Welcoming Newcomers to Church

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As a college senior I had an interview trip to Dallas, TX with Arco Oil Company. I arrived on a flight from Butte, Montana on a Sunday afternoon. I became a Southern Baptist through the ministry of the Baptist Student Union at Montana Tech, and was a member of the Floral Park Baptist Church in Butte, but I had heard of FBC, Dallas and their legendary pastor, W.A. Criswell. My hotel was in downtown Dallas, and I knew the First Baptist Church was somewhere downtown, so I set out on foot to find it.

I found the church easily enough, arriving in time for the Sunday evening worship service. To my disappointment, Dr. Criswell wasn’t preaching that night. He was in attendance, sitting on the platform, but an associate pastor brought the message. As I recall it was in a good message, but what I most remember was how Dr. Criswell welcomed those who responded during the invitation. I especially remember a woman who came to join the church. Dr. Criswell said something very much like this: “I see here that you’re an English teacher. How wonderful. God bless you. Did you know that my bachelor’s degree was in English? If I was anything in all-of-the-world other than a preacher of the gospel, I would be an English teacher. God bless you dear woman. God bless you. Welcome to First Baptist Church.”

He made that woman feel like a million bucks! His words were spoken warmly and personally. He looked directly at her as he spoke to her, giving her his full attention and appreciation, before speaking with equal warmth and welcome to the others who responded that evening.

Welcoming newcomers and new members into our churches in a warm, joyful and pleasant manner is extremely important. Some churches do this well. Some do not. With that in mind, I would like to offer some things to consider when welcoming guests and new members into your church.

First, the welcome begins with the invitation. Few people attend a church for the first time unless they are invited to do so. Church attenders who love their church, and believe in what God is doing through their church, are the best “inviters,” and they are often the best witnesses for Christ. Few church members will invite others to their church if they fear their friends won’t be welcomed and have a good experience when they attend. Thus, one thing we should strive to do is give our church attenders confidence that they can bring their friends to church gatherings with the full confidence that we won’t embarrass them by being unprepared or uninterested in their friend.

Second, the welcome continues as the newcomer parks their car and walks to the front door of the church. Most churches have greeters at the front door, but I have noticed that often these greeters are inside the church and do not open the doors for people as they approach. Walking up to a closed church door can be intimidating for a newcomer, especially an unchurched newcomer. Train your greeters to open the door and welcome people “as they approach the door,” not after they enter the building.

Third, place greeters inside the worship center, with specific instructions to look for those who might be newcomers. Don’t put a “greeter badge” on these greeters. They should simply be friendly people who make sure all attending are warmly welcomed. Also, they can help the newcomer get infants into the nursery or preschool area, and in other ways make sure their needs are met and their questions answered. If they can follow up with the newcomers after the service, thanking them for attending and offering any needed assistance, that is even better. This method of greeting is more helpful than a “formal greeting time” during the worship service when everyone is invited to greet others.

Fourth, contact newcomers within 24 hours. Give them a phone call at the very least. Bringing a gift to their door, with a “thankyou” for attending, and making yourself available to answer questions, is even better. A personal note from the pastor, or another person in the church, is a good follow-up to the phone call or personal visit.

Fifth, connect newcomers and new members to as many church members as possible. Small group leaders and ministry leaders need to connect with new people and help them find their place in the fellowship of the church. As you introduce new members to the church, have the person who invited them stand with them. Also, invite their small group leader stand with them. Certainly, the person who led them to faith in Christ is vital to connecting them to others in the church.

Sixth, invite new members, or newcomers, into your home. When I was a pastor we had new member fellowships in our home. We invited them in small groups and used this time to get better acquainted, answer questions, and help them feel personally connected to our family and to the church family. We also hosted Sunday school/Bible class groups in our home, with the goal that every member of our church would be in our home. This was much easier than me, as the pastor, trying to visit the homes of all of our members, and I believe it was more effective in extending a warm, personal welcome to our church.

I did not take the job with Arco Oil Company in Dallas. Instead we moved to Ft. Worth nine months later to attend seminary. We visited FBC Dallas a couple of times and did get to hear Dr. Criswell preach. But interestingly, it was the warm manner in which he spoke to individuals that I most remember. I suspect that what people most remember about us is how we treat them individually. For this reason, it is very important to plan well how you and your church welcome newcomers.

Northwest Impact – Expanding God’s Kingdom in the Northwest

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Northwest missions began when four Native Americans travelled to St. Louis and requested from the Superintendent of Indian Affairs that missionaries be sent to their people.  The year was 1831 and the man with whom they met was William Clark of the famed “Lewis and Clark Expedition.”  Methodist missionary Jason Lee was the first to arrive, coming in 1834.  He was followed by Presbyterian missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, and Henry Spalding, who arrived in 1836.  Baptist layman, David Lennox, travelling the Oregon Trail, arrived in 1843, and started the West Union Baptist Church in 1844.  It was the first Baptist church in the West.  Located near Hillsboro, OR, it remains to the present day.

From this beginning, believers have continued to establish churches and do evangelistic work in the Northwest.  Still, our beautiful land remains one of the great mission fields in North America.  Only four percent attend church on a given Sunday, and the great majority of our neighbors profess no faith in Jesus Christ.

To meet the missionary need of the Northwest, Northwest Baptists (NWBC) are doing more than any other group to do four things.  First, we train more pastors and leaders than any other grouping of churches.  Already, more than 200 pastors and 800 lay leaders having participated in some form of training in 2015.

Second, we start more churches, with 27 church planters beginning their work in the Northwest in the past 12 months (through June).  Approximately 130 of our 466 churches worship in one of 30 languages other than English.

Third, no group in the Northwest does Disaster Relief like we are doing through our 660 plus volunteers.  On this very day 60 of our DR volunteers are deployed, providing thousands of meals daily to those who’ve lost their homes in the wildfires, and providing chaplaincy to firefighters and others.

Fourth, evangelism training and resources are provided to every church that requests them.  Next spring we will conduct one-day “listening evangelism” workshops in multiple locations throughout the Northwest, funded in part by the Northwest Impact Offering.

In addition to your mission giving through the Cooperative Program, a major source of funding for Northwest Missions is the annual Northwest Impact Offering (Sylvia Wilson Offering).  This year’s offering will provide funds for each of the four areas mentioned above.  Materials (prayer guides, posters, bulletin inserts, envelopes) to promote the offering have been sent to each of our churches.  You can also access them through a link on the Northwest Baptist Convention website, www.nwbaptist.org.

One new promotional feature this year is videos which focus on the four areas mentioned above.  Links to the videos are on our website, but I’m providing them here so you can take a quick look at them.  They are kept very brief so that you can show them to your church on a Sunday morning:

  1. Church planting:  https://vimeo.com/137394331
  2. Leadership:  https://vimeo.com/137408075
  3. Evangelism:  https://vimeo.com/137407924
  4. Disaster Relief:  https://vimeo.com/137403838

Please consider giving your church an opportunity to support Northwest missions through Northwest Impact.  Together, we can have a larger gospel footprint and impact our communities more forcefully in the year to come.  Remember, you are not alone.

This Side of Glory

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“It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things” (1 Peter 1:12).

This amazing statement acknowledges the tremendous privilege that belongs to those who have lived on this side of Jesus’ earthly life. The Old Testament prophets “predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:11b), but their knowledge was partial. They spoke out of the darkness of the light that was to come, and in this sense they served us rather than themselves. Indeed, even the angels were “in the dark” before the glory of Christ was revealed in Bethlehem and Galilee and Golgotha.

Sometimes we think of “glory” as that which is yet to come, forgetting the glory that is ours in the present. Can you imagine what life would be, with all of its suffering and struggles and victories too, if we did not have Jesus and all that He is to us? For 2,000 years, up to the present moment, believers have uttered the simple prayer, “Help me Jesus,” in moments of despair and confusion. Martyrs are today dying with “Jesus” on their lips, sometimes quoting Jesus’ own words as He faced His killers, “Father, forgive them.” The privilege of prayer in Jesus’ name, with all that means, is glory.

It’s hard to fathom how life would be were it not for knowing “The Sermon on the Mount” or the “The Farewell Discourse.” Untold thousands have been sustained by Jesus’ words, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of Me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:11-12a). Seeing how Jesus spoke to the “Woman at the Well” and the woman who wept on His feet has enriched the entire world. Which has brought us greater blessings, deposits of gold mined in the hills, or Jesus’ “Parable of the Prodigal Son?” How can we compare the beauty and glory of the most precious gems to that of Jesus’ words “For God so loved the world ….” Give me “I am the bread of life” and you can keep “riches untold.”

Recently I read a fascinating book titled The Man Who Touched His Own Heart by Rob Dunn. The book describes man’s relationship and investigation of the human heart from ancient times to the present. One thing that struck me is that early pioneering heart surgeons often despaired to the point of quitting as their patients died while they strived to develop lifesaving methods that are commonplace today. Jack Gibbon, the inventor of the iron lung, only used it a few times. His last two surgeries were on 5-year-old girls, both of whom died. He never again performed a surgery. His invention, and its perfection, has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, but he lived on the other side of “glory,” unable to fully see what his work would one day mean.

The glory of knowing Jesus and the New Testament witness brings us a “living hope,” as Peter calls it (1 Peter 1:3). It is living because it is founded upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The glory that is ours because we have a living hope is greater than every other thing we could know or have. It’s better than our jobs, our families, our ministries, everything. The Old Testament prophets predicted it, as looking through the darkness, but we possess this living hope. We see clearly the glories of Christ. When our eyes are rightly focused, we see all that there is to see through the lens of Christ’s glory.

To see the glories of Christ is to know that Jesus is worth everything. Are you suffering in your service to Jesus? He is worth it. Do you lack “stuff” because you have chosen to serve Jesus? He is worth it. I’ll always remember sharing Christ with a man in Bangladesh, my youngest son Luke with me, and the man told us, “If I do this, I might get killed.”   He meant that if he received Jesus he might die. What could we say to him except that Jesus is worth it? Jesus is worth everything. This side of glory, with all that Jesus said and did, we know that Jesus is worth everything.

I think it would have helped those pioneering heart surgeons if they could have seen what would become of their work. It would have blessed Isaiah and Jeremiah, and even the angels, had they seen the glory that is Jesus. We have seen Him. His words give us life, shape our thoughts, and enrich our lives beyond expression. What a privilege is ours to live this side of glory!

Raising Preacher Boys

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We used to call them “preacher boys,” but increasingly we are seeing grown men called to preach and pastor, often in their “second career.” One pastor I met was called to his first church when he was nearly 70 years old. And he’s doing a good job! Many others were in their 40s or 50s and had retired from the military or teaching school.

The growth in the number of “preacher men” is a great thing for many reasons. These men come with real-world experience and are highly motivated to “serve the Lord.” They are not thinking career. Their passion is to obey Christ. And preacher men are often largely self-funded because they have another job or retirement income. One pastor in southern Oregon has several such men in his church. He is discipling them and training them for whatever God might have them do.

I have written before that our greatest need in the Northwest is for more pastors, especially bi-vocational pastors. This means that a primary job for churches and pastors is to identify and train-up “preacher boys,” or “preacher men,” for ministry leadership. The local church reaches more people when it has more leaders. As a convention of churches, we will reach more people for Christ as we have more pastors and more churches. Leaders reach people. It’s mathematical. One man cannot do the work of ten. Ten men of equal ability and context will reach ten times the number of people that one will. Likewise, all things being equal, ten churches will reach ten times as many people as one church.

To help facilitate the training of pastors and other ministry leaders, the NWBC has started Contextualized Leadership Development (CLD), which is a branch of Golden Gate Seminary, designed to train ministry leaders. To take CLD classes a student does not need a high school diploma or a college degree. They simply need a strong desire and calling to serve Jesus Christ. Our first CLD location was Portland, which began in January 2015 with a class on preaching. Pastoral ministry will be taught in Portland this fall. I say, “our first CLD location,” but we have other CLD centers operating in the Northwest that were started independent of the convention, which is great. Our desire as a convention of churches is to increase the number of CLD centers, and to start some in areas and among peoples that do not have a CLD center. Two of the current centers are non-English (Russian and Burmese, with a third likely to start this year in the Tagalog language).

Our biggest need in order to expand CLD was to find someone to direct the program in a part-time role. We now have that man. I am very excited about this as he will connect with pastors and Directors of Missions across our convention, helping you to create your own CLD Center. I can’t announce his name yet, but that should be forthcoming in about a month.

This week I spoke to the national CLD leader for Golden Gate Seminary, Don Beall, and Don told me something that might help many of our churches to better train their preacher boys. Many churches don’t have regular worship services on Sunday evening or Wednesday anymore. It is difficult for the pastor to give up the pulpit on Sunday morning with regularity, so that his preacher boys can learn. Don said that one church he knows has scheduled worship one Sunday evening per month as an opportunity for someone other than the lead pastor to preach. I thought that was a great idea and it’s something you might consider.

Lay leaders, let me encourage you to allow your pastor to do what it takes to train up the preacher boys and men in your church. When I was a pastor I felt the pressure to always be in the pulpit on Sunday morning and Sunday evening. But I was wrong. I should have given more opportunities to others in the churches I served. If I had it to do over again, I would seek to educate our church that a part of my responsibility is to train future pastors, and I would give them more opportunities to preach. That said, there are many nursing facilities that would love to have someone lead a worship service on Sunday, or on another day. In my first three years of preaching ministry, ninety percent of my opportunities to preach came in nursing homes. It was there I learned to “speak up” so they could hear me. And it was there that I learned not to be offended when they fell asleep!

We need more ministry leaders in the Northwest. And we need to call them out from our churches and train them up. With all of the political and moral turmoil in our nation, it is a good day to serve the Lord!

What People Want from their Church

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There has been much written regarding what people look for in a church. The topic itself can lead to “consumer language,” focusing on personal preferences, when describing the kind of church people want. But many years ago a man seeking a church home told me something I have never forgotten. He said, “I want a church where I can bring lost friends and family with the confidence that they will be treated well, hear the gospel consistently and clearly, with love, and I won’t have to live in fear that something might happen that will make us want to crawl under a pew.”

Immediately you know what he means. He wanted a church family that strengthened his witness. A church family that gave him confidence that he wouldn’t be embarrassed or let down when he invited others to visit. He was looking for ministry partners, who, when taken together, are the body of Christ.

I don’t know if you’ve thought of it this way, but being part of healthy church strengthens your personal witness and ministry. And if you’re a pastor you want your congregation to have the confidence that they can bring a friend on any given Sunday, knowing that the church will be ready for their guest.

With this in mind, what can we do to help our church members have such confidence? Let me suggest a few things.

First, the pastor and church should prepare for and expect guests every week. You only have one chance to make a good first impression, and every week you should anticipate meeting somebody new in your church or Bible class. In my first pastorate we began with 10 people. I was in seminary and a fellow student asked me if it was hard getting motivated to preach to so few. My answer was an honest and emphatic, “No!” and this for two reasons. One, those 10 had a right to hear the best message from God’s Word I was capable of preparing and delivering. Two, I was knocking on doors and inviting folks to church, knowing that when they came I had one chance to make a good first impression. If the pastor and church family are praying for the lost people in the community, loving them, and inviting them, you will have guests. And when you have them, you want to minister to them as best you can.

Second, expect every week to have some attend that is lost, hurting, and hopeless. When a lost person comes to church it may be the result of years of a mother’s prayer. It may be because their friend or spouse “finally” got them there. In other words, those bringing guests are depending upon us, pastors and song leaders, deacons and preschool teachers, greeters and ushers, to be their teammate in ministering to their loved one. This may be your one best opportunity. Don’t let them down. The church is the body of Christ and every member has a job to do. I have seen the attitude or behavior of one person keep someone from church. It shouldn’t be this way, but lost people don’t need much reason to stay away from church. We need to continually educate the church that the way we treat people matters. The way we greet people and befriend people, matters. You don’t want a fellow church member “crawling under a pew” because you were unprepared to minister to their guest.

Third, when we bring a guest to church, we want them to experience “church.” That is, we want them to hear God’s Word read and proclaimed. We want them to hear God’s people sing with joy. We want them to see God’s people pray with conviction and faith. Joy and gratitude should flow abundantly when God’s people gather to worship Him. Don’t take for granted that unchurched people will be moved by this because they can’t experience true Christian fellowship and worship anywhere else.

That statement made to me over 20 years ago helped me greatly as a pastor. I served one more church as pastor after that, and I’ve done nine interim pastorates. I promised each congregation that I would do all I could to never embarrass them. I would work as best I could to be ready with God’s message each Sunday so that they could bring friends and family on any given week, confident that their pastor would be ready. I wanted our church to know that I would be a faithful partner in helping them reach their family and friends for Jesus Christ. But I also knew they were depending on others in our church to do their part in helping them reach their loved one for Christ.

How sad if our church members had to apologize to their guests for how their church disappointed them. Or, to say it another way, how sad if our church members encouraged their friends to attend a different church because they lacked confidence that they would experience God’s love in their own church.

“There are different activities, but the same God is active in everyone and everything. A manifestation of the Spirit is given to each person to produce what is beneficial” (1 Corinthians 12:6-7).

Welcoming Sunday Guests

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Do you want more first-time church guests coming back a second time? Of course you do! But what are you doing to help guests feel truly welcome so that they will want to return?

If your church is like most, you do three things to welcome guests. First, you greet them inside the entrance to the building, along with all others attending that day. Second, you have a welcome time in the worship service, during which you invite members to welcome guests. Third, you ask guests to complete a registration card. This is the plan most churches have to welcome guests. This three-point plan is formal. It is predictable. And if it’s all you do, it is not terribly effective.

Why is the typical three-point welcome plan less effective than we need? Because it is a programmed approach that falls short of communicating true caring. If guests are only greeted by the “official” greeters handing out bulletins in the foyer, or at the “official” greeting time when the pastor tells us to welcome each other, guests rightly conclude that this provides little proof of genuine interest in them. Also, formal welcome times can be quite uncomfortable to the guest who is asked to stand, or stay seated, and sometimes remain overlooked as members greet each other.

Is there a better approach to welcoming Sunday guests? Yes! The better way is to develop a Welcome Team that tackles three primary tasks.

First, some on the Welcome Team serve as greeters at the entrance of the church, which is similar to the three-point plan. But welcome team greeters do not merely stand inside the church entrance area. They open the doors as the people arrive. They venture outside to help women and children who are dropped off at the church entrance. A mom with preschoolers can use a hand getting into the building, just as grandma will appreciate a little extra help. Some churches even station greeters in the parking lot to help with car doors. Welcome Team door greeters welcome all comers with a warm smile, courteous handshake, friendly eye contact, and a cheery word. For a first-time guest, the greeter is their first contact with the church. Well-trained greeters, who enjoy making people feel good about attending church, are essential. When I was a full-time pastor I also served as a greeter. I did so because I enjoy it, but also because I highly value the greeting ministry.

Second, the Welcome Team needs a group who can take people to their Sunday school classes and help guests enroll small children in the preschool area. Do not make your guests depend on signage or other kinds of verbal directions to point them to where they need to go. You must have welcomers who take them and help them. I was blessed to pastor a church whose building was so complicated that it was impossible to depend on maps and signs. Yes, our convoluted building was a blessing because it forced to us to employ welcomers to help every guest.

Third, some on the Welcome Team are assigned to various sections of the worship center. Their job is to serve those who sit in their section, paying particular attention to those who might be guests, or those who are sitting alone or demonstrate some particular need. The worship center Welcome Team serves at two times in particular: before the service begins and after the service ends. As guests and members take their seats, the Welcome Team member greets them in a friendly, casual manner. He might say something like, “I don’t think I’ve met you yet. I’m Randy.” If they are guests, you can offer to help with any information they need such as childcare and restrooms. Then, after the service ends, the Welcome Team member will again speak to guests in his or her area, thanking them for attending, inviting them back, etc.

Having Welcome Team members in the worship center is probably a new idea for your church. But it should be a part of your welcome plan. Even Walmart has moved greeters further into the store so that they can offer assistance to shoppers.

Finally, remember that guests are often going through situations that make them more responsive to God. They may be new move-ins, new parents, or recently divorced. A guest may represent years of prayer and effort by someone concerned for their soul. And when a member brings a guest, they depend on the church to partner with them in reaching their friend. Guests are the “low fruit” in accomplishing the Great Commission. They are like the flying fish that jump into your boat before you even cast the net!