Your church is people, not a place.
Your community is not defined by the buildings you gather within, or the spaces you inhabit. When people visit your church, every interaction they have with your members shapes how they feel about your church as a whole.
And getting more connected to your church means building real relationships with real people.
Your church service and your visitor follow-up plan should work together to propel people into relationships. Meaningful connections to the body of Christ help people grow closer to him and stay connected to him. And if your church is providing the best possible opportunities for people to connect with Christ, coming back each week and getting more involved in your church is vital to their spiritual growth.
Which means you need to focus on the things that will keep them coming back and getting more connected. Helping church visitors build relationships has to be a high priority if you want them to stick around.
That doesn’t mean that when new people enter your church you bombard them with invitations to join every conceivable group, ministry, service project or team you have. It’s hard enough to get them to make the commitment to come back next week. And as I’ve said before, there are probably people who have been going to your church for a long time who aren’t involved in any of those things—so why would you impose that on a visitor?
Unless you learn new information that indicates someone would be interested in one of those other opportunities, you should have one clear, simple next step for your first-time visitors.
Your immediate goal may be for them to come back next week, but your end goal should be for every new person to develop real relationships with members of your church and for their relationship with Jesus to grow as a result of their involvement with your church.
How volunteers can create relationships
Your hospitality team probably has multiple roles that could develop relationships with new people in your church. But if your volunteers or staff become too focused on their task (distributing bulletins, identifying open seats, serving coffee), they may forget about the people their task allows them to interact with.
Give your greeters the freedom to have real conversations as people enter your church—don’t let them become so preoccupied with shaking hands that they miss opportunities to meet people. Encourage them to introduce themselves to people who walk through your doors—and to remember the names of people they meet. Equip them to answer basic questions about your church and direct guests to key people and places, like the nursery, coffee stand or perhaps someone waiting inside who can take the time to show them around.
Before the service, people might not be interested in a lengthy conversation—they’re just trying to find a seat, and the security of knowing they’re in the right place. You may find that your greeters, ushers and other members of your hospitality team are actually better positioned to have meaningful conversations with people after the service.
You don’t know if people are in a rush to leave because they have somewhere to be, or because they simply have no one to talk to. If you assume everyone has somewhere to be, your hospitality team is missing valuable opportunities to build relationships with new people.
A friend recently shared, “When I started grad school on the other side of the country, I went to church after church by myself trying to find a home. No one ever spoke to me. I’d walk in and walk out without ever saying more than “Good morning” during the stand and greet time. One day a woman sat down next to me and struck up a conversation. It was the 4th of July and she invited me to her family’s BBQ later that day. I was alone in a new city and she was nice and so I went. When I broke off an engagement a few months later, I moved in with her and her family for support. That church became my home for the next two years. And it was all because she saw I was alone and sat down next to me in the pew.”
The people who leave quickly because they have no one to talk to are the people your hospitality team is best equipped to serve. This is where your extroverts who love those stand-and-greet times can really shine.
You might also want to plan a post-service event—like a potluck, a brunch or free pizza—that everyone is invited to (whether they brought something to share or not). This provides a natural next step for a newcomer to get to know the people in your church.
It’s worth noting that if your event is a potluck, first-time visitors aren’t going to hear about it until the day of, so they may choose not to come simply because they didn’t bring anything—even if you tell them, “It’s really OK, please just come.” If the primary purpose of these post-service events is helping visitors connect with members (rather than simply building community among current members), then it shouldn’t leave any room for visitors to feel as if they have to help in order to comfortably participate.
Providing a free meal lets you invite new people into a frictionless environment where church staff and a hand-picked hospitality team can get to know them. They can come learn more about the church, get a free meal and meet people who genuinely want to know them.
If these events become a successful part of your follow-up with visitors and you see new people developing authentic relationships, you might consider adding some cooks to your hospitality team and budgeting for these meals each month or each week. People who “can’t cook” can still help out with getting groceries and the meal prep (assuming they can follow directions).
Whether you serve a meal or not though, these post-service events provide visitors with opportunities they don’t have during the service—primarily, a more natural setting to have a conversation with the people around them. Conversation isn’t a disruption here—it’s the purpose. And equally important, it’s not forced.
Why community is so important to the church
Whatever you do for work, wherever you live, and however isolated you are, if you are a Christian, you are part of the body of Christ.
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.” —1 Corinthians 12:12–14 (NIV)
No part of your body can serve the purpose it was designed for independent of your body. Your eyes can’t turn light into sight without a brain. Your hands and feet can’t move without legs and arms and blood and oxygen. And each part is enhanced by the addition of the others. Hands and feet don’t have to rely on touch, and eyes can direct the body instead of passively observing the things around them.
Every Christian was designed to fulfill a specific role within the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:15–16). Independent of the church, Christians may still have clearly visible gifts and obvious potential, but they will struggle to serve their intended purpose without working with the body of Christ.
Before Paul cast the vision for Christian community, Ecclesiastes highlighted the importance of unity:
“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” —Ecclesiastes 4:9–12 (NIV)
Even for the non-Christian who steps through your church doors, you can serve him or her with the life-giving community God desires us all to enjoy. For the Christian, though, this community goes far beyond helping one another.
Jesus prayed in John 17:20–21: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (NIV).
Jesus prayed that Christians would experience the same intimate unity that he has with the Father and the Holy Spirit. How can we even aspire to achieve that level of unity if we try to live out our faith independent of the church?
In Hebrews we see that part of being united in the body of Christ is empowering each other to live out the gospel: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24–25 NIV).
Joining with the body of Christ helps us individually become more like Jesus.
And that’s why the people who step through your doors need real relationships with real people.
Originally appeared on the Proclaim blog