From Visitor to Participant: What Can We Do?

This is a post for churchpeople, so I recognize not every regular reader of this blog will care about the following discussion. You’ve been duly, and respectfully, warned! 😉

I enjoyed a good conversation this evening with our son Trevor and his roommate and Regent College classmate James Allaway about a fundamental challenge in churches and, indeed, in any Christian institution larger than about 100 people (e.g., a student fellowship such as Inter-Varsity, a college, and so on). The challenge is this: What intermediate structures or programs can help to welcome people and enfold them into the life of the congregation between the initial “welcome to visitors” on the first Sunday morning (whatever form that takes) and the invitation to join a small group–which is a relatively large commitment and fairly intimidating to many?

Alpha and similar courses can help, particularly for those new to the faith. But what else can we do to connect newcomers with others in the church–and, again, especially in churches (or other groups) that are > 100 people and thus have a large group dynamic, a dynamic that keeps people isolated no matter how many times they attend a Sunday morning service?

And can we make sure that those visitors who want to stay quietly anonymous while they decide how much they want to get involved can get their wish?

What have you seen that helps people connect with others in a church between “Hi! You’re new here!” and “Small group registration takes place today after the service”?

0 Responses to “From Visitor to Participant: What Can We Do?”

  1. Sarah

    When I was in college I began attending a church of a few hundred members. One of the best programs I have been involved with was simply families from the church being paired with college students. We would be blessed with a home-cooked meal at least once a month and a chance to do laundry somewhere other than the dorms. The first family I was paired with remain some of my favorite people on the planet. They welcomed me into their home and thus into the fellowship as well. This works great for a college setting.

    The concept is the same in rural towns though it doesn’t have to be made into a program. When we lived in a small town and began attending a Dutch Reformed church we were not only greeted at the door, but were invited home to lunch. Every week for several weeks. These people simply made soup or sandwiches which always seemed to be enough for extra mouths. Around those tables we quickly became a part of a fellowship, and our involvement in the programs was easy from there.

    The first couple times we were invited we hemmed and hawed and put up excuses, because, frankly it was out of our normal experience of church. After the first meal we welcomed all invitations and quickly began giving the invitations as well.

    I don’t know if that helps your question…but those two experiences solidified in me and my husband a desire to be pro-active in extending hospitality to new faces, something I pray we are still quick to do. I find that it also is an element in our search for a church…when we have been in congregations where there was little more than a hello we felt out of place. When we have been able to find congregations where people linger comfortably, it is much easier to find our place.

  2. kyle n

    a) I second the ideas above. Invite them over for lunch, or coffee, or ice cream. It seems like nobody does that anymore.
    b) The church I went to in Spokane had what they called “Sunday School” before the regular service, but usually consisted of watching a 20 minute excerpt from PBS’ Religion and Ethics Weekly and then a long discussion of the topic at hand as moderated by an elder. It was ALWAYS attended by about 12 septuagenarians (and older) and 2-4 college students (that seems to be the demographics most older PCUSA churches), and we developed a very unique kind of community through the consistency of it all. Plus, as a college student, it was very interesting to talk politics with folks who could reference the Depression and WWII as personal life experiences.

  3. SursumCorda

    First off, thank you for remembering that some of us visitors are actually driven away by too-enthusiastic greetings.

    Our daughter’s church serves a meal after the service. It’s not fancy, and it’s meant primarily to keep the kids happy (and this church has many kids) while the parents enjoy some fellowship time, but anyone can eat, and visitors are especially invited. The children, too — once their stomachs are satisfied — enjoy the opportunity to run around inside and outside the church and have fun together, and are often reluctant to leave. Such an opportunity for visitors’ children to make friends could be a big draw — though I don’t think it would work well in a huge church, and I can see a church in the U.S. worrying about someone getting hurt in all that fun and calling a lawyer….

    I’ve always become involved most quickly in a church through the choir, but it could work with any ministry. How about offering — clearly posted, but no pressure — short-term opportunities to do things for which people might be seeking opportunities: seasonal choir, building a Habitat for Humanity house, helping in a soup kitchen, a marriage enrichment seminar, etc.

    As mentioned by others, food seems to be a very successful ice breaker. One church we attended had a special meal every Wednesday night in the summer; another a feast associated with their Saturday service (one of their deacons was a professional chef!); one matched people — who wanted to — into small groups to share a meal (or more) together at someone’s home.

    I’ve seen many failed attempts to promote community in churches, too. In my very limited experience, the combination of food and working together on a worthwhile project works the best, especially if the groups are chosen voluntarily. Community merely for the sake of community rarely does. The worst was when the leaders of the church decided they knew best what groups I should belong to.

  4. Kevin Rogers

    Periodically, we hold ‘Friendsday’. People sign up in advance to participate in a potluck at someone’s home. We mix people together that we think might have some commonality. In this way, everyone meets a few people they had not known previously. Works well for us.

  5. Paul+

    Like many commentators above, our church has found meals an effective way to deepen our relationships with newcomers. Though the Alpha meals have worked well here, we are finding lately that meals WITHOUT an intentional teaching time have been very effective. Though I love to teach and preach, we have MANY other opportunities for these folks to hear me wax on thoughout the week. So instead of inviting them to a meal with a program (or luring them in by NOT telling them about the 50 minute bible study following the meal) we are inviting them to a meal, period. Of course, as the pastor I make sure to welcome everyone, someone says grace, and I usually close with a few announcements about upcoming events and then a prayer. But there is no program other than enjoying each other. We do this weekly as a lunch group (with 60 or so in attendance) and then once a month for young families. Lately these have been some of the most exciting times together as a church.

  6. John Stackhouse

    There are some excellent suggestions in the foregoing–thanks! Let’s hear from some more of you, if more there be.

    I’m especially interested to hear more about how initial contacts and welcomes are followed up in a more sustained way–as some of the comments do show and quite helpfully.

    And can anyone speak to how larger churches (say, 300+ in a service) effectively connect with newcomers and draw them into sustained relationships, whether one to one or in groups or whatever?

  7. Samuel Bostock

    At my large (for the UK) church, congregation members host ‘welcome dinners’ to which newcomers are encouraged to come to meet other newbies. These go on pretty regularly throughout the summer (which is when most people tend to arrive), and in my experience they really help with stickability and getting people ready to commit to a small group in the autumn.

  8. Iain

    I was commissioned to work on this area in our church in Scotland, numbering about 150-180 persons. We had all the usual stuff, a form visitors could fill in and request a visit, welcome team at the door, a course for those who wanted to learn more about the church and, of course, tea and coffee after the service! They all work, but I believe it was something else that made them work, and possibly made all of the above unnecessary. A conscious and concerted effort was made by the eldership and staff to sensitively greet every newcomer (as far as possible, some always manage to slip out the back doors as you crash along the 19th century pews, desperate to make the aisle in time to block said exit, sensitively), to make conversation, and if appropriate, to extend personal invites and make personal introductions. If the person expressed interest in the course, they would introduce them to the course leader. If they were a 20 something male working in the oil industry, they would be introduced to another 20 something in the oil industry who would then invite them to the pub (and what a pub – in a basement beneath an auctioneers, no music, great ale). This may sound terribly simplistic, but it worked. By example, the elders and staff have shown the way, and others in the church have become involved in this ministry. It is not over-bearing and when a few people get involved it is not hard-work. And all of this in the North-East of Scotland, the friendliest unfriendly place on earth.

    Ps – the course was very successful, it ran about once every 6 weeks. People who came to the course would often become involved in something at the church, or at least a regular and known attendee. The disposition of those who came to the course varied from confident to extremely shy and private.

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