Did you know that irritation is an important dynamic in helping us to be better servants of the Lord Jesus Christ? In Hebrews 10:24, the writer urges us to think carefully about how to—literally—irritate one another to love and good works.
Irritation is our natural response to suggestions for improvement in our personal life or in our church’s life. But the Word of God tells us that such irritation can actually stir us up to love, that is, to do things for the good of others, and it can stir up good works, that is, things that are both pleasing to God and beneficial to those around us.
In my work as regional home missionary, I find it very helpful to be irritated by those who have different insights and experiences of church life than my own and who make suggestions for improvement that I may not want to implement. I may not agree with them on everything, but if their irritating suggestions help me do things better, I’m grateful—or, at least, I try to be.
One of these blessed irritants to me is Thom Rainer.
Thom Rainer is a Southern Baptist. Until recently, he served as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Prior to that, he served at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism. He is a consultant to churches of many denominations. And he knows far more than I do about church revitalization, outreach, and evangelism. Of course, I’m a Presbyterian (not to mention an Orthodox Presbyterian), and he’s a Baptist, but, on most points, I find myself agreeing with him and being helped greatly by his insights into local church life and outreach. His work has irritated me to be a better pastor and regional home missionary.
In this article, I will pass along some of what I have learned from him about church outreach, an important although not the only labor of the church. I may have already irritated you with my title, “Helping Our Churches Be Appealing, Not Appalling.” Now, I’ll ask some questions and give some of Rainer’s suggestions that I hope will irritate you to love and good works, bringing beneficial change to your local congregation.
How does your church appear to visitors?
What’s the quality of the signs both inside and outside your local church building? Remember that signs are not for church members—we know where everything is. Rather, signs show our concern for those who are not familiar with our church. Are they of good quality, at the right height, and done with easily readable fonts? Are they old and tacky, or no longer accurate? Are the signs friendly? (A sign that reads, “Those bringing food or drink into the sanctuary will be asked to leave,” is rather harsh!) Should some signs be added?
Ask a few members to do a “sign audit” and examine every internal and external sign. We may think these things are frivolous, but people do look at the outward appearance (1 Sam. 16:7).
What’s the quality of the church nursery and Sunday school classrooms? Are they tidy, sanitary, and attractive? Get rid of the junk that can easily accumulate there and spend the money and effort to make the children’s areas truly delightful. This is a great Saturday project for church members. Unleash them to make these areas appealing and not appalling, and provide the funds for them to do the work well.
Do you have greeters for your worship services? Warm greeters give an important first impression. Choose greeters who are gifted with people. Train them. Urge them to invite single church visitors to sit with them. Have them show parents with children where the nursery is. Better yet, take them there. And encourage all church members to reach out to visitors following a worship service, rather than gathering with those whom they already know. Holy huddles (let alone unholy huddles) do not make for welcoming churches! Church members should instinctively invite church guests to join them for the coffee fellowship, Sunday school classes, congregational lunch, and other things. Practice congregational hospitality in every way—reflecting the hospitality of God.
And, pastors, be sure to contact first-time guests. Greeters should have them sign a guest register or fill out a welcome card with their contact information. You should contact the church guest—preferably the same day—by e-mail, text, or phone call, to thank the person for being at worship, to offer your service as a pastor, and to express a willingness to visit the individual or family. In many cases, this prompt, personalized attention by a caring pastor is a key factor in the guest’s decision to return to the church.
What’s your church website like? Especially for those of us who are older, it’s hard to accept that the internet has now replaced the yellow pages. Thom Rainer and others have pointed out that today it’s not the worship service but the church website that is the front door of the church. Most people make the decision to visit a church based on the church’s website.
Are you using volunteer help to cobble together a church website, or have you spent what is necessary and used an organization or person with expertise to build a quality website? (Rainer points out that we should “regard this expense like paying a church utility bill.” And, it may not be as expensive as you think.)
If you are a church leader, you may want to do a church website audit. Pretend that you’re looking for a church online. Is your website geared only for church members? Does it give staff names and titles, including pictures and contact information? Does it include easily accessible information about your ministries to children and young adults? Are there sermon archives in both audio and video? (These will also benefit members who, for whatever reason, were not able to attend worship.) Is there a church calendar? If so, is it up-to-date? Is there a statement of the church’s beliefs? Are there links to other church social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube? (Church young adults can be immensely helpful to your local church in establishing a social media presence.)
Do you have a church website secretary? The role of the church secretary has changed dramatically with the advent of the internet age. Recognizing this and making appropriate changes is a must if we are to get out of the horse-and-buggy days of church life and move into the twenty-first century! If no one in your local congregation is competent to do this, it may be necessary to hire a “virtual assistant.”
What gifts do you give first-time guests at your local church? Do you do anything to show your appreciation for visitors and extend your ministry to them? Do you have some kind of “Welcome Center” for church guests? Consider creating a “visitor pack” that you can give to all first-time guests. Along with a church mug or tumbler with the church name and logo on it, include a greeting letter from the pastor, particularly giving his contact information. Make it short and to the point.
Have a good supply of short Christian books and booklets to give out. Consider booklets published by the OPC Committee on Christian Education, evangelistic booklets by Matthias Media, and short issue-oriented booklets published by the Banner of Truth Trust, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, and other biblically faithful organizations.
Most importantly, get rid of outdated booklets that look like they were (or really were) printed thirty to fifty years ago.
Is your church intentional in its outreach? What are you doing to reach more people? Thom Rainer highly recommends planning and executing a day for everyone to invite someone to a worship service or a special church activity. This is not about numbers, but about helping to create an “invitational culture” in your local church. As a rule, church members are not in the habit of inviting others to worship or to church activities. Having a day set aside for this purpose helps to break that habit.
If you are a member, even better than just inviting others, you could offer to pick them up and drive them to church. Adding a meal to this invitation, either at the church or in your home, gives another opportunity to show the hospitality of God to others. Give every encouragement to them to be part of the life of your local church. And follow up with those contacts! This is a great way to begin developing a Great Commission mind-set in your local church.
These are just a few of the irritating insights I’ve gained from Thom Rainer. (Read his books or watch his webinars for more. I especially commend to church officers the webinar, in four courses, titled “16 Quick Adjustments to Reach More Guests in Your Church.” His books Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, and Simple Church have been the most helpful to me out of the two dozen he has written.)
May these insights also irritate you—stirring you up to greater love for others and to more good works that make your local church appealing rather than appalling.
The author is regional home missionary for the Presbytery of Connecticut and Southern New York. New Horizons, March 2019.