I’M VISITING YOUR CHURCH THIS SUNDAY
Written by Jason Elliott on February 16, 2013
The Not So Fictional Visitor
Meet John. John is not a Christian. Actually, John is extremely skeptical to anything dealing with religion. John has only had three experiences with the church.
His first experience was a middle school lock-in—an event where a bunch of junior-high kids play games, sing songs, and sleep on the floor in the same room with dozens of total strangers. (John thought it was awkward, too.) The only reason John even agreed to go was the free pizza and iPod giveaway.
Despite his experience at the lock-in, John agreed to visit his friend’s church a second time for a Wednesday night service targeted especially at teenagers. After hearing a message from the speaker, John had several questions about what he said. Unfortunately, the youth group leader dismissed them as being insignificant or irrelevant. (The real problem was that he didn’t know the answers and wasn’t humble enough to say so.)
John’s last experience with a church was during his college years. A girl he was interested in had invited him to visit her church on Sunday morning. John went, but mostly because he wanted her to like him. It was an election year, so the pastor’s sermon was especially pointed. As far as John could tell, it seemed like everyone there believed that Jesus was a Republican politician.
Just imagine the negative impact these experiences had on John’s view of the church. As far John is concerned, all churches and all Christians are the same: mostly white, middle-class Americans who play games when they’re young and talk about Republican politics when they grow older.
John is fictional, but stories similar to his aren’t. People like John visit our churches every week. So, how should we respond when John arrives on Sunday? It may be helpful to start with a few things that we shouldn’t do:
What Not to Do When Greeting John
1 – Don’t overwhelm John with insider talk: As someone who hasn’t grown up around church, John doesn’t understand what it means to “walk with the Lord.” He also has no clue what you mean by “justification,” “sanctification,” and “glorification.” He doesn’t understand what you mean by “picking up your cross” or “dying to self.” If all your conversation is filled with religious jargon, John will probably not understand what you are saying. Worse still, you’ve just communicated to John that you don’t care enough about him to speak in a way that includes him. You were talking at John, not with John.
2 – Don’t feel the need to point out that John is a first time guest: For the most part, people don’t like to be embarrassed. So don’t ask John to stand up or raise his hand so that people can see that he’s visiting for the first time. Also, if you meet John in the building’s lobby or foyer, don’t introduce him to everyone you know. How would you like to meet 30 people in 90 seconds? That’s completely overwhelming. It’s fine to help John meet a couple of people, but don’t set up a receiving line.
3 – Don’t give John the new person stare: While it may be natural to notice new visitors on Sunday mornings, gawking at them definitely doesn’t create a welcoming environment. Instead of staring, make sure you introduce yourself in a natural manner. You know, like you’d do everywhere else.
4 – Don’t be shocked if John uses strong language: John may “swear” or “curse,” or even drop the F-bomb in normal conversation. That shocked look on your face suggests that you are smug and self-righteous. If you seem more interested in correcting John’s language rather than listening to him, he will completely miss the point of the gospel—which isn’t about “cleaning people up” so they can meet Jesus. Rather, it’s about introducing people to the Jesus who heals, restores, cleanses, and renews. Oh, and you can forget about John coming back to your church. Who’d want to be part of a self-righteous group of people?
5 – Don’t pressure John to immediately make a decision: Everyone dislikes the pushy car salesman. It’s obvious that he is more interested in what you can do for him than what he can do for you. Don’t be like that. Instead of pushing John to make a decision about following Jesus or about joining your church, be patient, understanding, charitable, and kind—just as God is with you.
So what should we do when people like John visit our churches?
How to Welcome John like Jesus Would
1 – Be genuinely interest in John: If there is one thing people can tell, it’s if you really care about what they are saying. Make eye contact. Resist the urge to think about what you want to say next and pay careful attention what John is saying. Don’t worry if your best friend just arrived. Remember, you have six other days in the week to spend time with people you already know. Utilize Sunday mornings to get to know new people like John.
2 – Be ready to answer some of John’s questions: Remember, people like John have very limited experience with church. Some of them may have been burned in the past because no one took their doubts and questions seriously. If you meet John after the service, be willing to stick around for a while and dialogue if he has a question. Most importantly, be honest. If you don’t know an answer, tell John that you don’t know but that you will work to find an answer to his question. This also gives you an opportunity to meet with John again as you continue to get to know him.
3 – Use people skills and make John feel welcomed: This may seem elementary, but we sometimes need a reminder to simply be friendly to new people. Smiling, saying hello, and helping John find his way around the facilities will go a long way. If we are honest, we can admit that we are prone to stay in our comfort zones when it comes to meeting new people. When people like John come on Sunday and no one says hello to him, he will walk away and accuse the church of being smug and cliquish. (Which, after all, it may be.) But we ought not be that way. We need to continually develop deep, meaningful relationships—not only with those we already know, but also with those whom God brings into our churches for the first time. Try to designate the time before and after the Sunday morning gathering to meet new people. Make it a goal to meet three new people every Sunday. Smile, say hello, introduce yourself, and ask John if he’d like a cup of coffee.
While the suggestions listed above may appear to be overly simple and even obvious, they will go a long way in making John feel welcomed when he visits your church on Sunday. Remember, people like John walk through the door every Sunday morning. Don’t create a stumbling block for the gospel by neglecting to welcome John. You never know, John may become a close friend and God could use you in an instrumental way to see John trust Jesus as Savior and King. But even if that doesn’t happen, John is someone whom God has brought across your path to serve as Jesus would.
Jason Elliott is the Pastor for Community Groups at Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he oversees the spiritual growth of their small groups (Community Groups) and the training and development of group leaders. Other than being a Duke sports fan, Jason is a really swell guy. Follow him on Twitter @jasonkelliott.