Some people are trying to break into your church, pastor. Help them.

“And so, we built the walls.” –Nehemiah.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” — Robert Frost

A family I know has been having a difficult time getting into church. It’s not their name, but let’s call them the Carlson family.

Now, early on Mr. and Mrs. Carlson established themselves as not at all interested in spiritual things (for reasons that will become apparent). However, a favorite relative–we’ll call him Uncle Ted–who lived several states away, saw them as they were: two parents in critical need of the Lord and three precious children who would so enjoy the nurturing of a healthy church family.

One day, while visiting in their city, Uncle Ted walked down the street with the three Carlson children to a nearby Baptist church. Inside, they met the pastor and his associate. Uncle Ted told them about this young family living three blocks away who needed to be in church. The children were excited.

Later, from home, Uncle Ted wrote letters and emails to the ministers with more information on the Carlson family. He encouraged the church to reach out to these precious people living down the street.

Ted’s letters went unanswered and no one ever called at the Carlson home.

When the parents divorced and it came out that Mr. Carlson had been abusing the children in the worst way imaginable, he went to prison. Meanwhile, no church family was there to minister to them.

On another occasion during a visit, Uncle Ted brought the family to a church of a different denomination. The service was inspiring, the sermon excellent, and the members friendly. Uncle Ted hoped that this church would reach Mrs. Carlson and the little ones for the Lord.

The pastor did all he knew to reach them. Each time he called on the little broken family, he spoke of the importance of  being in church, being saved, getting baptized, and enrolling in Bible study. When he decided they were turning a deaf ear to him, in a note to Uncle Ted, the pastor wrote them off. He had done his best.

The failure here, Uncle Ted decided, was that the pastor mistakenly thought they were ripe fruit ready for the picking. Far from harvest-ready, however, the Carlsons were an unsown field. No church had ever ministered to them or loved them or welcomed them as they were, without making demands on them. Even the last pastor, who had been far more faithful than the first, had not been willing simply to love this sad little family unconditionally. When they were unwilling (and unable) to do what he asked, he wrote them off.

A few years later, Mrs. Carlson and the three children–now teenagers–relocated to another state. The oldest child, Stan, out of high school and holding a job, was determined to find a church for his mother and two sisters. And, he may have done so.

One day recently, Stan Carlson told Uncle Ted about the new church. “So far, we like everything about it. The pastor is friendly and his sermons are great. They have lots of activities and we love the music. This may be the church for our family.”

“But there’s one thing,” Stan said. “I’ve not figured a way to break into this church yet.”

What do you mean?

“Well, they have all these great activities, but we can’t figure out how to get in on them. I’ve sent letters and emails to the pastor and youth minister, but they’ve not answered.”

And that’s where we are at the moment.

Sorry, my friend, if you thought this was going to end with the Carlsons being welcomed into a loving, thriving Gospel church and everything ending well. That may happen. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Does it concern you that a high percentage of churches exist for themselves with little thought to the world around them they were sent to reach?

I’ve known of churches that lock the front door–and keep it locked, even on Sunday morning–because the members all know to enter from the parking lot which is in the rear.

I’ve known of churches that refused to erect a sign in front announcing the times of the Sunday services because doing so would detract from the appearance of the lawn.

I’ve known of pastors announcing from the pulpit that “the youth will meet tonight at Tommy’s” and “the ladies will meet next Wednesday morning with Elsie Mae.” Outsiders in the congregation are not stupid; they know they’ve just been told they would not be welcome at these events.

I know of churches that put no greeters outside their doors, erect no signs with directions for first-timers (where to park, the entrance to use, the location of the nursery), and make no attempt to identify and welcome newcomers.

When your church makes no effort to secure the names and addresses of first-time guests, you signal them that they are unwanted in this church.

When no contact is made with visitors following the service–to let them know how welcome they are, to see if they have questions, etc.–the silence is eloquent. They are not wanted. (When a friend said to me that “Tuesday night visitation doesn’t work any more,” I replied that the kind of contact we’re suggesting can be as simple as an e-mail or phone call.)

“Surely,” some readers will protest, “outsiders like the Carlsons are welcome in almost every congregation. The problem is the churches are just doing a poor job of presenting themselves and expressing their true convictions.”

Sorry. I’m not buying that.

When you lock the front door, when no greeters are present, no information is given, no welcome is extended, and no followup is done, are we to believe that this congregation really and truly does want people like the Carlsons in spite of all the evidence to the contrary? Highly unlikely.

The typical church, to our everlasting shame, wants outsiders to join so long as they do not require too much time or energy to assimilate into the life of the congregation.

They would like to have new members if they’re not too much trouble.

While we would be loathe to admit it, what we despise and dread with a horror is to be bothered by outsiders with glaring needs and obvious sins.

No wonder the pastor feels guilty extending the  gospel invitation Sunday after Sunday to the  same unresponsive crowd. The ones who need to hear the message have been gently turned away into the cold.

God help us.

Postscript. I hate to leave this subject without making a few suggestions on how to remedy this problem. However, every church is different and I suspect the suggestions could vary widely and run into the hundreds. So, I will offer one huge suggestion…

Ask an unchurched friend with a helpful spirit or a church-going friend in a nearby town to visit your worshp services in the role of what we sometimes call a “mystery shopper.”  You want him/her to put themselves in the place of a first-time visitor who is unchurched. As soon as the service ends, meet them at a nearby coffee shop and pick their brains on what they saw and did not see, what they needed and was not offered, how they were treated, every detail.

Then, call your leadership together and share the  results with them. Leave your friend’s name out of it.

You cannot do everything by next Sunday, but you can get started. God bless you as you do. After all, next Sunday, the Carlsons may be sitting in a pew in front of you, pastor. On behalf of all such needy souls, we pray you get this right.











10 thoughts on “Some people are trying to break into your church, pastor. Help them.

  1. Exactly, Exactly. I feel convicted by this and encouraged because the steps it takes to do better, while requiring sacrifice from a selfish life, are not out of reach.
    God will not sustain a Church that has the wrong purpose, even if it has the right Gospel. Sinners don’t owe us anything, we should be interested in them as human beings without expectation of some churchy pay off.

  2. You hit the nail on the head again, my brother. Keep up the good work. We had a family visit with us with his parents last Sunday. Terri Buffoon Alexander. She said that she grew up under your preaching. I had quoted you on the Connecticut school shooting.

  3. I am happy to report that I now belong to a church that:

    posts greeters in the parking lots and at every entrance to the building (of which there are many),

    has in every pew, and calls attention to registration books requesting attendance information from every person in attendance (not just the visitors) and encourages people to pass the book back to the other end of the row, check the names/statuses of the ones who signed,and to be sure to greet the visitors in their row and any around them they can spot. The pages on which people have registered are collected at the end of the service and all first-time visitors are contacted within 24 hours (not usually that long) and repeat visitors are contacted by telephone, e-mail or mail within a couple of days

    has a pastor who appears in the sanctuary as people begin to gather and greets with a hug and a huge smile everyone she can reach

    I know our church is far from perfect, but I think we really do want new people (even if they are “trouble” — recent “extra effort” people include a transient man who always came to services unwashed and with his pack on his back but was always greeted warmly {recently had a stroke in the morning service, was taken to the hospital, and subsequently placed in a nursing home because of the damage caused by the stroke and now being visited and cared for as if he had been a member for decades by staff & members of the church} and another who is a woman with very serious mental illness who frequently caused small disturbances in the service with which no one interfered and no one chastized her; she too was always greeted warmly; recently her illness has become so much worse that she is no longer “organized” enough to come to church

  4. I am always stunned when I hear that people attend a church and can come in, sit through a service, leave, and NO ONE speaks to them. If it’s not raining, we have greeters on the sidewalk outside the door. If it is raining, we have greeters WITH UMBRELLAS on the sidewalk outside the door. We want every visitor to know that they are loved and wanted here – even if they decide to attend at another church. This is a great message – one which every pastor and church leaders should read. Thanks for all you do.

    • I’m a big believer in umbrella-ministries, Woody. Those golf umbrellas really come in handy when you’re trying to shade several people at once. Thanks for this!

  5. I pastored a church for fifteen years that was like this. My son and I visited every weekend in a radius of five miles. I prayed with people, helped them in various ways, celebrated their anniversaries, birthdays etc. I visited them in jail and in the hospitals. The church had ten regular attendees. Some were never members but always attended. People would come to visit our church (a few times we had as many as 80 in attendance. But, they knew they were not welcome. Visitors finally stopped coming and members died until there were only three members. Two were in their 80’s and one a junior in high school. There were still fifteen attending every Sunday morning as they had for years. They never wanted to join the church or participate much beyond Sunday morning.
    The members always talked about the need to get people in the church. We had some special events but they always wanted to have them somewhere besides the church and sometimes didn’t want to put up a sign announcing anything. They just couldn’t understand why people weren’t coming to church and if they did why they never came back. They blamed former members and pastors from decades ago. They blamed Satan and “modern” churches. Never did they consider that they were their biggest problem.
    Except for the fact that they were Christians and sincere I often thought of what Jesus said in Matthew 23:13 “… You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces…”

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