The message is sacred but the methods are not. What can churches change before, during, and after the service to best reach the unchurched?
Last week, we discussed our recent series “Whatever it Takes”. In this series, I spoke about the fact that the church is not a building nor a gathering, it is a movement, and movements move. We talked about how the early church prayed differently than we do; they asked for boldness to keep preaching the Word, rather than safety despite the death threats they had been receiving. We talked about how the church is a God idea, that we need to get on His side and participate in what He is building, rather than just asking him to be on our side. We talked about what it takes to be a disciple and how Paul was discipled, that we each have a responsibility to reach one and teach one. We talked about not making it difficult for outsiders to come to God. We talked about how the message is sacred while the methods are not. And we talked about being dedicated to the heavenly vision, to reach outsiders and to bring those in darkness to the light. If you have not heard the entire series, I would highly recommend you listen to the messages. They are available on our church website, myvictory.ca as well as on iTunes under MyVictory Church.
[bctt tweet="The church is a movement and movements move. #church #whateverittakes" username="kellystickel"]
This week, we will be discussing appearances; what a Sunday looks like to both the traditional Church member as well as the totally unchurched visitor. Let’s begin.
In theatre, every action has a beginning, middle, and end. When the church takes action to be outsider focused, the same is true; there is a beginning, middle and end to the action. The service is the middle-action and that is where we will start.
The Middle Action
When it comes to transitioning a service to becoming more outside focused, I would not recommend a sudden change. That could be too abrupt for some. However, there are a lot of little things to consider when creating a service the unchurched will understand and enjoy. Everything from how we greet and welcome people, to the order of service, to the language we use in the service, to the length of service and elements used in the service (such as music), to the decor and facility set-up. There is so much to consider, and it is important to view every element through the eyes of someone who has never been to our church or might not understand our traditions. I think it is important to note that you don’t have to compromise the message to make it plain to a newcomer. Jesus was a master at making complex spiritual things understandable to his audiences. We should do the same.
When we began the transition in our church, we slightly changed the order of service. We added a welcome from a service host at the beginning for the purpose of informing the newcomer what to expect. A simple explanation of what worship is or how long the service will be really helps newcomers feel at ease. The second change we made immediately was moving the offering to the end of the service. We had discovered that one of the greatest fears of newcomers was that the church just wants their money. So, we felt that instead of singing a bunch of songs they did not know and then promptly asking for their money, we would move the offering to after the message and right before the close of the service. This way, they have received everything and may have given their life to Jesus. People don’t mind paying for their meal after they have eaten it. But, we still tell our visitors that they have to feel no obligation to give. This is just to put them at ease so that they can receive the message and hopefully connect with God in a life-transforming way.
Someone who is not familiar with church will be very nervous coming in. They have no idea what to expect or whether they will fit in and they come in guarded because of that. If we are not welcoming or friendly towards them, or if we begin our service with songs they don’t know and are all singing along and doing the same actions, then we subconsciously communicate to them that they don’t fit. It doesn’t matter how hungry they are for God, the vast majority of them will not come back because they feel like outsiders.
Because we as churched people are used to doing church the same way all of the time, and because it suits us just fine, any change we make is looked at skeptically. I was aware of that as a pastor, so before we made changes, I would first preach the change. I would explain from scripture why we need to change our approach. I then visited each of the longest standing members in our church and, after explaining my heart and reasoning, I asked their permission to make the changes. Every single one of them gave me their permission and we moved ahead. We still had a few people resisting the change, but for the most part, everyone was on the same page — especially when we started seeing the results of the changes and started seeing unchurched people giving their hearts to Jesus week after week.
The Beginning Action
We also made changes to the experience before the service even began. Before, attendees would simply come into the parking lot and into the church on their own. They were expected to find their own way. But, we started enlisting very excited volunteers to greet people as they drove in, holding signs that read things like “Welcome” and “Honk if you’re excited to be here”. We also had a sandwich board set up that read, “If this is your first time, flash your lights”, and when they did, there was a parking lot team ready to direct them to a parking stall, specifically designated for new people. We then had hosts that would escort them into the building, get them a coffee, take them to the kids wing if they had little ones, and then help them find their way around the facility, showing them the bathrooms and helping them find a good seat in the auditorium.
There are different dynamics in welcoming an unchurched visitor versus a traditional church visitor. I believe every church claims to be a friendly church, but we wanted much more than that; we wanted to be a church where people made friends. We wanted more than a personal touch, more than just a general greeting at the door. We wanted the newcomer to make a connection with someone and be able to leave saying, “I made a friend there.” This led to a more personalized hosting system. Rather than just having greeters at the door, we had our volunteers watch for people who appeared to be new to the church and encouraged our team to befriend them; to walk them around the facility, buy them a coffee from one of our coffee bars, help them find a good seat in the auditorium and then follow up with them after the service.
We also implemented visual and physical changes in our foyer. We added a Starbucks coffee shop so that newcomers saw something familiar upon walking through the doors. I felt this would quickly put a nervous newcomer at ease. Like walking into a coffee shop for the first time, it wouldn't matter if they knew someone or not. They would be at ease. We also added couches and bar tables and chairs for people to sit and visit. We changed our signage to be more readable for new people, replacing words like “sanctuary” to more familiar words, in this case “auditorium”. We ensured guests could read the signage and easily find their way to bathrooms, kids check-in, and so on.
There were challenges to changing these first impressions. One of the biggest trials was getting the right people in our congregation to fully understand the “why” behind it all and then getting their help to make the changes. We needed our first impressions team to understand not only what we wanted to do, but why we were doing it. We didn’t want them to fulfill a task as much as we wanted them to participate in the vision of reaching people for Jesus. That meant that the volunteers needed to be fully aware of how nervous new comers were and how to make them feel comfortable. We had to equip them with the right language to do so, making sure it was not insider church talk. They needed to understand that some of the unchurched people coming in were hurting and might look and act differently in comparison to the churched. These people would have to be treated properly so as not to make it difficult for an unchurched person to find Jesus.
The Ending Action
We adjusted everything. But, one of the big things we began doing differently was how we closed the service. We close each service by telling those attending what to do next in order to grow in their spiritual walk with God. We tell them to:
- Come back next Sunday.
- Join a Connect Group.
- Read their Bible daily.
- Get involved in our church by joining one of our volunteer teams.
- Invite someone to the service next week.
We do this every Sunday. The regular attenders hear it all the time, and may get tired of it, but it’s not for them, it’s for the newcomers. This is how they can learn to become part of the church by making the next steps as clear and simple as possible. We also have newcomers fill out a connect card and we then send them a handwritten welcome from me early the following week.
Today we have looked at the Sunday experience, but creating churches unchurched people love to attend hits on the other 167 hours in a week as well. I think our MyCityCare program has made a huge impact in this area. It is a program designed to meet the six needs in our community that Jesus mentioned in Matthew 25; food, water, housing, clothing, health, and justice. We have found that reaching out to our community as a church has accomplished two major things. First of all, our community is far more receptive to the Gospel after we meet their needs. Jesus did it this way, and we are to follow His example. Secondly, it really helps the church people to keep their focus outward. It is very rewarding to help someone in need. The feeling is addictive and one that keeps us outsider focused.
It’s easy to drift back into being insider focused and fighting that drift requires leadership that is intentional everyday. The fight is often within ourselves to stay the course. I am motivated by the stories I hear of lives being changed by Jesus, marriages being restored, addictions being overcome, sickness being healed, and hope being restored all because someone began a relationship with Jesus. It is amazing to see God go to work on a life and there is really no other answer that is ever as effective as Jesus. Truly, the church is the hope of the world, and we’ve been given a mission to reach every available person, at every available time, by every available means with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by creating churches unchurched people love to attend.
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