The Director of Church Health for EFCA West writes a post at the national EFCA blog about dealing with first time guests at your church. This looks at the issues that are raised and gives some suggestions to help answer some of the questions. Plus I also share what I have learned as being an uninvited guest in many churches over the years.
“A cocktail done right can really show your guests that you care.”
“You don’t want to work so hard that you can’t enjoy your guests.”
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings,[a] favored woman! The Lord is with you!”
Luke 1:26-28 NLT
There is one topic that I find deeply fascinating and it goes back to many of my experiences in evangelical churches in California, Wisconsin, and the Washington, D.C. area. That is the topic of church culture. There are so many different dynamics to it that one can look at. It’s why I keep going back to that very subject in different forms. It’s deeply crucial for a church and one that can’t be overlooked and yet the fact of the matter is that many do.
In a large number of churches there is an obsession on how is the first time attender received? Is that person treated warmly? Are they made to feel welcome or are they ignored? Many evangelical churches have gone above and beyond to try and make a good first impression. If you doubt me consider how many churches give first time gifts. I have a growing collection of them based off the many services I have sat through and studied. The newest one was a nice thermos from a Harvest Bible Chapel (which is not EFCA by the way) on the East Coast. But the concern many churches have is in wanting to connect with the person. Honestly it’s a significant issue that needs to be considered. It’s with that in mind that today’s post from a person in EFCA West who is the Director of Church Health.
Bob Osborne attended Mt. San Antonio College where he earned a MA in Police Science. He then attended Azusa Pacific where he picked up a degree in religion and psychology. In time he obtained his Masters at Woodbury College in 2008. Bob proudly served in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for 38 years before retiring in 2012. Bob became the Director for Church Health in the EFCA West where he has served since 2013. Grace Church of Glendora in southern California is his church home. He has been involved in Grace for 41 years. Its been the last 30 that he has worked in different capacities at Grace from children’s ministry all the way to deacon and elder. He currently serves in an elder role. We are going to analyze a post that Bob authored. His post is called, “How Comfortable Are First-Time Guests at Your Church?” My comments below are going to be in red.
Have you ever found yourself in a place where you knew you did not belong?
I’m not referring to places where no Christ-follower should ever be. I’m also not referring to sitting in the field-level seats at a baseball game when you are ticketed two levels higher (a recent experience of mine that the rule-following gene in me didn’t like). What I’m referencing is finding yourself in a place where you’re allowed to be, but you know and feel that you don’t belong there.
What Bob is describing is a feeling I have gotten in some evangelical churches. Some places can be hard to process and difficult to be yourself. The reasons are multiple. In some cases there are cliques and in groups that keep people at a distance. In other cases it can also be denominational culture that is working against the church. What I mean by this is that some people stay inside a denomination and when they go to other churches that are just an extension of the denomination they don’t realize how the culture is viewed by outsiders. But I have had plenty of experiences that I felt like I didn’t belong in the place I am visiting.
In my previous job, I used to find myself at receptions and social gatherings from time to time where, upon arrival, it quickly became obvious that I knew no one there and that no one knew me. Yet, I “needed” to be there because of some kind of work requirement. These were awkward and unpleasant evenings.
When we think of our churches, I want to suggest that there are two types of guests we see—invited guests and uninvited guests—and that uninvited guests deserve special attention.
This is a good way to break this down. I have been both in different stages of life. I have been the invited guest and also the uninvited guest. For me at the time the invited guest is easier because you are attending with someone you know. This is how I got involved in Fresno Evangelical Free when I lived in Fresno in 1999. (Today called The Bridge Fresno) In other cases I have also been the uninvited guest and just shown up. That has been an experience as well.
Here’s how I define these terms. An invited guest is someone who has been invited to come by someone who attends the church. That person generally accompanies the guest during their visit. An uninvited guest is someone who just shows up or who may have been invited by someone, but no one accompanies them during their visit. They are not unwanted, but they are uninvited.
I have been the “uninvited guest” in many churches during the past five years of my work with the EFCA. Typically, I do not just drop in; someone knows I’m coming or has invited me, often to meet with their leaders after the service. I don’t show up carrying a big Bible, notebook or other display of church familiarity (I use my phone’s Bible app when I travel). I usually walk in and sit alone near the back. Typically, the churches I visit are “normal” sized churches, with between 60 and 150 people in attendance. Regular attendees have never seen me before; I’m sure people know I am a stranger. Yet, people hardly ever speak to me or engage me in conversation beyond a perfunctory “good morning” at the door while they hand me whatever paperwork they distribute there.
In writing and analyzing the EFCA and indeed other churches I like to sit in the back and observe. It’s fascinating to see how diverse the EFCA can be as you go from church to church and see the different culture, theology, styles and methods. I am not looking for special attention when I go to a place. I just want to watch and see how things play out. For me it’s important to get out and attend some of these places. It could be easy to hide behind a computer screen, but going in person can reveal quite a bit, and it’s a huge part of one’s education. After-all you can’t write a blog like this in a vacuum. I also like to observe how the congregation interacts with the pastor, staff and more. Now in contrast I have been to a number of churches were I have been welcomed or people come up to me. That happens quite frequently. I recently sat through a service at Clovis Evangelical Free and a few people have come up to me and introduced themselves. The smaller the church the more likely this is to occur. And to be honest I prefer smaller churches over mega churches. At mega churches this does not happen. In those circumstances you fade into a crowd, are lost and can come and go without anyone noticing.
I have heard horror stories involving uninvited guests clearly being deliberately un-invited by some gross and socially inept behaviors (such as guests being accosted by a long-term member for sitting in “their” seats or standing during the “greeting time” but having no one greet them). However, this has not been my experience in churches. Rather, what I experience and hear about are well-meaning church folk being inept, not unkind, in demonstrating hospitality and welcome.
My experience with being an uninvited guest varies and I will get into that below. But I have not experienced those kinds of horror stories. Perhaps in that way it is fortunate that has not personally occurred.
These experiences have changed the way I engage with uninvited guests at the church I attend. To my shame, I began doing this only in recent years, so I do not boast. Here are two of the changes: I have adopted the principles that (1) no guest should be ignored, and (2) no one should sit alone at church.
In groups, and the church is a group, the things we want to happen won’t happen unless we talk about them and create strategies to make plans of action into reality. If we want to be appropriately welcoming to uninvited guests, we need to talk about it. Here are some ideas to help start a conversation at your church.
- What is our strategy for identifying uninvited guests and making them feel welcome? What do we leaders do when we see someone we do not recognize? Here is the problem with the question you pose. Some people want to be made feel welcome. Others do not. In this case I would propose it’s not the churches fault nor is it the uninvited guest. The organization has to develop the acumen to judge each situation separately. Leadership of a church I propose should be trained in psychology and communication skills. So that in each situation they can respond accordingly.
- It is often said that people who drop into a church for the first time may want to hide and be anonymous. Why do we believe this? When you drop into a group, do you want to be ignored, or do you want someone to speak to you and be kind to you? It’s one thing to go to a party of social event and it’s another thing to go to a church. There are some evangelical churches that go into overkill in how they want to engage. I have also had situations where I am love bombed. You know what love bombing is right Bob? A million new friends in five minutes who act like they have always known you? Cults like organizations like Sovereign Grace have acted like that. Harvest Bible Chapel acted in such a way in Fairfax, Virginia. You can read about my experience with that organization here. Things that irritate me are the guest parking spot, asking first time attenders to wave their hand, sometimes being asked to stand and doing other socially awkward behaviors. If a church functions like that then yes I do want to be invisible. What I would recommend is treat people in a normal fashion.
- In your ministry context, what might be some ice-breaking conversation starters that church attenders could use to welcome guests? Here are some suggestions that can be used to break the ice. Are you new to the area? Where do you work? How do you like living in _________? Do you have any theological issues you would like to discuss? Do you need help in any way? Questions like those can go a long way if they are sincere.
- Are we prepared to welcome guests? What could we do to help guests feel welcome among us? What would likely scare them away? Here is one suggestion be patient with people when they show up. If they decide to get involved be patient with them. Have a liberal policy on dress. I remember one time in Wisconsin when I was a grad student I attended a Baptist church wearing a t-shirt and jeans. I was the only one dressed like that as everyone else was in a suit and tie. I felt the glaring eyes drilled into me by back as people stared. That was uncomfortable and that is why after a couple of services I left. This won’t be an issue in the EFCA but I was also involved in a Third Wave church in Wisconsin that was all about spiritual warfare. They actually sent the youth group to fight a demon in a convenience store. Sometimes in worship people had some manifestations of spiritual warfare. Reflecting back on thoseyears later is quite toxic. Granted that is an extreme example but something to stay away from.
- As leaders, how can we encourage our church family to choose to sit next to an uninvited guest? Certainly, we are called to be examples, but how can we influence the rest of the family to share the ministry of hospitality with uninvited guests? Love people for who they are. If you have an atheist who shows up would you make them welcome? What about a gay married couple then what would you do? Is your love going to be conditional upon the hope that whoever attends will hopefully get involved? Sometimes it’s hard to sit next to people we don’t know. I am sometimes nervous attending some of the places I have sat through. I am not Calvinist at all and to sit through some aggressive Neo-Calvinist services is not easy.
- When we see someone sitting alone (guest or regular attendee), do we assume that they want to be alone or think that, perhaps, they might be feeling isolated and want someone to be with them? How might we figure this out and ask accordingly? See the first bullet point about psychological and communications training. I think that could go a long way in this scenario.
- Have we ever asked an uninvited guest who comes back about their first visit and impressions? This is a really excellent point and something that should be considered. But here is a question I would propose to you. Would you be willing to take and receive difficult assessments? That second time could be the last time before a person decides to leave. They just wanted to be fair and try a place in a couple of services.
- Do we leaders ever go to a church where we don’t know anyone and were not invited just to experience what it is like to be an uninvited guest? If you have not, why not? If you have, what did you learn from that experience? In my opinion this is a really good idea. If pastors and church staff did this they could learn a few things. The one drawback they have to consider though is that they are in a different position. They are in leadership and perhaps may know the staff or pastor of where they are at. The uninvited guest will not have that luxury when they go to a church.
- What expectations do we have for those who greet people at the door or elsewhere before our services? How we have communicated those expectations, and what are we doing to ensure that they are being met? This is a good question but I would also say this. The problem with expectations is that it can give birth to unrealistic expectations. A church in my opinion should not follow a business model. People should be greeted with warmth and love and not have any expectations. Expectations bind people which are not good.
Why might an uninvited guest come to your church? He could be spiritually dead, in need of a Savior and looking for answers. She might be a new resident looking for a church home. He could be a broken and disheartened Christian leaving a toxic church environment. She could be consumer Christian looking for a new “happy place” in which to hang out for a while.
We won’t know until we intentionally ask. We won’t intentionally ask unless we plan to ask. And we won’t plan to ask if we don’t first talk about it. If we want our church family to be a warm, friendly, welcoming congregation, uninvited guests are something to talk about. Let’s have the conversation.
This is What Churches Should Be Considering
These are some suggestions that I propose that could help churches with uninvited guests. It’s my suggestion that many churches look at uninvited guests the wrong way. They often do not look at them as a person, but as a trophy or prize to be won. Part of this can come about due to the evangelical model. But I would state that it hurts the uninvited guest and the church. These are some ideas to contemplate.
- Ask people if they have a need? Are they okay financially, health wise or more. If a person needed help can the church offer to assist? It’s rare but man it would be beautiful if churches helped in that context.
- Ask people if they need prayer for anything. Then follow up with them and make sure you stay with them to they no longer need it. If they decide to not get involved they will at least maybe reconsider or develop a fresh and healthy perspective of church.
- Be willing and trained to discuss theological issues. Is your staff capable and willing to discuss the problem of evil, or the issues with creationism or other difficult topics? Can they engage and have a good strong conversation with people? You would honestly be surprised that many places cannot discuss these issues.
- Thank them for coming as they leave and remind them that they are always welcome. Don’t guilt them into coming back but share your gratefulness that they came. Kindness and love can move mountains and if Christianity is to work then Christians should conquer by love.
Painful Experiences I Learned
In my life I have had many painful situations that resulted in me looking at a few places with doubt or concern. When I was in a faith crisis I showed up at a few places asking pastors or staff if they could discuss the problem of evil. Many places could not engage or discuss the issues at hand. It was baffling for me to go to place after place and be met with strange stares or email churches for help and be met with silence. This experience in 2012 and 2013 was reinforced with a painful situation I found myself in. When I was trying to bounce back from the darkest season of my life I emailed about 250 to 300 evangelical churches in California, Wisconsin and Montana. I was asking for prayer and help. Out of those 250 to 300 churches do you want to know how many responded? It was only 2. You can read the story in, “A Lesson in How Many Evangelical Christians Do Not Care About Prayer.“ When a stranger reached out the response by the evangelical Christian church was absolutely damning. Responding and engaging people by email should also be done. Why have websites saying. “Email us your prayer need” if in the end you are ignored. But what happened next was deeply disturbing.
The next story deals with The Bridge Fresno which used to be my old church. I had my first Bible study, was baptized there years ago and called it home. This was in the 1999 and 2000 time-frame. Well fast forward over the years and I would occasionally visit for Christmas or when I was home. I was back in Fresno in March of 2017 to help my Mom dealing with what would be a terminal illness. I left my contact information at The Bridge Fresno and explained that my Mom was dealing with a serious illness in the hospital. Mom also was in the process as it turned out of dying. I left the contact information and what happened with The Bridge Fresno? It fell through the cracks. I was sitting in a funeral home planning a funeral with family when it hit me like a ton of bricks. The Bridge Fresno never reached out or did much of anything to my call for help. Now let me ask you this…what good is a church that doesn’t pray for the sick or help bury the dead? Why does The Bridge Fresno exist? In the following post I compare and contrast The Bridge Fresno with my parents Roman Catholic Church. You can read about that in, “The Bridge Fresno vs. Holy Spirit Catholic Church: Who was More Pastoral?” What makes this mistake worse? Its the fact that The Bridge Fresno can’t admit a mistake. Its one thing to be sorry you were caught vs. expressing remorse for dropping the ball. In the case of The Bridge Fresno they were more concerned about doing damage control then doing the right thing. That leads to another suggestion I have. If a church makes a mistake admit it. Don’t try and cover it up or ignore people. The Bridge Fresno because of this and many other issues needs to be closed. The key component to the Christian faith is humility and that is lacking at The Bridge Fresno. Well it’s my hope that this article will give Bob Osborne and EFCA West something to consider.