The quality of your welcome, your teaching ministry and your hospitality are all vital to church health.
Advice when you need it most is invaluable.
As a young pastor I was indebted to Stuart Olyott who presented me with three quality factors. He insisted that, if present, these three factors would normally lead to a growing church. They are: quality welcome, quality teaching and quality hospitality.
Let’s explore them one at a time (I’ll expand on quality teaching in another article in this series).
1. Quality Welcome
Now, not many churches would describe themselves as unwelcoming. But I have come across churches meeting in windowless buildings or behind locked gates without a noticeboard. Some churches seem to meet at times that only the exclusive few know about.
And let’s be honest. If our holiday experiences are anything to go by, they tell us that churches are not as friendly as they think they are. When we visit them it's as if we are passing trade and no one even says 'hello'. Such a welcome is a guaranteed 'no return' policy if ever there was one.
What about your own church? How welcoming is it really?
Studies point out that visitors can make their mind up about returning in the first seven minutes from arriving in your car park.1 That means some visitors hardly get through the first song before their decision is made.
So, have you thought about who welcomes, how they welcome, and where they welcome?
Often the welcome is at the door, but those standing there can easily be absorbed in talking to others they already know. Eye contact is perfunctory and guidance is minimal: hardly a warm welcome!
We can do it better if the welcome starts in the car park, and then think carefully about who we have on the door.
For several years now at Grace Community Church, we have put the main preacher on the door. His job is to give a warm welcome to all who come. If they are brand-new, when they see him at the front, they will have at least had some human contact with him and hopefully that has been a positive first impression.
It also means the preacher knows who is there, and he can alert other leaders to make a beeline for the new and needy after the service.
Then we have a team which provides all that is needed for the service: song sheets, Bibles, children's material, and advice on facilities such as crèche, toilets, and refreshments. At this point it’s worth remembering that men don’t want to be fussed over in a foyer, but feel more comfortable once they are seated.2
We also have a representative of our children's team on the door, looking out for new parents who especially need reassurance about how their children can be cared for.
People are then guided to seats, which is a delicate but important task. It ensures the building doesn't fill with old-timers sitting at the back and sides, with the new people sitting at the centre and the front.
The welcome doesn’t stop there. In fact, next comes a key role which needs careful scripting. It's this: all regular attendees need some training to give a friendly welcome that is not over the top. We teach that if you sit next to someone you don't know, make contact with them with a pleasant: "Hello, are you visiting today? It's lovely to have you with us."
If regular attendees spot some new people sitting together as a group, we encourage them before the service to go and say hello and ask if they need any further help. We teach everyone to help visitors by guiding them towards the refreshments at the end of a formal service. Many visitors feel nervous around refreshments if no one is talking to them or assisting them. This is also a good opportunity for a lengthier conversation.
The person leading the service can help with welcome too. Start with a: "May I give you a warm welcome to XX church, it's great to have you with us, especially if you are visiting today. My name is XX and I'm leading the service today." The leader should speak 'as if' new people are present.
Shaping the opening few sentences is all part of a quality welcome.
2. Quality Teaching
What about quality teaching? I think this is so important that I will just mention it now and devote another article to it.
There are obvious things it should be: Biblical, God-honouring, Christ-centred, and Spirit-filled. It also needs to be engaging not dull, applicatory and not a lecture, passionate but not wacky.
Stuart Olyott also gave me a challenge that was hugely helpful, and it was this: try to cover the whole Bible in 10 years of preaching. Now all of our circumstances are different; in a university city church with students who are there for just a few years, this approach might not help. But in a more settled situation this has proven to be really good advice.
To cover the whole counsel of God with a biblical balance is a significant achievement for a preacher and a church. More about that next time.
3. Quality Hospitality
This is not so much a gift for the few, but the duty and privilege of all believers (see 1 Peter 4:7-11 where he puts this, along with prayer and love, as a grace that all show, unlike different gifts which are distributed variously. Also see Hebrews 13:1, 2 where the same three graces appear, though in a different order).
This is a service to others that really can make a huge difference. Eating with someone cements 'welcome' like nothing else. If visitors have an invite back to a home, even if they can't make it, they’ll be really touched by it. For people moving into a new area and trying churches out, a hospitable invite to a home can take them from institutional attendance to feeling: 'we belong here'.
Sunday, of course, is a great day to practice hospitality, to both new people and old friends. But in the week: how about a coffee at a railway station on the way to work, or coffee at a local meet-up venue, or a visit to a fast food outlet at lunch time, or a meal before a home group?
Small churches can excel at this compared to the 'big boys'. They can more easily identify new people and give them a personal invite. Without being fanatical, set yourself a goal to make sure you always at least offer an invite for a meal before new people leave.
An enormous amount of Christian discipleship happens in homes in an informal way around mealtimes. Church leaders and mature Christians should excel at this grace, setting a pattern for all to follow (1 Tim 3:2; 5:10). In our highly pressurised, individualised, consumer culture, this kind of hospitality is a crucial building block to true community formation.
It is also key that new people are trained to develop this habit in their own lives. If there is failure to pass this on, over time you will end up with a dependency culture, where people always expect others to help them. But if it becomes an expected part of Christian discipleship, just as the Bible describes it, then it will be a practice that will lead to genuine church growth.
So any church leader who wants the church to grow into Christian maturity and see numerical growth, needs to develop a hospitality culture.
I am so indebted to these three quality indicators that were pointed out to me early in my leadership life. I was also encouraged because they are within the grasp of any church, not just the extraordinary ones. What a relief!
Is it worth you having an honest ‘quality audit’, and thinking how you may strengthen your welcome, teaching and hospitality?
1. Nelson Searcy and Jennifer Dykes Henson, Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church (Baker, 2008).
2. David Murrow, Why Men Hate Going to Church (Nelson, 2005).