Faithful Friday – July 14th

Dear Disciple of Christ,

I wonder if I could pause here for a moment and spend just one more posting looking at the issue of our visitors and how we can welcome them. Toward the end of my first 5 years of ministry (and pastoring that church in Brooklyn), I went back to “school.” Actually, the program offered for pastors (after their first five years) was a Doctor in the Ministry degree (related to pastoral ministry and referred to as a “D.Min”). It was available at a variety of schools in various denominations after a pastor had served actively at a congregation for at least 5 years. Interestingly, those 5 years did not need to be served at the same church. That may well have joined together two realities for pastors. First, it is good for pastors to reflect on pastoral ministry (after being away from seminary for a while). Secondly, pastoral ministry is not easy and it’s not unusual for pastors to leave their first call after two or three years.

I served for 6 ½ years in my first call, but it wasn’t without challenges. I wanted to look into an evangelism issue that my first church struggled with. Again, going from 900 members to 45 seemed an extraordinary situation, one that deserved some attention. If the community of Christ had the commission to make disciples of all nations, we seemed to be missing something (or some things). What were we doing or failing to do that made us ineffective as a community of Christ? So the classes I took focused on mission and ministry. My final dissertation was titled “The welcoming church.” I suppose if I had done that study recently, after 55 years of pastoral ministry, I would have been more direct and titled it, “Today’s welcoming/unwelcoming church”. 

I was always an “outreach” style pastor, believing that we should be welcoming visitors not just serving as chaplain for current members. That’s not always easy to do, but it is very easy to be less than welcoming of visitors. How frustrating it was to do all I could and model how we greet and care for visitors, but members seemed almost intentionally to be working against that. I would have assumed that all members would want new members but that is not the case. New people visiting and joining a congregation can cause problems. A new visitor to a church (or new member) has been described as the last person to get into a canoe. The comfortable balance of the first canoeists knowing their position is lost and the canoe wobbles and sometimes goes over. As I described last week, visitors don’t know…. Well, they don’t know much of anything. They don’t know whose seat is whose. They don’t know what the congregation has tried before and since it didn’t work we aren’t interested in trying it again. Members are surprised when visitors bring (noisy) children to worship (are there any other kind, they wonder?). It is so hard to invite people who have not been in the habit of worship, to come to worship. It is so easy to offend a visitor so they don’t return. 

I will describe my dissertation in an upcoming posting, but I didn’t want to leave last week’s topic of concern (how we welcome visitors) without some direct suggestions. I want to describe how a welcoming disciple might serve as Christ serves us. You do know that there has never been a visitor to a church who comes simply because they have nothing better to do, right? No husband wakes up on Sunday and says, “Hey, Hon. How about if we visit that church down the street today?? No, they don’t come out of boredom. They come (most often? Always?) after some precipitating event. Something has happened. They moved into a new area and miss the community of friends they had elsewhere. They moved for a new job and sometimes those can be a real challenge. They have teenagers (enough said!). They have a new baby (do they look tired?). Sometimes one of the couple has taken on the responsibility of “church shopping” so the other parent and children can stay home until the other checks out the church (do they welcome others?).   

Every member either welcomes a visitor or their actions suggest to the visitor they have not yet found a church for themselves. At our current church we have encouraged “greeting” as a part of worship for all to participate in. We greet at the street (with volunteers waving at tens of thousands of neighbors passing by out at the front sign). Where are the next greeters? They’re in the parking lot. Visitors can find it overwhelming to get out of their cars and enter a new worshiping place. Members can (and should) slow down or speed up and welcome them in the parking lot. We also have greeters just inside the doors of the church.  These smiling greeters encourage visitors (as well as members, of course) to make and wear a name tag. This helps all to get to know one another. Then there are the ushers(/greeters) who do more than distribute bulletins. They welcome all who have come and give important information (about worship, infant cry room, Sunday school timing, etc.). The more information a visitor has about the church and its ministries, the more comfortable they are likely to see this group as the Church of Christ.

The next welcomers are members in the pews who, upon seeing a (oft times hesitant) visitor looking for a seat, get up, greet them and move over (yes, even sacrificing their own “chosen” seat). “Welcome”, they say softly. “Is this your first visit? That gracious member now has a gift from God, a visitor, looking for a community of believers and a place for worship. The member can assist them in what may well be a challenge in worship (following and participating in worship provided in a bulletin, hymns in hymnals, etc., etc). The member greets the visitor with, “The peace of the Lord be with you.” Following the first communion hymn (Lamb of God), they might see described what is written in the bulletin. “They” are welcome to receive communion. If they have children, again, the bulletin describes how children can attend Sunday school while adult worshipers continue with the sermon.

Fellowship after worship can be one of the most welcoming tools a congregation has to help visitors. But, it can also undo all the welcoming that has gone on thus far. As the sanctuary is emptying out, please greet the visitor you’ve been with in worship. Listen to their responses and hear what you can do to serve as a disciple/greeter. Invite them to fellowship. If you invite them to join you at fellowship, they will be much more likely to attend (and return to worship). If they walk in by themselves and they see people smiling and greeting one another (and no one greets them), they have one desire and that is to leave as soon as possible. If the fellowship hall tables are filled with disciples who care for each other but no one even greets them, they see those tables as “care groups” for members (not them). 

We have done many intentional things over the years to help. You’ll note the coffee is at the entrance to fellowship (especially so an unattended visitor can walk over and get a drink and not feel VERY awkward. Please, PLEASE, PLEASE.  If you see a visitor (first time identified by a handwritten name tag, or a new member – blue name tag with no joined date but typed out, thus a returning visitor), get up, greet them and invite them to join your table. Round tables are more expensive than rectangular, but round allows conversation to include all at the table, not just at the two ends of a rectangular one). 

Please. Prayerfully, with eyes of faith, watch for the visitor and care for them in the name of Christ,

Peace in His service,

Pr Johnson

Scripture Readings For Friday, July 14th

Psalm 65:9-13; Isaiah 48:6-11; Romans 15:14-21