If you will watch the front door of your church and faith fully follow up every visitor, your church will grow." This sage counsel, drilled into us by one conference president at every workers' meeting, has proved to be the best advice I ever received in my ministry.
One Sabbath morning in a small church in Provo, Utah, I looked up from my sermon notes and noticed that a visitor had slipped in quietly. A few minutes later I again looked up and found that the unobtrusive visitor was gone.
Following the service, I consulted with our hostess. She had secured the needed information from our five-minute guest: his name, address, and that he was a student at Brigham Young University.
That very afternoon an Adventist BYU student and I visited our guest. The young man, on his way to an appointment with one of his professors, had noticed the cars in our parking lot, and out of curiosity stepped in for a few minutes. Within two years of that visit we baptized him, his wife, and seven of his friends.
Of course, not every visitor is a potential baptism. But one of the most significant factors in the growth of churches I have pastored in the past 18 years has been the commitment of members to watch the front door and minister to our guests.
The undergirding assumption of guest ministry is this: there are no chance visits to our worship services. Every time a visitor enters our church, a siren should turn on in our minds, alerting us that God is at work. God may be writing a new chapter in the life story of our guest, and He may be inviting us to contribute. When we discover that story and participate in it in appropriate ways, we experience the adventure of guest ministry.
Guest ministry seeks to make visitors feel as welcome and at home as possible when they visit our churches. But it reaches beyond the worship service. Comprehensive guest ministry consists of the following six basic components.
1. Guest ministry begins in the parking lot, with several spaces close to the front door reserved for visitor parking. I have found that occasional reminders in the church newsletter or the announcement period at church will usually result in members voluntarily leaving some close parking spaces available for visitors. Visitors often come for the worship service well after our own members have arrived. When visitors drive into a crowded parking lot and locate available spaces near the front door, it sends an important signal that our church cares about their convenience.
2. Guest ministry welcomes warmly. One or two members with the gift of making people feel welcome should be stationed at each door a visitor might enter. (I join the official greeters at the front door myself until my pastor's community Bible class begins.) The greeters welcome all worshipers, provide bulletins, and direct visitors to the guest reception desk. The hostess there invites the visitor to fill out a guest registration card (name, address, phone number, church affiliation). She provides information regarding the location of restrooms, the pastor's community Bible class, and children's Sabbath school divisions. She gives out any printed material available about our church and its program. Finally she invites the visitor to the fellowship meal.
But the greeting of visitors should not be left exclusively to the official greeters. We encourage all our members to seek out visitors sometime during the morning, welcoming and thanking them for their visit.
3. Guest ministry structures worship to be user-friendly. It forces us to ask the following kinds of questions: Does the bulletin make clear to our visitors what is happening at each transition point in our worship service? Do we announce from the front when to stand or sit, and clarify anything else about our service that may not be clear from the bulletin? Is any part of our worship service potentially embarrassing for visitors, such as asking them to stand while their names are read from the front?
Ideally a church member sitting near visitors would greet them and make them feel welcome and comfortable in the church. As the service progresses, the member could explain anything that is unclear.
4. Guest ministry offers a fellowship meal for visitors. Not every visitor will take advantage of the offer, but the gesture itself demonstrates a caring commitment. In large churches volunteers can sign up in teams to provide the meal each Sabbath on a rotation schedule. Some smaller churches can do the same once or twice a month, with private homes open on the alternate Sabbaths. Such meals provide a relaxed atmosphere for getting to know visitors on a more personal basis. Churches I have pastored have gained many members through the warmth and friendship fostered at the Sabbath fellowship meals.
5. Guest ministry aims toward a personal visit. All first-time visitors should be visited in their homes within a week of their appearance at the church. This home visit is an essential component of comprehensive guest ministry. It seizes the opportunity to make new friends and perhaps lifelong members of our church. Two-member teams are ideal for making these visits, but one can do the job where teams are not available.
The primary purpose of the initial visit is to hear the personal stories of our guests. The warm-up conversation dis covers how long our guests have lived in the area, where they grew up, and where they may have recently moved from. We also seek to learn something about their families and occupations. Then I like to lead into their story with the following transitional statement: "I'm sure there's a story behind your visit to our church, and I'm one who likes to hear stories." Then I wait quietly for their reply.
As we listen to their story, we are ushered into the special, sacred world they live in. Every life experience contains its own special treasure. Appropriate and sensitive questions asked about things they share with us show our inter est in their world. But we take care not to pry into their private lives or encourage explicit confessions that could cause them an embarrassment later. It is very important to remain nonjudgmental about any thing they share. If they sense that we accept them just as they are, they will often respond by sharing more of their story with us. This is the way to form lasting friendship bonds for our church.
After hearing their story, we may have an opportunity to share our own testimonies of how our hearts were drawn to Jesus and His church. I especially try to share some specific ways that our local church has enriched and blessed my life. I want them to know that my involvement in our church has made a significant difference in my life, and that I am enthused about our church. Nothing sells like satisfied customers, and nothing makes a church more attractive than members whose lives are noticeably blessed by it.
6. Guest ministry plans for appropriate follow-up ministry. If visitors are new to the community, you may offer to help them locate local shopping and recreation areas. If they are nonmembers or new members, they may be candidates for Bible studies. Perhaps there may be a felt need that your church could help meet. Some visitors may require no fol low-up at all other than an invitation for them to visit again in the near future. In the case of others, it may mean just keeping in touch.
Training guest ministry teams need not be a lengthy or complicated process. Two- to four-day workshops are avail able to train members at a highly sophisticated level to do home visitation. Such in-depth workshops have their place for specialized visitation of inactive members, but they are not essential for guest ministry visiting teams to be effective. Sometimes these long workshops can even result in overkill for the skill level needed for visiting our guests, and can lead some very well-qualified members to an erroneous conclusion that visiting church guests would be too complicated for them.
I conduct two training sessions for our guest ministry teams, one for our greeters and guest reception desk hostesses, and another for the home visitation teams. Each session lasts from 60 to 90 minutes and consists simply of a presentation of the principles of guest ministry, as out lined in this article and adapted to the local situation, plus some role-playing. The latter demonstrates the practical application of the principles and allows the greeters and visiting teams to experience the feelings of our guests.
Guest ministry to Adventist visitors
Some churches follow up non-Adventist visitors but neglect those visitors who identify themselves as Adventists. Such a practice inhibits growth.
This tendency to place a higher priority on non-Adventist visitors was advocated in a church growth seminar I at tended some time ago. To illustrate the superiority of kingdom growth from new baptisms over growth that results from member transfers from one church to another, the speaker took a quarter from one of his pockets, transferred it to his other pocket, then asked rhetorically how much richer he had become. He then asserted that transfer growth is likewise illusory, for it fails to enlarge the kingdom of God. For him, nonmember accessions were more important to the kingdom of God than transfer accessions. But this line of reasoning makes one fatal assumption: namely, that every time a quarter leaves one pocket, it automatically ends up in a neighboring pocket. The reality is, quarters do get dropped and lost forever on the way from one pocket to the other. Unfortunately, this also happens all too often with church members in the transferring process. Growth from transfers should never be taken for granted or discounted. Transfer growth is good growth.
Adventists active in their former churches may become inactive after just a few visits to a church in a new community. This is especially true when the move to a new community removes them from the church where they were baptized in, and where they had all their friends. If the new church is significantly different from the one they were used to (and often that is so), it may not even seem like an Adventist church to them. Such persons are high-risk candidates for becoming a lost quarter in the transfer ring process, unless they are carefully and sensitively nurtured.
On the other hand, a geographical move may result in a narrow window of new spiritual openness. A move from one community to another is often associated with other major changes in a person's life—changes in family status, occupation, friendships, church attendance patterns, and even church affiliation.
Another good reason to extend guest ministry to former Adventists is almost a sentimental sense of loss they feel in their separation from former friends and family in the old church base. This nostalgic sense of separation from "family" ties drives many to visit an Adventist church in a new community. If that single visit is followed up by a trained, caring visiting team from the church, many former members could possibly be reclaimed. I have seen that happen again and again.
If a guest identifies himself or herself as a member of a nearby Adventist church, should that person be exempted from guest ministry outreach? I used to think so. But I have discovered that some visitors who so identify themselves haven't been attending their home church for some time, and may be making one last try at finding a compatible congregation before dropping out altogether.
Guest ministry considers every local visitor important, Adventist and non-Adventist alike. One of our visiting teams in Salt Lake City called on the home of a guest who identified himself as an Adventist. As they listened to his story they found that he had lived in that very community from birth but had fallen away from the church and God years ago. A traumatic personal crisis drove him to make things right with God. He introduced our visiting team to his wife, a member of the Church of Christ. Before long both started taking Bible studies. They were eventually baptized, and soon afterwards they led out in the spawning of a new Adventist church in their community, a church that is still thriving.
Guest ministry principles are simple. Guest ministry training is simple. Guest ministry really works!