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Greeting newcomers and visitors is a continuing ministry for most congregations. Here's how three churches structure their informal contacts with first-timers.
1. At First Church of God, San Diego, California, gift certificates from a popular ice cream parlor encourage newcomers to join the Sunday evening singles group for an after-meeting treat. Pastor Terry Fisher also encloses the gift certificates in personal letters written to other visitors.
2. Each Sunday Noel Memorial United Methodist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana, greets twenty to fifty visitors from all over the city. Within 48 hours someone from the church will deliver a batch of homemade cookies to those visitors' homes.
The church's membership list is computer sorted by Zip Code. Each Monday evening Associate Minister Scott Adams and one volunteer take the visitor list from the previous day and locate church members living in the same Zip Code areas as the visitors. One of those members is asked to deliver cookies, so the goodies arrive in the hand of a neighbor who attends Noel.
A side benefit has been the opportunity to contact inactive members. "This nonthreatening call gives inactives a chance to be involved in the church once again," says Adams, who finds very few members, active or inactive, saying no to the request to deliver cookies.
3. After the sermon at North Highlands Bible Church in Dallas, while the congregation sings a hymn and the offering is taken, visitors are invited to follow Pastor Dennis Eenigenburg out the door to a reception area for refreshments and getting acquainted. Elders, greeters, visitors, and their family members leave with the pastor.
At the reception the pastor greets visitors, tells them about the church, and invites them to Discovery I, a weekly class held during the 11 A.M. worship service. The class runs continuously on a four-week cycle, and leadership is alternated among church elders.
Visitors are also invited to Discovery II, an eight-week small-group orientation class led on Wednesday evenings by the pastor and his wife. Thus it is possible for a first-time visitor to make a comfortable transition through these Discovery groups to a decision about further participation in the church.
Each of these churches displays an intentional, but informal, method of responding to visitors. Reaching out with warmth is not left to chance.
Most church members intend to send notes to friends who are ill or missing from church events, but good intentions aren't enough. First Presbyterian Church of Sherman Oaks, California, has a system for making sure those with special needs are remembered.
In the patio area of the church, a deacon sets up a table each Sunday with a sign that says, "Intensive Care Center." There are greeting cards expressing sympathy, get-well cards, missing-you cards, and thinking-of-you cards. These are provided for members of the congregation to send to friends who may not be present for worship that day.
In his announcements, Pastor Don Maddox mentions particular persons who are ill or shut-in and invites everyone to stop by the ICC and sign an appropriate card. The deacons then address the cards and mail them the same day. The person remembered may thus receive a card with the signatures of 20 to 40 friends. Calls of thanks to the church office prove how much these cards are appreciated.
Persuading church members to make cold calls in the church's neighborhood is usually hard to impossible. People going from house to house knocking on doors are received with suspicion, if at all.
Veteran church planters David and Barbara Cross, most recently in Perth, Australia, have found an effective way to reach the neighborhood with information about their churches.
"During the first two years of each church's existence, more than half the visitors came because of the door-to-door literature drops we made every three or four months."
Following the example of political parties and utility companies, the Crosses prepare plastic bags to be hung on doorknobs by volunteers. The material in the bag includes information about the church, an invitation to visit, and a list of activities with telephone numbers for further information. Periodically they drop off a newspaper, Living Water, which contains announcements of church activities, articles about improving family life, recipes, and Bible studies on the plan of salvation. They feel that if the newspaper includes several resources, it has a better chance of being kept for future reference.
Frequently visitors arrive at the church with some of the literature in hand asking, "Is this the church?"
The Crosses find that literature drops make the church more visible, are cheaper than mail, and reach people who are reluctant to open the door to a stranger.
Reported by Muriel Larson
Greenville, South Carolina
How can a pastor let persons know they are recognized and cared for as individuals? During his eight years as pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Robert Nienhuis found that a birthday letter is one simple way to do this.
He asked his secretary to prepare a note card for each day of the year listing the names and year of birth for members whose birthday fell on that day. Pastor Nienhuis wrote a three paragraph letter. The first and third paragraphs were the same for every member. The second paragraph was personal. Each week he dictated the middle paragraph for the letters going out the following week. The secretary then prepared the letters and mailed them in time to arrive on the day of celebration.
The second paragraph of the letter was used in several ways. "I expressed appreciation to longtime faithful volunteers, or I congratulated a member who had recently received an award or other public recognition. Even a gentle rebuke, when done carefully, had a powerful impact. Sometimes the letter invited further communication from someone I hadn't seen in church for a while," said Nienhuis.
When he knew he would be away from the office, he simply dictated the letters ahead of time. They were typed and signed, ready to mail at the proper time.
Eventually Pastor Nienhuis resigned his pastorate to pursue doctoral studies. At the farewell reception, the most frequently voiced comment was how much members would miss his personal letters. Several indicated they had saved all their letters, and one woman said that on her birthday, she always drove home during her lunch hour just to get her birthday letter.
"The goodwill those letters generated was invaluable in allowing us to initiate new ministries with a minimum of delay, and it produced a forgiving spirit when I made a bad decision," says Pastor Nienhuis. "We went from being a pastor and congregation to being friends."
Other recipients who might appreciate a letter: parents of children entering school for the first time, 16-year-olds receiving their first driver's license, people celebrating the anniversary of baptism, and parents during the week their nest first becomes empty.
Every growing congregation faces the constant need for new lay leadership and teachers for Sunday school.
Pastor David Macfarlane of Islington Evangel Centre in Etocicoke, Ontario, came up with an idea that made the congregation aware of the effectiveness of the Christian education program, created enthusiasm in the teachers, and motivated volunteers to get involved.
While watching a television newscast where a minicam photographed action from Beirut, Macfarlane thought, Why couldn't we report to the congregation in the same way-live. Why can't we show Sunday school in action?
The idea became reality when one of the church members found he could borrow television equipment from his company: a camera, a cable long enough to reach down the hall to all the classrooms, and an amplified microphone. The church already owned a television projector and eight-foot screen, which were installed in the sanctuary for this occasion.
"We advertised the event as widely as possible, and because it was a new thing, it created a lot of curiosity. On the day Sunday school was to be televised, the church was packed with people who did not regularly attend," says Macfarlane. "This alone was worth doing the event."
After worship was opened in the usual way, the Sunday school program was introduced and the sanctuary darkened. Then the pastor's picture came on the screen. He began by interviewing the Sunday school superintendent about how many people attend Sunday school and the number of teachers who volunteer.
Followed by the camera, the pastor entered each classroom in turn, interviewing teachers and children. Some of the kids' comments were hilarious, some profound, and others touching. Some told about asking Jesus into their lives.
The ten-minute live telecast closed with another shot of the superintendent, who spoke about how the congregation could help in the future: encourage teachers, volunteer, get children there on time. He also mentioned some future events in the Sunday school department, giving Pastor Macfarlane time to return to the pulpit.
This brief report gave a glimpse of Sunday school to adults who were unaware of the extent of the church's ministry. The children had the opportunity to invite neighbors and relatives who came to see them on TV, and the teachers had an opportunity to tell the congregation how rewarding their ministry is.
The church has presented a live Sunday school report three times and will continue to do it once a year. "Other churches might have to rent equipment to duplicate this event, but we think the benefits make it worth the investment," says Macfarlane. A less expensive version could be produced using a personal video camera to make a tape for presentation to the congregation. Then the children could see themselves in Sunday school.
An unexpected benefit for Macfarlane was this comment from one person in the congregation: "When we saw the pastor interviewing the children, we realized how much he cares for our kids."
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