I recently read something that absolutely astonished me and filled me with joy.
A friend recommended I read a book called Fusion by Nelson Searcy. Searcy is a pastor and author who has written some wonderful things about outreach and how to connect with people in the 20-teens. (It’s a lot different than it was in the 1960s and 1970s.)
What he wrote let me see with new eyes what God is doing in churches all across our country. We’ve all heard so much bad news, some good news is sorely needed. In order to give you the same glimpse I got about what God’s Spirit is doing across our nation, let me quote from Nelson Searcy’s book. He writes:
“Next Sunday the Spirit of God will prompt hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and millions around the world to visit a church for the first time. The Sunday after that, He will do it again. God is consistently blessing His Church with regular guests. Are we doing all we can to accept and honor His blessing?
“The first congregation I pastored met in a small wooden building on the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina. Thanks to our church’s positioning atop a hill, the steeple could be seen from the closest major road. The gravel parking lot was a little outdated for the early 1990s, but it underscored the place’s simple ambience. After I had been there about a year, God had grown our congregation to record attendance: 50 people a week.
“During this time, I began to notice something extraordinary: We were averaging one or two first-time guests each Sunday. Over the course of a few months, I determined that our average number of guests per week was 1.5. This meant that over the course of a year we were having between 75 and 80 first-time guests come through our door. Amazing!”
Now let me stop here for a moment. There are over 300,000 evangelical or Protestant churches in the United States. According to research from Lifeway Christian Resources, approximately 80% of those churches are plateaued or declining. But even in those plateaued or declining churches, there are still people who will visit their services for the first time every week or so.
Nelson Searcy’s little out-of-the-way church had one or two first-time visitors every one or two weeks. I can think back on our own church services over the years and realize that we have a steady trickle of first-time visitors, too. If you multiply one or two visitors every week or so, times 52 weeks a year, times 300,000 churches, that comes up to an astonishing number: over 23 million people will visit church services in our country every year! Do you begin to get a glimpse now of what the Spirit of God is doing to advance God’s kingdom, even in this increasingly difficult time?
Nobody comes to church by accident. When someone walks through the doors of a church, especially as a first-time visitor, it means God is at work in their lives in some way. They have hurts. They have needs. They have questions.
Nobody comes to our church by accident. When God entrusts a first-time visitor to our church, He has given us a great gift. Do we see that? Do we understand what He is doing for us? Are we showing God our gratitude by doing everything in our power to be ready for their coming, to make them feel welcomed and valued while they’re with us, and to make them want to come back?
Every time someone comes to our church, or comes back to our church, we have another opportunity to connect with them. And the reason we need to connect with them is not because we’re such great people. We need to connect with them so we have a chance to connect them to Jesus.
There it is. There’s the real reason we ought to see first-time visitors as important: it’s for their own spiritual welfare. It’s for the sake of their souls. Welcoming someone to our church and making them want to come back isn’t just a matter of being sociable. It’s evangelism. It’s you doing your part to help connect somebody to Jesus.
When first-time visitors come in, see them for what they are: God’s gifts to our church. And we have a responsibility to them: to make them feel welcome when they come the first time; to make them want to come back a second time; to keep having friendly interactions with them and provide the opportunity for spiritual conversations; to help them become followers of Jesus; and hopefully, to encourage them to become members of the church who will help to welcome other visitors and start them on their journey to Jesus.
Like so many of us, Nelson Searcy had to learn this lesson again in a different place. He and his wife went to New York City to start a church. They began on Easter Sunday of 2002 with 110 people. And then, in Searcy’s own words, here is what happened: “…over the next five months, with my dynamic leadership and powerful preaching, I grew the church down to 35…in a city of 8 million!”
Their fledgling church had declined over those first few months. Searching for answers, Searcy began to think about their attendance numbers, and once again, he was astonished to realize something: “I added up the total number of first-time guests God had sent our way over the previous five months and was, again, blown away. We were averaging between three and four first-time adult guests a week. Over that declining 20-week period from April to August we had seen close to 80 first-time guests.”
And then he prayed this prayer to God: “God, You’ve entrusted us with almost 80 guests over the last few weeks. I’m sorry for how little we’ve done to prepare for their coming or to follow up with them after their visit. God, I believe these are unchurched people You have trusted to our care and I’ve been a bad shepherd.”
Ouch. I’ve prayed that prayer, or one very much like it, since I’ve seen the truth that first-time visitors are God’s gifts to our church. Frankly, it’s a prayer we could all pray, together, as a church.
So get ready. Practice smiling at people. Go out of your way to shake their hand. Show them where the restrooms are. Offer them a donut and a cup of coffee. Ask them where they’re from. Tell them how glad you are that they came to our church. And look for them next week to talk to them again. Because they are God’s gifts to our church. Are you grateful?
Soli Deo Gloria!