The Velcro Church

Newcomers don't come with Velcro already applied. It's up to the congregation to make them stick.

But that's easier said than done. Experience shows that not everyone who attends church once wants to return.

A variety of visitors arrive at our church doorstep: disgruntled church hoppers, seekers who want spiritual or material help, newcomers to town, recent converts, and spiritual prodigals returning to God. Each comes with a different set of fears and expectations. All must be handled carefully if they will come back a second time.

At times, church insiders fail to realize how intimidated newcomers feel when attending church. Insiders, familiar with the traditions, the rubrics of worship, the machinery of church programs, and even the layout of their facilities, tend to forget that outsiders view these efficient functions as intimidating barriers to becoming part of an unfamiliar church.

It's a Big Job

A study by the White House Office of Consumer Affairs indicates that 96 percent of dissatisfied business customers never take their complaints to the offending company. In other words, for every complaint a company hears, twenty-four complaints are never received. The study's most frustrating finding, however, is that each of those dissatisfied customers will tell an average of ten friends about the problem. People who attend church aren't much different.

I know the reasons some people stick with our church. Those who have stayed tell me about the friendliness, the opportunities for ministry, and the sense of God's presence in the services. But how do we find out why others never return, those who are conceivably the worst advertisements for our church in the community?

Churches' track records in getting first-timers back for a second visit aren't good. One pastor of a church that works meticulously to follow up visitors, who even has a secretary assigned to help integrate newcomers, says perhaps 2 to 3 percent of first-timers ever return. Most of us think we're doing better than that, but we probably aren't.

It's hard to define a successful rate of assimilation. The apostle Paul didn't keep everyone. Some who heard him came back only to throw stones. We need to accept without rancor the fact that not all will consider our church worth joining. That's only realistic. But I don't want to be the cause of someone's not returning. Although we'll never meet everyone's needs, we can work to make newcomers feel welcome and to arouse social and spiritual appetites that make them want to return.

Our family has attended many kinds of churches while on vacation. In the car after a service, I've frequently asked, "If we lived nearby, would you want to go back to that church?" I've heard mixed responses. When I've asked why, these were some of the replies:

"Everyone seemed so happy."

"Unfriendly."

"No sense of God's presence."

"The place was alive. Everyone was involved."

"I didn't know the words to the music."

"No one showed us where to go."

"The preacher was cold."

"The preacher told some great stories."

"I felt like everyone was looking at us."

Looking back at scores of churches I've visited, I've classified three broad factors that determine a newcomer's willingness to return. In management terms, they are "the critical success factors": obstacles, atmosphere, and structure.

Obstacles to Assimilation

A church's composition, history, or philosophy of ministry can throw up a wall newcomers have a difficult time scaling. Here are some of the situations a congregation may face that can place barriers before newcomers.

Large family networks. In our church, three family circles with a chain of relationships connect more than 175 people. These networks have their own social gatherings in which outsiders aren't included. The Thanksgiving dinner table has little space for strangers. The families enjoy built-in care. News about needs spreads internally, apart from the church. Relatives often are so busy taking care of family needs, little time remains to consider the needs of outsiders. Such networks can be deadly to our ideal of assimilating newcomers.

We've done two things to deal with this issue. First, we tactfully alerted members of these families to the potential problems, challenging them to take care to include outsiders in some of their social gatherings. Second, we've outgrown the family circles with new growth, so they no longer dominate our fellowship.

Existing friendships. The fellowship of churches known for friendliness and care sometimes can be difficult to crack. If the energy of the congregation is given to caring for existing members rather than identifying the needs of newcomers, love becomes ingrown.

Even pulpit statements about friendliness can irritate newcomers. I remember visiting one church and hearing the pastor talk about their friendliness. The church was friendly. I watched people in animated conversations with their friends, but the whole time, I sat alone on the pew, feeling like an ice cube. No one talked with me. The pastor's comments and the excited conversations around me only accentuated the fact I was an outsider. A time for greeting newcomers would have structured a way for that church to share warmth beyond already-established circles.

Facilities. The design of church buildings, especially poor layout of the foyer and other entrances, can be an obstacle to a newcomer's welcome. In some churches even finding the sanctuary is a challenge. No signs direct you to entrances, the nursery, or rest rooms. Such inconsideration makes newcomers uncomfortable. Indirectly, but forcefully, the church is saying to visitors, "We weren't expecting you."

Facilities, however, can communicate friendliness and warmth. In order to create a feeling of intimacy in a large, old building, one small congregation removed the pews, placed padded chairs in a cozy arrangement, and brought the platform closer to the congregation. These people knew a small congregation in a large room makes newcomers feel uncomfortable, so they contrived an intimate atmosphere, even in a cavernous space.

People respond to crowded facilities in a variety of ways. Some outsiders interpret a full sanctuary as a good sign. They think, Something's happening here, and I want to be a part of it! Others see it as an indication there's no room for them so they aren't needed. Researchers believe a congregation generally won't grow above 85 percent of the sanctuary seating capacity. Unless the church is a going concern in a generally lackluster spiritual community, a packed sanctuary communicates, "We don't care to make room for you."

A church's history. Some congregations seem more interested in the past than in the future. Sermon illustrations and announcements constantly refer to past events and cherished traditions. Continual references to names of former members and leaders are meaningless to outsiders and say the church is more interested in its past heroes than in newcomers.

Even excessive denominationalism can hinder assimilation. People seeking help today don't go to a church because it belongs to a historic denomination. They go because they believe they will receive help. One researcher discovered that of Christians moving from one city to another, 50 percent switched denominations. The shopping mall mentality toward church attendance means people "go where the action is," regardless of denominational affiliation. Transfers aren't assured.

What people seek is a refreshing alternative to the world outside. Few return for a second visit because a denominational flag has been waved; they come back because they experienced God's presence and the acceptance of God's people.

Special events. Some folk fail to stick because the event that first attracted them is not part of the church's regular diet. For example, a guest musician may pull in a crowd, but the crowd he attracts comes with taste buds for a certain type of music. If the church doesn't deliver that type of ministry on a regular basis, the person feels hungry.

Generally, people expect as a norm the kind of ministry that first attracted them to a church. This, of course, is one of the major problems in integrating new converts who've come through TV and radio ministries. Normal church life doesn't match expectations caused by the media ministry. People attracted to a church by special events likely will stick only if the kind of ministry that first attracted them is sustained-a difficult undertaking.

Philosophy of ministry. If the pastor or congregation believes church life is generated from the platform on Sunday morning, integration means getting as many people into the sanctuary for Sunday mornings as possible. In such situations, allegiance tends toward the pastor and not the congregation. Both strong pulpiteers and flamboyant personalities can build a following, but they may be only attracting a crowd, not assimilating members into a church body.

If, however, a church's ministry emphasizes interaction among members and shared ministry, integration means providing facilities and programs for people to build friendships and to become involved in service. Church life is what happens among members, as well as in the public worship service.

A woman was converted and started attending our services regularly. Her husband drove her to church each week and picked her up afterward. The first time he attended a service at our church, he said, "You people are so different. Church is something you do together. In my church, I go to Mass as a stranger. I can be a good church member and not know anyone else in the parish, let alone talk to anyone. You can't do that in your church!"

Ministry of the body is as important as ministry on the platform, not only for nurturing the saints but also for assimilating new members.

A reputation of tension. Newcomers quickly pick up strife between members. Animosity is a poor advertisement, because newcomers want no part of a church torn by dissension.

A while back I was called to mediate a church fight in a divided congregation. A visitor from that community who had attended just one service told me about his icy reception and how both sides viewed him suspiciously. During the following week he was visited by members of both sides in the dispute, each trying to recruit him to their side. Naturally, he never went back.

The answer, of course, is an emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation. A torn church cannot weave in new members. Until strife becomes the exception rather than the way of life, the church cannot expect to attract and hold new members.

Confusing service styles. Visitors often feel uneasy when they first attend church. They're on strange turf. Much of what we do in our services, though familiar to members, is intimidating to visitors. An expressive worship style frightens someone who doesn't understand; a highly liturgical service loses the uninitiated. Choruses sung from memory exclude newcomers.

Our Sunday morning service includes the reading of Scripture. While most of our people bring their Bibles, visitors often don't. Therefore, we print the Scripture passage in the bulletin so outsiders aren't excluded. (It also solves the "Which translation?" issue.)

Offerings may make visitors suspect the church only wants money. So, during the offering at special events that draw a significant number of outsiders, I usually say, "If you are a visitor, you're our guest, and there's no obligation for you to participate in the offering. However, this is one way the people of our congregation express their worship to God."

Even during our recent building program, I said little about money from the pulpit. Our special appeals were made primarily through mailed literature. Many people new to our church have commented on how they were initially impressed by our financial discretion.

Class and cultural distinctions. There are rich and poor people. There are retirement communities, university communities, and working-class communities. There are farm towns, inner-city ghettos, and suburbs. People aren't all the same. Even if they speak English, they don't all talk the same language. And while those differences shouldn't affect how people interact, they do make a difference in how comfortable outsiders feel when they come into a church.

Some churches try to be all things to all people. But most churches have difficulty providing an environment in which everyone feels comfortable. Usually one social culture dominates.

The solution is to sensitize insiders, gently and consistently, to the need to make everyone welcome, while recognizing that a church's growth likely will reflect its cultural and social composition.

Poor attitudes. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to newcomers' integration is the attitude of insiders. Not everyone is as blunt as one person who told me, "Pastor, our church is big enough. We really don't need any more folk in our church!"

Negative attitudes toward outsiders come from many quarters. Church power brokers, fearing a threat to their power base, may resist newcomers. Existing members can resent the financial cost of providing space and staff to care for the needs of newcomers. Church pioneers can withdraw emotional support from the church. No matter how strong the appeal from the leadership, such attitudes, even if expressed by few, freeze newcomers out of the church.

We sensitize the congregation to newcomers by including them on church committees. Obviously senior leadership positions require a record of faithfulness in the church. However, we've worked at including at least one relatively new person on as many committees as possible. The new persons' interaction in the committees is a refreshing reminder to oldtimers that newcomers think differently and must be taken into consideration.

These various obstacles hinder assimilation. Not every church will suffer from all these problems, but every church does well to consider which might be insidiously holding back the integration of newcomers as productive and growing members.

An Atmosphere of Acceptance

Another critical factor in retaining newcomers is atmosphere. Some churches exude an atmosphere that says, "Visitors are welcome here." It doesn't derive from handouts or slogans. It's not particularly what happens up front, though that helps. It's an air that permeates the whole congregation, an intangible that says to first-timers, "We've been expecting you, and we're glad you've come."

Growing churches are service oriented rather than product oriented. In the words of Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager, "Large and small companies alike are learning that in today's competitive marketplace, it is often good service-not product superiority or low pricing-that determines success." In other words, it's not the companies with the best products that succeed; it's those who take the best care of their customers that become profitable.

The same can be said of the church. Growing churches make a commitment to meet the needs of newcomers. They create an environment in which everything is designed with the newcomer's experience in mind. They remember the humanness of their visitors.

As the pastor assigned to do most of the preaching, I can become so caught up in sermon preparation and delivery that I forget the needs of the very people the sermon addresses. That's like a quarterback trying to complete a pass while eyeing the scoreboard. The sermon and other aspects of the church's ministry need to focus on the quality of the newcomers' social and spiritual experiences, providing the subtle yet overriding message: "Newcomers are wanted and needed here."

How is that done? For one, by pastors when they tune vocabulary to outsiders; when ordinances are explained in the language of nonchurched people; when the leadership style is warm, personable, and conversational. There's what a friend of mine calls "pastoring from the pulpit."

He says he accomplishes in those moments some of the pastoral care he is unable to achieve throughout the week. He also says it's the time in the service when visitors come alive. His vulnerability and openness as he chats pastorally with the congregation partially breaks down the barrier between the pew and pulpit that newcomers often feel.

The atmosphere of warmth and acceptance, however, is expressed most effectively by people who hold no official position. That's because the most gratifying welcome a visitor can receive is from someone he wouldn't expect to welcome him, in a place he didn't expect it to happen. It may be a warm comment by the person in the next pew. It might be several smiles and a lot of eye contact in the foyer before the service. Certainly there's touch. We may not kiss as they did in New Testament days, but at least as the Phillips translation puts it, there should be "a handshake all around!" Welcoming isn't just something done at the door; it's something everyone does all over the building.

Such an atmosphere can't be structured, but it can be fostered. Here are some things we encourage to create an atmosphere of warmth.

We have men directing traffic in our parking lot as people arrive for services. This not only heads off a lot of confusion, it also tells newcomers we want to make it easy for them to find their way. There's a warm smile even before people get out of their cars.

Several people are assigned to minister in the church foyer. Our greeters shake as many hands as possible. Others, our hosts and hostesses, watch especially for visitors. They're prepared to answer visitors' questions and to give directions. They also attempt to get first-timers to sign the guest book or a visitor's card. We also have a staffed information counter. In addition, we train our ushers how to be friendly and sensitive to outsiders.

Two other methods help foster the atmosphere we seek. First, I talk about visitors often. I use them in sermon illustrations. I remind the congregation how uncomfortable visitors may feel. I liken our congregation to the staff of a large department store. We're there to serve newcomers.

Second, during a time for greeting in our services, we suggest people welcome at least six to eight people. I encourage people to start their greeting with the words, "Hi! I'm ___." There's something personable about a first name. It also saves embarrassment by helping people learn the names of others in the congregation.

Structured to Include

What happens if people like the atmosphere of a congregation but then find no group of people with whom they can relate? Churches of all sizes share this woe. Small churches sometimes become cliquish or ingrown. Larger churches may seem impersonal, making the newcomer feel insignificant.

But this need not be a problem if a structure is in place to identify and place newcomers into smaller groupings in which they can minister and find a place of belonging.

Several years ago we adopted Peter Wagner's concept of "celebration, congregation, and cell." Basically, the idea is that the Sunday morning celebration can continue to grow indefinitely if two other groupings exist within the church. In addition to the Sunday celebration (everybody gathered for worship), there needs to be a number of both congregations (a subgrouping of forty to one hundred people) and small, intimate cells (informal networks of friends; intimate, task-oriented groups; or structured small-group gatherings).

We've paid particular attention to building the congregations; they've been invaluable for integrating newcomers. These groupings are large enough not to intimidate newcomers, yet small enough for them to get to know others. We're convinced that if we can get newcomers into one of these congregations, there's a high probability they'll remain in our web of love.

We have about thirty of these congregations, some based on fellowship, some on special interests, and some on ministry. For instance, each of the choirs is a congregation. The workers of many of our programs also become little congregations in which there is a network of friendships and accountability.

Our most important congregations for integrating newcomers are our age-divided adult fellowship groups. We've divided our church by ten-year age spans and placed each person in one of these congregations. Each has its own lay leader and committee, as well as its own pastor. These groups meet weekly as Sunday school classes, hold regular social activities, and provide a caring ministry for the needy within the group.

Each of our adult fellowship groups has lay members who assist in the ministry of integration, watching for recent newcomers on Sunday, making midweek contact, inviting them to informal coffee gatherings, and introducing them to other members of the class.

But how do we channel people into these congregations?

Assimilating churches build structures that ensure newcomers are identified, cared for, and integrated into the fabric of the church. Here's how we go about it.

Identifying newcomers. We identify newcomers in a variety of ways. During services we ask each visitor to fill in an information card. Pastors and hosts working in the foyer carry visitor cards that they fill in on the spot with names and addresses. Counselors fill in response cards for those who respond to an altar call.

Some newcomers don't want to be spotlighted; it's anonymity that attracts them in the first place. So we try not to overpower them. But we know that if we don't get a name and phone number or address, our chances of holding and helping visitors is greatly diminished.

One yardstick of success for a Sunday is the number of new names and addresses of first-timers we garner. New names and addresses are our prime contacts for ministry through the week. Without those names and addresses, midweek ministry to newcomers suffers.

One interesting source of information about newcomers is our offering envelopes. It's amazing that with all our efforts to contact visitors, some are missed. Yet some not only keep attending, they also start using offering envelopes! Our bookkeeper alerts us to these people.

Making midweek contact. Follow-up ministry starts Monday morning. My secretary helps me send a letter of welcome to every visitor. For a while, we didn't send the letter to out-of-town visitors, but now we do. We discovered some out-of-towners were in the process of moving to our city, and it was important to give these visitors a feeling that they were noticed and appreciated.

A staff member processes these names on Monday and Tuesday. He makes an initial phone call, welcoming the people to our church and asking if they would like someone from the church to visit them at home. He attempts to gain further information, such as the approximate age of the adults and ages of children. He completes a family information form as the call is being made.

Following the call, this pastor may visit the family or assign it to one of the other pastors. He matches the family with the most suitable staff member, taking into account age, spiritual need, and special interests.

Copies of the family information sheet are shared during our staff meeting on Wednesday mornings. From that point, one pastor is assigned to be responsible for each newcomer. In addition, we see that the appropriate lay leaders in the youth department, ministry programs, and Sunday school are notified of the new family.

Maintaining a newcomers directory. We keep records for all newcomers in a separate directory for six months. This list is reviewed at staff meetings, and pastors report on people's progress. After six months on the list, the name is (1) placed in the church directory as an assimilated family, (2) deleted as someone unlikely to come back, or (3) left on the newcomers list for another six months since the status is still undetermined.

Providing a "Welcome to the Family Class." This class is an invaluable tool for making newcomers feel a part of the church. It's promoted as a class for all newcomers, not just new converts.

I lead this class during the Sunday school hour. We believe newcomers are attracted to a class led by someone with a high profile in the worship service. Two lay couples also work with me, befriending and encouraging newcomers.

The class is a relaxed and informal opportunity to get acquainted. Over coffee, we try to make newcomers feel at ease in the church. The content of the class varies, depending on who is present. We spend a great deal of time prompting and then answering questions about what we believe and how our church functions. Over a six- to eight-week period, we cover the basic teachings and practices of the church.

I spend considerable time outlining how the church functions and how to build church friendships. Mostly, I watch for specific needs, spiritual problems, and questions newcomers may have. Through our lay leaders, we reach out to meet these needs. We strongly encourage people to become involved in the church's activities, stressing that friendships are built as a by-product of doing things together.

After someone has attended the class about two months, our lay leaders introduce the person to the lay leaders of the appropriate adult fellowship group and the pastor assigned to that group. Responsibility for integration is passed from the Welcome to the Family Class to the adult fellowship group. Newcomers are invited to attend Sunday school.

Each convert is encouraged also to attend one of the midweek home fellowship groups especially designed for new Christians. Each newcomer who is not a new Christian is introduced to the leader or host of one of our regular Neighborhood Bible Study groups.

Integrating into ministry. We believe it's critical for newcomers to become involved in the church's ministry as quickly as possible. In fact, we feel that until newcomers assume some ministry responsibility, they won't feel emotionally one with us. They will think of the church as "them" rather than "us."

Newcomers must not only feel wanted, but also feel needed.

So we talk regularly about ministry opportunities. We highlight what's being done. We share our vision. We explain the diversity of ways people can become involved. Though critical recruiting is done individually, from time to time we encourage the congregation to fill in a ministry-opportunity sheet. These sheets are of little value for long-standing members, but they give newcomers an opportunity to express their interests.

The Ones Who Stick

Some people don't want to be integrated into any church. They may lack a basic commitment to God, and no amount of friendliness will make them stay. Others bear the imprint of our culture that recoils from commitment to anything.

Such people drift through every congregation. Seeing them fall away can be disappointing, especially when we work so hard to show them the challenge and benefits of commitment to a local church.

The thrill of pastoring, however, is to look over a congregation on Sunday morning and see the people who have come and been helped and assimilated.

  • Glen decided to become a Christian at a drama presentation. Today, he's an usher.
  • Phyllis was delivered from an oppressive spiritual environment. Today she works in one of our children's ministries.
  • Paul accepted Christ in my office. He's active in the church with his wife and two children.
  • Russ and Cathy prayed for salvation with me in a restaurant over lunch. They became involved in our sound ministry.
  • Ed and Karen felt they were part of the church when they were asked to serve on one of our adult fellowship committees.

These special souls—and a host of others—are all part of each Sunday's celebration. They're there, not because of a specific program but as a result of a Velcro congregation that helps newcomers stick.

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