I preached Sunday morning at the First Baptist Church of Belle Chasse. This good church is announcing that Pastor Sam Gentry of Ironton, Missouri, has received a unanimous call as their next pastor and will begin the first Sunday of July. They are so excited. The sign in front of the church said, “Welcome to new pastor Sam Gentry.” I wondered if anyone reading that would assume he was starting today. They did.
After the service I met a fine young couple who said they are church-looking and when they saw this congregation had a new pastor, decided to visit. “We’re glad we came,” the man said. “Your message was just for us.” I was happy to see a deacon’s wife greeting them and getting their contact information. The husband had said he and his wife were from different religious backgrounds and even though they’ve been married several years, they’re still trying to find common ground. I gently probed about their relationship to Christ, and got their address to send some information.
A young man stationed at the Belle Chasse Naval Air Station responded to the invitation to say he was not a Christian, but wanted to be. I enjoyed leading him in what we call the sinner’s prayer, inviting the Lord into his life and committing himself to Christ. The congregation burst into applause when he was presented at the conclusion of the service. A deacon told me later, “During Sunday School this morning, we made a special point to pray that people would be saved here today.”
“I’m not comfortable in church,” a young woman told me Saturday. “I’ve never found any church where I feel at home, like I belong there.”
I was sitting across the booth in a fast-food restaurant chatting with her and her fiance. She admitted to being a private person and fears well-meaning church workers smothering her with their attentions once she begins attending.
“Ask the Father about this in prayer,” I counseled her. We had just prayed together during which they asked the Lord Jesus into their hearts as their Lord and Savior. “He knows the church where you will fit right in. Let Him lead you.”
I could not help remembering a woman I met in the foyer of a large church I used to pastor. I had been laboring–fruitlessly, I felt–to make our people more conscious of first-time visitors in order to welcome them and see if they had any questions they could answer. All the books and magazine articles were emphasizing that growing churches train their members to find and welcome visitors. So, I walked over to the woman standing alone and introduced myself as the pastor. I spotted a couple of members nearby and introduced them, then made gentle inquiries as to who the woman was, where she was from, that sort of thing.
“I won’t be back,” she informed me. I was stunned at the abruptness of that announcement. “I don’t want to go to a church that smothers me like you are doing.”
Up to that moment, I was feeling pleased with myself for having spotted her in the foyer and matching her up with what could be a couple of new friends. And here she was rejecting what was nothing in the world except an attempt at friendliness.
These days, we are told that most first-time visitors to church services do not want to be singled out and recognized in any way, that they prize their anonymity and that ministers and others must adapt their aggressive “let’s roll out the red carpet for the visitors” approach.
What’s a church to do? About the time you get your people trained to seek out visitors and give them a warm welcome you’re told not to do that, that it drives visitors away.
My single observation here is that it drives some away, but it attracts others. There are still people who drop in on a church service and make decisions about its vitality by whether they are greeted and how enthusiastically. And the church that decides to respect the privacy of its visitors by cutting back on its warm greetings and effusive welcomes will also find some people rejecting it as cold and lifeless. It’s a Catch-22 situation.
It turns out that the young couple at Belle Chasse today are not the only ones searching for common ground. Churches are on the same quest, trying to discover how to welcome guests and make them feel at home while not repelling them by too-aggressive tactics.
One step some churches take is to set up a welcome center in the foyer with the friendliest and wisest people in the congregation working it. Put some great literature on the counter and train the workers in sensitivity training–sensitivity to both the visitor and to the Holy Spirit.
Greeters at the doors–almost always they should be on the outside so first-timers will know where to enter–can direct guests to the welcome center inside. Those protecting their privacy may choose to skip the center while others looking for fellowship will immediately head in that direction.
“Now, let’s all stand and greet one another,” the worship leader announces early in the typical Baptist service. For the next 3 or 4 minutes, members of the congregation mill around, laughing, greeting, hand-shaking, neck-hugging, backslapping. The choir begins the next chorus or hymn as the signal for everyone to return to their seats and the service goes forward.
Is that a good thing or not? The Lord knows. In some churches, the practice is as much a staple as the sermon and offering. In other churches, not.
“Ask the Father to lead you.” The counsel given to the young lady at McDonald’s may be the last word on this subject. Humanly speaking, there seems to be no one answer for all the churches. They are as unalike as the Lord’s children.
Fortunately, we have a Father who knows the right way.