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FIRST-PERSON: I want my people to know what to do with visitors!

KENNER, La. (BP)–The couple came in after the worship service started. They seemed ill at ease, like they were not sure what to do next. The congregation was in the middle of a chorus which was printed inside the worship bulletin they had been given. I stepped back to where they stood and showed the man where we were in the chorus. After church, I discovered they were relatives of a deacon who had invited them.

I remember what it was like as a college student dropping in on a new church — not knowing a soul and wondering whether I would fit in with this congregation. I am the product of a great church that opened its arms and loved me to Jesus.

When we pastored in the Carolinas, my wife and I loved to drive through the Smokies above Asheville on our day off. Once, we spotted a quaint little church on a hillside and decided to check it out. We drove up and down the highway several times, but could never find a turn-off to the church. Eventually, we gave up and drove on. A couple of miles up the road, we stopped at a country store for gas and asked about that church. “Oh, it went out of business some years ago,” the clerk said, “Somebody bought it. It’s not a church any more.” I think I know why: nobody could get to it.

That worries the stew out of me, that people will finally get up the courage to come to our church and once they get there, they can’t figure out how to get in or when we start or maybe no one will speak to them. We put signs in the front yard telling the times of our three services, and signs on the building identifying entrances, and station ushers everywhere to greet people and hand out materials, but it’s still not enough.

Criticizing church is the easiest thing on the planet to do. We send out cards to visitors actually inviting it, so you would think we would know how to handle rejection. But it makes a preacher want to beat his head against a wall when the cards come back in saying, “We couldn’t find how to get into the sanctuary” (We have doors on every side and the sanctuary is the only thing in the building!) or “You sang old, tired songs” (we also sing the new ones and get beat up for that, too!). They say, “We want more emotion in the singing” and “There’s too much emotion in your church.” Arghh!! (That’s a comic book expression uttered by someone in his dying gasp.)

I have come to five conclusions which I hereby share with everyone who has ever visited a church in which no one spoke to them.

1. You might have been sitting near other visitors and all of you waited around for the other to speak up and you came to the wrong conclusions about the church.

2. Don’t criticize my people for not being friendly to you if you do not seek out newcomers in your church back home and welcome them. It’s real easy to get hypocritical on this issue.

3. True, the Bible tells God’s people they are to welcome the strangers among them (Leviticus 19), but nowhere are we exempted from doing the will of God because someone was not friendly to us. Some of the most influential Christians I know joined a church where no one spoke to them for the simple reason that they knew God was leading them there. He was, and their faithfulness made it a greater church.

4. Be real careful about telling other people that a church is unfriendly. You could be guilty of slandering the Bride of Christ. What if someone who overhears your attack is unsaved and has been invited to attend that church where he might have come to know Christ? What if your negative words influenced him not to attend, and no one ever reaches him? Many a person has come to know Christ as Savior in churches that do not do a very effective job of greeting newcomers.

5. Learn a lesson from this and become a roving greeter in your home church. Look around for new faces and give them a smile and a handshake. Offer to introduce them to the pastor. Make sure they filled out the visitors’ information card so the office will have their address. We have some members who look for first-timers and offer to take them to lunch at the cafeteria down the street. Lunchtime becomes an excellent occasion for the newcomers to ask their questions and to learn of the church.

One of the most common mistakes of church members is thinking their church is friendly when they are friendly only with each other. We call that a clique or a club, and it can be so exclusive no outsider can break into it. The family of Christ, on the other hand, is a fellowship of love in which the members treasure each other and minister to one another, but are always reaching out to welcome the stranger whom the Father is adding to the household.

“I was a stranger and you took me in.” (Matthew 25:35)
McKeever is pastor of First Baptist Church, Kenner, La., and a featured cartoonist on BP. Check out his cartoons at BP Life Lighter Side, www.bpnews.net/bpfun.asp?ID=JM.

    About the Author

  • Joe McKeever