcomers. Be intentional about introducing yourself to new guests, and see that they are introduced to others so that they are familiar with a few people as they worship.
Develop signage that helps people know how to find their way around your facility. Make sure your space is inviting from the minute people drive up to the church. Think about the landscape of the church property and entering to find a warm decluttered space inside.
Regularly teach and preach hospitality to the entire congregation.
Offer uplifting worship and a relevant Word that help newcomers to better understand the Bible and the power of prayer in their lives. Help guests know what is happening as they worship – whether it’s taking time to share how communion will be served or highlight important announcements. It is imperative to be brief and clear.
Listen to the newcomers’ stories and questions they may have about the church. Gather feedback on how guests respond to your church through surveys, interviews and reviewing with your leadership team what you do well and what needs improvements.
Make sure your website answers key questions as church guests are seeking information about the location, staff and activities of the church.
Prepare yourself for guests. Extend hospitality that is felt even in the parking lot and outside the front doors. Have greeters with umbrellas on a rainy day, and especially care for people arriving on snowy days like we had this year.
May you be blessed with new people who return because they have experienced God’s love and grace: the stranger, the weary traveler, an angel, the very presence of Christ.