Visitor Consciousness

June 17, 2009 (David Cloud, Fundamental Baptist Information Service, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061, 866-295-4143, fbns@wayoflife.org; for instructions about subscribing and unsubscribing or changing addresses, see the information paragraph at the end of the article) -

Most church members are not very conscious of visitors. It is natural to get involved with one’s friends and acquaintances and to be busy with the assigned tasks and to forget to minister to the visitors. I have noticed even in churches that have a hand shaking time during the service, that most of the members merely shake hands with each other and make no attempt to identify and befriend visitors.

We brought my wife’s unsaved stepfather to church with us several times one winter, and as a rule, the members made no effort to befriend him beyond a few cursory handshakes and “thank you for coming’s.” In one church, we even asked if there were men who would be willing to take him fishing (he was spending the winter with us) and befriend him and perhaps have an opportunity to talk with him about Christ, but even though we asked the pastor and some of the men about this and even though he visited that church off and on for about four months, not one man ever tried to befriend him. This was in spite of the fact that we requested special prayer for him every Wednesday night and the members were aware of his visits and his situation.

It is important for pastors to challenge and train the people to be visitor conscious so that visitors and new Christians do not slip through the cracks without personal attention. It must be remembered that generally speaking it is a very difficult thing for a person to go to a new church where he or she does not know anyone. Unless church members reach out to visitors and really make an effort to get to know them and pray for them and make further contact with them during the week, oftentimes they will not come back.

1 Corinthians 14:23-26 describes a church service in which each member is prophesying. The result is that sinners are saved. This does not mean that all of the church members stand up and preach. It means that each church member is there to minister to others with his or her own particular gifts. The music can be a form of prophesying if it is done right (1 Chron. 25:1-3). Even hearty participation in congregational singing is a form of prophesying.

Church meetings today, though, even in Bible-believing churches, are more like entertainment programs than what the apostle describes in 1 Corinthians. It appears that the average church member does not come to the meetings to minister, but to be entertained and ministered to. The music might be appealing but rarely if ever does it produce conviction and holiness. Everything is done ritualistically “by the bulletin,” but there is little or no spiritual power. This should not be the case, and part of the problem is that people do not come to church for the right reason. Hebrews 10:25 says we are to come together in the assemblies to “exhort one another,” not merely to be exhorted.

The case of Philip Mauro reminds us of the importance of reaching out to visitors. Mauro was a patent lawyer who argued many cases before the United States Supreme Court. He had an Episcopalian background, but by age 45 he was a skeptic. In the spring of the year 1903 he attended a church service almost by accident, and it changed his life. Following is the story in Mauro’s own words:

“Certainly I was thoroughly discontented, desperately unhappy, and becoming more and more easy prey to gloomy thoughts and vague, indefinable apprehensions. . . . Life had no meaning, advantage, purpose, or justification; and the powers of the much-vaunted intellect seemed unequal to the solution of the simplest mysteries. The prospect before me was unspeakably dark and forbidding.

“I strolled out in my usual unhappy frame of mind, intending to seek diversion at the theatre. This purpose carried me as far as the lobby of a theatre on Broadway and caused me to take my place in the line of ticket purchasers. But an unseen hand turned me aside, and the next thing that I remember was a very faint sound of singing which came to my ears amid the noises in Eighth Avenue, near 44th Street, fully a mile away from the theatre.

“There is no natural explanation of my being attracted by, and of my following up, that sound. Nevertheless, I pushed my way into the building (a very plain, unattractive affair, bearing the sign ‘Gospel Tabernacle’) [pastored by A.B. Simpson, president of the Christian and Missionary Alliance], whence the sound emanated, and found myself in a prayer-meeting. I took a seat and remained through the meeting.

“I was not much impressed by the exercise, and in fact was not at all in sympathy with what transpired. What did, however, make an impression upon me was the circumstance that, as I was making my way to the door after the meeting, several persons greeted me with a pleasant word and a shake of the hand, and one inquired about my spiritual state” (“The Story of Philip Mauro” by Gordon P. Gardiner).

Impressed with the friendliness of the people, Mauro returned to the church several times and was eventually born again through repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. After his conversion Mauro became a bold Christian and wrote many books about the Bible. One of these was “Which Version?” in which he defended the King James Bible against the Westcott-Hort textual theories. He also wrote the legal brief that was used by William Jennings Bryan to defend the Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the public schools. This was the famous “Skopes Trial.” Bryan won the case against the trial lawyer Clarence Darrow. Philip Mauro also had opportunity to witness to many well-placed individuals, including Thomas Edison.

Following are some suggestions in regard to dealing with visitors:

1. Designated Greeters. There should be volunteers who have a special task of greeting and befriending visitors and helping them with whatever needs they might have, such as finding the right Sunday School class, locating the nursery, etc. These people should be carefully selected by the pastor. Some church members are naturally gifted at making strangers feel comfortable, whereas there are others who lack the tact and personality to be successful at this. Every effort should be made to make certain that the visitors do not get the impression that the “official greeters” are merely doing a job. It might be a good idea to rotate greeters from time to time. It is might also be a good idea to use a husband-wife team as greeters. The wife can more properly help any women visitors locate the nursery, bathrooms, etc.

2. The congregation must be instructed and regularly reminded that it is an important responsibility of each church member to make visitors feel welcome. It is the pastor’s job to help the church become “visitor conscious” and to work out practical ways to accomplish this.

3. The “hand shaking” time that many churches have during the services is not necessarily the best way to greet visitors. The following observation is timely: “One thing that is abused and overworked in some churches is a greeting time where they ask everyone to turn around and greet someone and people wander all over the church. . . . You cannot, and should not, legislate friendliness. Nothing forced is ever effective. Many people come to church with troublesome problems on their minds. They are there for comfort, to grieve, to pray, to seek solace and resent being told that they have to shake hands when they would rather be left alone. Church should always be programmed to be neighborly, but don’t legislate it during church time. This time can be used to a much greater advantage in other ways” (Bob Hinds, Double Your Church Attendance, p. 42).

I tend to agree with this observation. Through the years I have been in hundreds of churches that have this practice, and as a visitor I usually feel self-conscious and awkward. Rarely do the church members seek the visitors out, even those who are special speakers. It is more common that they gather together in little bunches with their friends and ignore the visitors, and oftentimes it has been left up to me, the visitor, to go around the church and try to break into the little groups and shake hands. When people do shake your hands, you often feel that they are merely doing it because they have been told to do so. One large church we visited makes a big thing of their hand shaking time, and the people obediently go around and shake hands, but they do it in such a stilted fashion that it is obvious that it is not an act of genuine friendliness. They say, “Hello, glad to have you, how are you,” but they aren’t even looking at you and don’t stop even for a moment to hear the answer to their questions. None of this makes visitors want to return.

4. Don’t let them slip in and slip out. It is common for visitors to come in just as the service is starting, to sit in the back, and then to slip out quickly after the service. The church needs to find a way to make contact with those who do this. Perhaps one or more members can volunteer or be assigned to sit in the back of the church and watch for such visitors, and then to try to befriend them before they leave the church grounds. Perhaps the visitors can be asked if they would like to tour the church, or if they have any questions about the church, etc.

5. Design the services with visitors in mind. One evangelist warns churches about unnecessary things in the services that accomplish no good purpose but have the potential of irritating people. “It seems that no one likes a church when they are constantly being asked to stand for something, to sing a song, to pay tribute to something, etc. One or two standings per service is about all you can get by with and not alienate some people. There is usually a groaning when people have to stand too much. People plan to get their exercise in other ways. Besides, it is extremely hard on elderly and crippled persons. Some churches that we’ve noticed have the congregation stand at the opening of the service for a few songs. It is felt that standing improves the singing and creates a more enthusiastic service. People generally cooperate, but it’s very obvious that many are disgruntled by having to stand. [Church leaders must remember that one of our main purposes is to win souls.] It is hard to win a soul that is irritated. So it behooves us all to make the church service as enjoyable as possible for everyone. And if you take a poll you’ll find very few are for standing. Since it’s felt that people sing better if they are standing up, if the song leader can’t get the people to sing well enough sitting down, then change song leaders” (Hinds, Double Your Church Attendance, p. 52).

I agree with this observation. I absolutely love congregational singing, but it is very distracting and uncomfortable to have to stand through most of the songs. It is so much more pleasant to be able to sit down and sing to the Lord and meditate upon the wonderful words of the hymns. I have always thought it is strange for song leaders to force the people to stand and sing. On midweek services people have worked all day and are tired. Why can’t they be allowed to come to church and sit down and relax while they sing the songs of Zion?

6. The church’s ministry to visitors should not stop with the services. It is important that every visitor be followed up, and those who show interest should be followed up repeatedly, with the goal of leading that person to Christ and/or discipling him. This will not happen unless a particular church member takes a special interest in the individual or family. Otherwise, the visitors will fall through the cracks. Some effective system must be worked out whereby the visitors are followed up. The pastor(s), of course, are involved in this, but it is important that many other church members become involved, as well.

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