By Danny Franks
I’m going to lay all of my cards on the table right here at the beginning: I wholeheartedly, unreservedly, and unashamedly believe that every church should have a plan in place to care for its guests.
Christians, both individually and corporately, are called to hospitality (1 Pet 4:9; Rom 15:7). Kindness should be a marker of our ministries. And our churches should be a place where those on the outside are welcomed in with open arms.
But for small- to medium-sized churches, a robust guest services ministry might feel out of reach or out of place. After all, if hospitality is something we’re all called to, shouldn’t we all naturally do it—plan or no plan, team or no team?
Well, yes. We should. But often we don’t. We let guests slip in and out unnoticed. Or worse, we notice them but aren’t compelled to reach out because we assume someone else will. That’s where a formalized guest services plan and an organized guest services team can make a difference.
Here are seven common reasons I hear for why churches can’t (or shouldn’t) have a plan, and why those reasons don’t hold up.
1. “Our church doesn’t get that many guests”
Maybe your church has declined over the years. Perhaps you’re tucked away in a rural area, and not a lot of people are moving to your neighborhood. While it may be that your inflow of guests is more of a drip than a steady stream, a good plan for one guest is better than no plan for 100 guests.
So ask yourself, “What would we do this Sunday if someone brand new showed up?” Would they know where to park? Which door to enter? Where to sit? Follow the counsel of Stephen Covey and begin with the end in mind. You might be surprised that when you walk into the weekend expecting guests, guests will eventually walk in.
2. “Our volunteers are stretched too thin”
It could be that you have a slate of long-serving, faithful volunteers, but they’re exhausted. For years, they’ve kept the nursery and balanced the books and mowed the lawn and passed out bulletins. Introducing something new would feel overwhelming to them.
That’s a sure indicator of a shallow vision for a guest services ministry. Rather than tell them what you want to do, explain why you want to do it. Remind them that your church may be intimately familiar to them, but it’s scarily unfamiliar to a first-time guest. Tell them that meaningful encounters can happen in the parking lot just as easily as they can happen behind the pulpit. Infuse a new vision to your stretched volunteers, and you might find them stretching towards a brand new goal.
3. “We don’t have anyone to run it”
If you’re a leader in your church, you have no lack of people with ideas on how you can add something else to your job description. Articles like this one may feel more discouraging than encouraging.
To be clear, if you preach weekly, your focus should be more on the sermon and less on the sidewalk greeters. If you are the lead shepherd, you should be equipping your sheep for the work of the ministry.
So start with someone with a friendly smile and a steady hand. Find a congregant who never seems to meet a stranger and has a few basic organizational skills. Cast your vision, ask them to start small, but challenge them to start somewhere. Give them the responsibility and authority to develop a fully-fledged guest services ministry.
4. “We don’t know where to start”
You don’t have to do everything right now. It can be overwhelming to think about starting a new ministry. We don’t know how to plan or how to budget or how to recruit volunteers. We’re unaware of things like ideal traffic flow or signage or guest-friendly language from the stage.
So don’t start there. Start by imagining that you are new. What would you want to know? What would you want to feel? What would confuse you? Draw you in? Drive you away? If it’s hard to get in that mindset in your church building, think about the last time you walked into a new restaurant or retail establishment. What increased your anxiety? What calmed you down?
Do a walk-around of your building with brand-new eyes. Look for weedy flower beds, scuffed paint, and outdated signage that points to a space that your regulars know is the old sanctuary but your new people wouldn’t. Better yet, invite a trusted out-of-town friend to walk the property with you. Don’t try to give them explanations; just write down their comments along the way. Their 30-minute first-time guest simulation may yield months of simple fixes that you can’t see.
5. “‘Guest services’ sounds too fluffy”
Believe me, I get it. We’re well over halfway through the article, and you’re still hung up that a church would call a ministry something that sounds so … corporate. And yes, there’s a real danger in focusing on making the guest happy. But here’s the stark reality: if we don’t learn to greet our guests, they may never meet Jesus. It takes an inordinate amount of courage for someone to walk into a strange church for the first time. All of their senses are on high alert. They’re watching for cues on whether your church is a place where they are welcomed, safe, and included.
Our goal is not to make newcomers like us, but to lead them to love Jesus. I wrote an entire book on how to honor guests without compromising the gospel, so this is something I’ve personally wrestled with throughout my 18 years as a (clears throat) pastor of guest services. So call it guest services or hospitality or greeting or the welcome team, but make the call that you’ll treat every stranger as an honored guest.
6. “We’re already friendly”
If you choose to get serious about a guest services plan, you’ll be met with no shortage of eye rolls and harrumphs. Because, leader, your church already believes it is friendly. Each Sunday morning is met with handshakes and side hugs and catch ups and bless-your-hearts.
But that’s the point: most church members are friendly to each other. They are friendly because their friends are there. It takes far more than friendliness to help an outsider feel welcome. It takes intentionality. And sometimes it takes an official team and an actual title for a greeter to leave their huddle, cross the lobby, and introduce themselves to someone they’ve never met.
7. “It’s not really a necessity”
We’re coming full circle to reason #1: “Our church doesn’t get that many guests.” Maybe you’re still not convinced that a formalized guest services plan is a need for your church. Maybe you don’t have the leadership, the volunteers, the ideas, the plan, the heart, or the passion. And if that’s the case, you’re right: guest services is not a necessity for you. It’s not a priority for those who are a part of your church.
But it’s absolutely a necessity for those outside your walls. Every single weekend can be someone’s first weekend. Every single Sunday, you can see someone cross from darkness to light. Every single time you gather can be an opportunity for your church to greet guests well so that they will hear the gospel well. A guest services plan is about so much more than parking cars or pouring coffee or putting people in seats.
When we display hospitality, we are declaring that our guests’ comfort is more important than our own. When we sacrifice time and energy and money to make a guest feel welcome, we are demonstrating tangible care for them. When we do whatever it takes to reach the people that God puts in our path, we are paving the way for them to meet Jesus, removing all barriers along the way.
So no, a formal guest services plan isn’t a necessity for you. But it’s crucial for your neighbors.
This article original appeared in the fall 2021 issue of Ministry Team magazine.
Danny Franks is a pastor of guest services at The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, NC. He is the author of People Are the Mission: How Churches Can Welcome Guests Without Compromising the Gospel, and speaks, trains, and consults with churches around the country. He also makes a life as the husband to an out-of-his-league better half and the dad to an elementary school princess, one college-aged son, two adult sons, and two incredible daughters-in-law.
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