It had been over a year and a half since I had been to church physically. Since then we’ve all had to gratefully compromise with zoom; although it wasn’t the same it was better than nothing.
After moving back home where I had been absent for five plus years, I was excited at the prospect of being in a bigger church. I was excited at the possibility of being involved, meeting new people and just getting stuck in wherever I could. Since churches were starting to open up and the lockdown had officially ended I assumed there would be at least one church out of the three options I had that would be opened.
At that point of time I was done with zoom. I vowed not to go back on unless I had no other option – I just wanted to be with people physically. I missed the personal touch of humanity: the hugs, the smiles, the handshakes, the pure engagement that I took for granted. So after settling in at home I got straight into texting some people to find out which of the three local churches were open.
I soon got a response, two out of the three churches in my city were closed indefinitely, my heart sank… the prospect of returning to church seemed slim. But I still hadn’t checked in on the other church, so half-heartedly, expecting the same response as the others, I sent a message inquiring whether it was open or not.
After some hours I got a response that it was open! I was excited and raring for church.
Saturday morning came, I was like a child on Christmas morning. I woke up super early and made sure I would get to church as soon as the doors were opened.
As I got to the church building I was super excited but nervous at the same time, ‘this could be my new home church’, my mind pondered, ‘this could be where I anchor myself for the next few years’.
I took a deep breath and stepped into the building, but it wasn’t the welcome I expected. It was strangely quiet: I expected to hear loud joyous voices and bubbly welcomes but there was no one there to greet visitors. So I ventured to the main floor where I assumed the morning Bible studies would be, voices started to emerge. As I crept in, I received a few acknowledgements of my presence and then I dealt with the mental battle of choosing which Sabbath school class to join. Do I nervously walk all the way across the church which seemed like a mile away to the seemingly youthful class, or do I just quickly sit down with the older aged class that was closest to me? I chose the latter.
I sat down nervously and gave a few nods accompanied with a smile to the other church members as well as wishing them a ‘Happy Sabbath’, even though it was more of a nervy one for me.
As the Bible study went on, more and more people… young people I should say, ushered into church, and I soon realised that I should have joined the other class which was more youthful. As the study ventured on I repeatedly glanced over with envy at the youthful hype and discussions that were occurring on the other side; “if only I knew that was the youth class”, I murmured to myself.
As the rest of the church service went on, my feeling of excitement which I had about attending church was quickly quenched. During the sermon and the worship service I sat in the church feeling a sense of loneliness: I felt out of place and thought to myself, ‘maybe I should have stayed at home'.
As the main service finished everyone else greeted each other and flocked in their friendship groups, but I was alone. I tried to squeeze myself into a conversation with somewhat familiar faces but I felt out of place and unwanted.
As time slipped away slowly, I decided I didn’t want to be there anymore so I slipped out of the church, unnoticed.
As I ventured back home I realised that I was not asked my name or number, I wasn’t asked how I felt about the service or if I would like to come for lunch, I wasn’t even asked if I was a visitor or if it was my first time. I wasn’t asked if I would be back next week. As I reflected on my experience I said to myself that I didn’t necessarily want to return to that church. I felt like I would have been more fulfilled at home studying alone or tuning into a zoom session.
If I were to describe my experience in a few words I would say I felt unnoticed, unloved and uncomfortable. I am a confident person who has been part of the Seventh-Day Adventist church for some time now – if that was how I felt, I am horrified to imagine how someone not so seasoned and confident would have felt.
Although I understand my experience does not testify of all churches around the world, all I can say is that I have experienced this more times that I am comfortable with in my time visiting various churches.
According to recent research, it is indicated that 49 out of every 100 new Adventist members eventually leave the church. That is nearly half of every new member! Joining a church is as much a cultural transition as it is a spiritual one and the reason why many people leave the church is not because of theological differences but because they do not feel like they fit in, they do not feel loved and cared for.
So here are a few tips and pointers on how to make your church a more inviting and desirable place to be for either new believers or those who are relocating (and anyone else along that spectrum):
1. First impression - As a new person visiting a church, whether they are relocating or they are new to the faith, the first person that they encounter (usually the person at the front doing the greeting) will either make a positive or negative first impression on the person. The person that does the greeting needs to be a super but not so over friendly, bubbly character. Someone sociable who can ease the nerves of the newcomer, get to know them a bit better and also personally show them around the church which can often feel like a labyrinth. I have been to many churches where I had to figure everything out for myself, the toilets, the classes and the rest of it. No one told me anything. But when someone invests time in you to personally show you around and they make the effort get to know you a little bit better: where you are coming from, have you been there before, here are the toilets, this is what we are studying today, how did you find the church, is it your first time in church, who invited you etc. it is a great beginning and favourable impression on the new person who maybe attending church for the first time in their life. In Acts 28, Paul and Co. were stuck on an Island called Melita and the first impression the islanders made on him clearly lasted because it was recorded as a lesson for us. He stated how “the people of the island were very kind to us. It was cold and rainy, so they built a fire on the shore to welcome us”; even the chief of the island made them feel welcome as Paul declared “he welcomed us and treated us kindly for three days” (verses 1 and 7). As a church and as individuals we never get a second chance to make a first impression and the person greeting those that enter are one of the first impressions that people have of the type of church they are attending.
2. Be with them - Have you ever been to some party or function where you didn’t know anyone, and you were just there on your own with no one to talk to or engage with, how did you feel? Probably out of place. Probably super awkward too. When someone new comes to your church, especially if they are alone, make it your duty to sit with them and befriend them. This makes all the difference and will make them feel much more at ease and at home in the house of God. There were many a time where someone greeted me well at the front and we had a great introduction but then I sat all alone for the rest of the church service; my heart was longing for someone to sit next to me and just engage with me. I hoped for someone who I could comfortably ask, is there an afternoon programme? Is there lunch? What hymn is this? What scripture is he reading? What’s happening now? Can I have a Bible? But too often I had no one and I was too afraid to ask the other church members because, well I didn’t feel comfortable enough and I was shy. Although making a great first impression is key, keeping that going through interacting with the person and being there for them is just as important as the first step in making your church a place where newbies or those relocating feel at home, loved and noticed. Your presence makes a difference.
3. Hospitality - It is said that hospitality is love on the loose. Recall the time when you had world-class hospitality, how did you feel? Loved? Probably. Special? Probably. I remember visiting a friend’s church and a church member invited us both to their house. When we got there they didn’t even ask, the cooker was on and they were whisking away at some beautiful Indian food. We had cake, curry, tea and all sorts of delicacies. I left their home feeling loved, cared for and more importantly I felt the love of Jesus abiding there. If your church has lunch after the service or if you go home for lunch invite the new person. Shower them with love through food and you will find that their hearts will open up to you and you will get to know them so much more intimately. Food has a way of opening the heart… as well as the mouth. In Genesis 18 three angels in human form came to Abraham, he “ran” to meet them, signifying a sense of urgency to make them feel at home. He begged them to stay in his house: their feet were washed and they sat comfortably under a shading tree. If that wasn’t hospitable enough Abraham fetched some fresh bread as an appetiser, while he quickly but thoroughly seasoned a tender calf to feed his guests. With such five-star service, I can imagine the angels contemplated staying on earth instead of returning to heaven. If you’re staying at church for lunch, grab a plate for them. Take them to the front of the queue, dish for them and sit with them. This gesture of love will not go unnoticed and unappreciated. I remember every single gem of hospitality I have received from the various churches I have been, and that is the main reason I return. I felt the love of Jesus there, not only in word but also in action.
4. Keep in contact/ follow up - It’s not just what happens in church that makes a church feel like a home and the love of Jesus abiding there, it is also what happens after. After attending the church mentioned earlier, no one tried to keep in contact with me. This reinforced in my mind that no one cared, or cared enough to have further relations with me. This also then reinforced my hesitancy to return. After you have interacted with your newbie, greeted them and made a favourable first impression on them, sat with them, invited them over for lunch or humbled yourself to be their servant, top that off with keeping in contact with them. Check up on them during the week, ask them how they felt church went. It would also be great to rendezvous with them during the week or invite them to a social event that may be happening with other church folk. These are all little things that will make a church feel like home, this is what will make a newbie feel loved and will help them settle in.
5. Update your church website - This bonus tip is a segway from the last point of keeping in contact/ following up. After my first encounter of going to church after lockdown I was battling whether to return to the same church or to stay on zoom, I even contemplated commuting to another city. But with encouragement to return from my friend, I mustered up the courage to give the church a chance to redeem themselves. Now, I do not drive and it takes me about an hour one way using two buses in order to get to church. I left my house at 8.30am all suited and booted hoping for a better church experience: I got on two buses and the spirit of excitement returned to me about the possibility of meeting new people and getting stuck in. But as I approached the church those feelings were soon quenched. I arrived at 9:30 when the church usually opened, as I turned into the walkway gloom entered my heart. What did I see? A sign. What sign? “Sorry church is closed for the next two weeks, but we are worshipping on zoom, you can join us there…” Disappointment is the only English word I have right now to describe how I felt. So I took the ‘L’ and crossed back over the road to catch two more buses back home. We live in a digital world where announcements and things like that can quickly travel. As a member of your local church make it your duty to at least have on your website, if you do have one, updated opening and closing times and more importantly a notice if church is closed. In my case this disheartening experience could have also been avoided if some who greeted me, made a positive first impression, someone sat with me, showed me hospitality and kept in contact with me and let me know that church was going to be closed. In November 2019 one of my friend’s took me to his church in Germany. When I walked in that Saturday morning, I was greeted like I was royalty: I was asked about myself, where I was coming from, was it my first time, was I an Adventist, who invited me etc. My jacket was taken from me and hung up, I was personally shown where the bathrooms were and was made to feel at home early on. As we went to the youth Bible study, although they knew little English as it was a purely German church, they did the Bible study in English just so that I, the visiting Brit, could feel part of it. Although I didn’t get much of what was being said, I really enjoyed it because I appreciated the effort they made. During the main service, although the whole sermon was in German and all the hymns were in German too, I was helped with a little translation here and there. I was shown by church members which hymn we were singing, someone sat with me and as I sang in German and listened to the message I felt so loved and at home. After the service, I was invited upstairs for lunch where I was served a little soup and bread, after which me and my friend were invited to someone’s house. The food was amazing, I was treated like a King, I felt loved and it was the most refreshing church experience. If that was not enough I was then invited to a regional youth programme and there I was introduced to so many people. Before we left, numbers and socials were exchanged, we kept in contact and we even met during the week.
Although the majority of the programs and music that day were in German and I could not understand, the first impression, the presence of having someone, the hospitality and the follow up was heavenly. Would I ever go back there, undoubtedly. Why? Because there I felt loved, I felt at home and I felt valued and cared for, and more importantly I felt the love of Jesus in each person. There are probably many other tips that you can think of but from my experience these are the foundational ones that will enable someone to settle in and feel at home in a new church.
Although this should be a collective thing done by the church, it isn’t. But we can get there and it starts with you. Be the difference. Be the person that makes someone feel loved, valued and cared for when they come to your church and in doing so, they will be more likely to return.