They were a young couple in their early-to-mid twenties. He carried the baby in an infant seat. The parents didn’t appear to be carrying Bibles. He looked semiprofessional. She had sandy brown hair; he had dark brown. I had never seen them before and was almost certain they were first-time visitors. They stepped hesitantly from the front lot to the church building.
I’m a greeter at my church, First Baptist Church, Ferndale, Washington. As I held the door for an elderly member, I watched the couple from the corner of my eye. I thought, They’ll need to be escorted to the nursery. Who can I seat them by who would make them feel comfortable? What other couples with young children can I introduce them to? I had better make sure Jeff Hathaway meets this family. (Jeff teaches a class for young married couples.)
Meanwhile, the couple was scanning right to left, and their pace slowed. About a hundred feet from the front door, they stopped. They looked at each other, turned around, and began a brisk walk back to the parking lot.
Walking briskly too, I moved toward the front lot, thinking about what I should say to them. I couldn’t see which car they got in. Then I realized, They’re exiting the parking lot!
We do so much to get people to come to church through Awana, VBS, visitation, advertising, radio, personal invitations and mailings, tracts, special meetings and speakers, and so much more. Then a hundred feet from the door—a hundred feet! They were so close to church, possibly to salvation if they were unbelievers, possibly to growth in Christ, possibly to training help in their young marriage and parenting responsibilities.
Thoughts about that couple troubled me deeply. Those thoughts changed the way I think and act toward visitors and the way my church looks on Sunday morning. We made changes.
“Go . . . and compel them to come in”
The first change was to create an outside visitors’ booth, but it didn’t work for us. Friends would surround me between services, and obvious visitors would walk by unnoticed, or I couldn’t get to them in time.
Then the thought came to mind: If Christ commands us in Luke 14:23 to “go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in,” shouldn’t I be willing to go at least as far as the parking lot? What about the prodigal son’s father, who ran to his son as he appeared in the distance? What about how he greeted his son?
The next idea we tried worked so well that it is now the primary way we greet people every Sunday morning: we simply stand outside and actively look for visitors in the parking lot. After asking the visitors several questions, I tell them there is a family I’d like them to meet. I choose people with kids of a similar age, similar interests, a similar geographical background to make the visitors feel comfortable. The gospel is enough of a stumbling block for some newcomers; the way we treat our visitors shouldn’t be.
I try to introduce visitors to as many people as I can right in the parking lot to establish as many contacts with them as possible. Why I do this is simple: not everyone likes everyone else. So I try to make visitors feel that our church is special. It’s one where they know several people right away! Our desire is that they are comfortable enough to forget their newness and to focus on the message the pastor is preaching. The following Sunday we want them to say, “Let’s go back to that church. It was so friendly.” Then they will truly be able to concentrate on another message.
After initially greeting the visitors, we walk them from the parking lot to the auditorium, where we find appropriate seats for them. When seating people, I again tell them there is a couple I’d like them to meet. This introduction allows me to seat the visitors near someone who will likely connect with them. When I don’t do this, I ask the visitors where in the auditorium they will feel most comfortable sitting. I want them to build a relationship with others, not with the back pew.
“There are only two things you need to know about First Baptist”
When I reach a visitor’s car door, I always say the same thing: “There are only two things you need to know about First Baptist!” referring to the building. “The auditorium is upstairs and to the left, and restrooms are downstairs and to the left.” What I’m actually trying to communicate is, We’ve thought about your needs even before you need them.
If parents have a baby, I let them know their options: “In case you decide to take your baby to the nursery, let me show you the nursery.” Often a reluctant mother will relax after meeting our great nursery staff. Then I inform the parents, “I check on the nursery several times during the service. I’ll be up to get you if you’re needed.” Later, during the singing, I slip upstairs and let them know that I just checked the nursery and all is well. This reassurance confirms I will get them if needed and, I hope, will put them more at ease during the sermon.
“Serving in the rain”
Those who are familiar with the Seattle area know that it rains a lot here. So how do we turn rain into something that allows our visitors to see Christian love in action? How do we help them view us as a friendly church that wants them to come back?
I heard of a church that handed out umbrellas in the parking lot. So our church bought several golf umbrellas—the biggest and most colorful ones we could find. Then we recruited several ten- to fifteen-year-old boys. We began to usher all of our people from their cars when it rains so visitors won’t feel as though they stand out. Many members and visitors have told us that this assistance is great! One visitor even asked me, “If we start attending this church, could our son help with the umbrellas?”
Visitors are often shocked to see polite junior highers looking for an opportunity to serve them! When too many boys want to help with the umbrellas, some of them become door openers. These young men open the car doors of those dropped off at the front door. The boys also open the front church doors. Younger boys need more supervision and constant training, but the results have been worth the extra effort! Today I have the older boys doing much of the training.
Young girls are given separate tasks. When a visitor doesn’t need a greeter’s attention, I look to our young ladies to show the visitor where the nursery is. The girls also walk visiting children to children’s church. We introduce the children to the young lady and tell them that if they want to go to children’s church, Molly (or whoever) will walk them there. Kids are much more likely to walk with an older girl than with a big old man like me.
It doesn’t always rain in western Washington, so I added the task of ushering in our senior ladies and widows. Although this responsibility is not serving visitors, giving the task to the boys means that I don’t have to go looking for them when the rain starts.
Thinking like a visitor
About six years ago, my family needed to move an hour north and leave the church and people we loved. In visiting churches, I saw firsthand good churches whose manner of greeting visitors would cause a visitor to want to leave. We visited our current church twice and were sure God would never lead us here! It is a good thing God is in control, or we would have missed out on a great group of people who were patient with the new guy who wanted to greet outside in the rain!
When hurting people come to our door
People come to church for different reasons. One reason visitors come is because of crises in their lives. These people are easy to spot—if you’re looking. One such man came to our previous church. He was late in arriving, and I saw him only when I was checking the parking lot for outsiders who might be thinking of stealing.
The man pulled in driving a twenty-five-year-old pickup covered with rust. He took a long time to get out. Wearing a black western duster coat and small, oval, opaque glasses, he looked menacing as he walked toward our church. I met him a few feet from his truck and introduced myself. He gave his name, which was unintelligible. A few more questions were met with more unintelligible sounds. He reeked of stale beer and sawdust.
When we got about fifteen feet from the front door I stopped, looked at him, and said, “Friend, I don’t know you from Adam, but I can tell you’re hurting. May I pray for you?”
“Yes,” came a clear response.
I prayed a short prayer that God would meet his needs that day. When I finished, he seized me in a bear hug, weeping.
Later he told me he had visited two other churches that morning. “No one spoke to me but you.”
That evening I introduced him to David, a man about his age who had been through the same experiences two years before. They hit it off. The next night when I called about visiting that man, he was “at David’s house watchin’ football.” David continued to wrap his arms around him and nurture him in Christ.
Remembering names shows you care
A line in the theme song to the old TV show Cheers says so much: “You wanna go where everybody knows your name.” Using memorization techniques, I work on and pray regularly about names at church. I repeatedly ask for prayer that our greeting team would remember the names of our visitors. I can think of no Bible text that talks about this subject. Yet I know our visitors are impressed when they visit the second time and have their car doors opened and their names spoken to them.
“It seemed like you wanted us!”
One of our recently baptized members told me that his family had visited various other churches. “It seemed like you wanted us!” he said. What these recently new believers said caught the essence of what we are trying to create: a friendly, comfortable place where people can hear the gospel, meet friends, and grow in Christ . . . a place where people can come the final hundred feet!
Our church has no lawn to play in. No area to run in. When my family first started attending, an elderly gentleman gave a boy quite a tongue-lashing for running around outside the church. Today that instruction is more likely to come from a junior high young man: “Be sure to watch out for our seniors!”
Serving in the body
Before Sunday School and church and after church, fifth- through eighth-grade boys are serving the local body of Christ! One young man may be carrying diaper bags for young mothers. Or he’s holding the hand of a youngster through the busy parking lot. Another is walking an elderly widow as if he were an old-time usher; her hand is tucked neatly around his arm. She’s asking about school or what she can pray for him about. Or visiting about what his plans are for life. She may be complimenting him on his manners. She’s teaching him and doesn’t even realize it!
A visitor is greeted by one young man. The visitor is taken aback when another young man introduces himself and offers a handshake. If an adult greeter is busy, visitors may be walked to their seats and introduced to others along the way by an eighth grade boy.
Especially when it rains
When it’s raining we make quite a sight! Umbrellas are bobbing all over the parking lot. Car doors are being opened for our regular attenders. Families are huddled under a golf umbrella held by a seventh grader.
One boy was a little too young to help. Frustrated that he couldn’t yet be an umbrella man, he brought an umbrella from home to be able to help!
A younger boy opens the front door and says, “Good morning!” Or he runs to be able to usher in his “favorite” lady. When she attends prayer meeting, she prays for him. She knows his name! Others in the room pray for other young men who greet them every week. When we have extra help, one boy will serve in the elevator as a bellboy.
All of this is happening in an age of compartmentalization, in an age when seniors are often not wanted. At this time too many churches are looking only for people who are twenty-five to forty-five. How can the elder teach the younger when they don’t know one another? How can the younger serve the older and learn to seek the wisdom God has taught their seniors through time if the age groups attend different churches?
We have an answer. Every Sunday young men serve our senior citizens and young families, learn evangelism, speak to people of all ages, learn manners, serve God, and have fun. A recently new seventh grader told me on his first day of serving, “I thought this would be boring, but this is fun!”
Just ask our seniors what they think of the umbrella men. Every week I hear the comment, “Those young men are just the best!”
From the baptistry we hear people saying the reason they stayed is that they were made to feel welcome.
Jeff Hodgin attended Western Baptist College (now Corban College) in Salem, Oregon. He is self-employed and lives in the Seattle area with his wife and two children.