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Taking the Mystery Out of Guest Visits
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By Elizabeth Anderson

The clock in my car reads 9:30 as I drive into the church parking lot. There are plenty of spaces, so I park with the other vehicles clustered in slots closest to the only visible entrance. I’ve never visited a Seventh-day Adventist church, so I’m not sure what to expect.
    
I open the door to find that it leads to the vestibule. “Happy Sabbath,” says a smiling lady wearing a black and white suit. Her pin says “greeter.” She hands me a bulletin. Another woman wearing black and white practically skips up behind her and greets me with a hug and kiss on the cheek, which is a little awkward.
           
“Welcome. We’re so glad you’re here,” the skipper says. “Sabbath School is in the sanctuary,” she adds, putting her arm around my shoulder. She then guides me through a quick tour of the Bible classrooms and restrooms, which are clearly marked.
           
“Oh, there’s also a potluck after service today, so stop by. The food is delicious, filling—and healthy,” she adds.
           
After our pleasantries, I wander into the sanctuary, down the middle aisle and sit in the pews on the right. I peruse the bulletin, which shows the order of Sabbath School and church services and gives songbook numbers.
           
I look up and notice more people in the sanctuary now, but they’re all sitting on the left side. A few people smile at me, including the person standing in front that starts talking about the Bible, but no one invites me over. It feels awkward, but I just sit and listen as best as I can.
           
After the class, I visit the restroom and stop by a visitor’s table in the lobby. It has a few brochures about what happens when you die, having faith in Jesus and healthful eating. There are also some contact cards. Many smiling faces continue to say hello.
           
“There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place …” I hear a harmonious group singing when I walk back into the sanctuary. I like this tune, and the songbook words are also projected onto the wall—an added plus for a newbie like me.
           
The platform participants enter and begin the service—which is easy to follow because the bulletin tells me when to stand, sit, kneel and the like. The pastor stands (I think it’s the pastor) and gives the welcome. Then, I’m surprised when he asks visitors to stand and introduce themselves. His warm tone and kind smile keep me from running, but what a way to put someone on the spot! I share my name and city of residence.
           
The pastor then says, “Let’s greet our neighbors with a hug and holy kiss.” The musicians start playing a lively tune and everyone stands and starts hugging, shaking hands and singing. There’s a deluge of smiling Adventists telling me, “Nice to see you today!” “Happy Sabbath!” and “Be sure to stop by the visitors’ potluck after church!”
           
Then they collect offering—again! Why are they sending adorable kids to gather dollar bills on their way to Kids’ Corner? Why do they need two offerings? Maybe it’s to replace a roof, but I still think it’s a little tacky to use kids.
           
I’m shocked that I enjoy the sermon since I’m not really religious. It’s a solid, scriptural presentation about living like Jesus and the importance of studying the whole Bible.
           
After church, at least three more families invite me to the potluck. I go and the food is good. This church does seem to value healthful living, but that’s something I already knew about this denomination. One drawback, though – I’m surrounded by people yet eating alone.
           
To be frank, the people at this church seem sincerely friendly, but it seems like they only say hello because it’s either their job as a greeter or because the pastor tells them to. To be fair, they were more talkative after service. Will I come back to this church? Maybe.
           
By the way, the name’s Jane. I’m a mystery church visitor.
 
A (True) Tale of Two Conferences
           
“Jane” doesn’t exist, but her experiences represent countless unexpected visitors that file in and out of Columbia Union church sanctuaries each week. In fact, Jane is a composite based on actual secret visitor experiences in Pennsylvania and Chesapeake conference churches.
           
Their active mystery guest programs are meant to raise awareness about the church experience from a visitor’s viewpoint. Aside from slight differences in implementation, the end goals of both programs are to illuminate the effective ways visitors are engaged from the moment they start looking for the church, and to shine light on the areas that may need improvement.
           
In Chesapeake, individual churches can opt in to Partners for Growth, the conference’s church expansion program. It started with nine churches last year, and the mystery guest reports are one component of the training.
           
Board members from participating churches attend lectures during a weekend practicum and look at the components of growing churches, like how they nurture and baptize community members. Near the end of the practicum, they’re also told about the mystery guest visit. When those results are revealed, board members review strong and weak points and vote on which areas to improve.
           
“The whole emphasis is on what it means to be God’s church in this world. It means to be salt and light,” says Gary Gibbs, Chesapeake’s ministerial director. “It means to give the message of the Good News of Jesus to our communities, and not just to turn the lights on on Sabbath and take care of ourselves.”
 
Selecting Visitors
Gibbs handpicks Chesapeake’s mystery guests at local Christian colleges and universities in the Washington, D.C., area, or at local secular colleges with religion and humanities programs. The Pennsylvania Conference contracts with Faith Perceptions, a Missouri-based company that helps churches evaluate the first-time guest experience.
           
Pennsylvania’s goal is slightly different. “What we’d like to do is … not necessarily change an individual church, but a perception over the entire conference,” explains Tim Madding, Pennsylvania’s ministerial director.
           
For example, he discovered most church members think their congregation is very friendly. “Some would even say that it is the friendliest church in town. What they don’t realize is they’re really just friendly to themselves. When they come to church, they’re coming to see their friends, their family, the people they know, and they unintentionally … ignore the guests,” Madding says. 
           
Individual churches usually contract with Faith Perceptions for a predetermined number of unique, secret visits. The company’s minimum package consists of 12 “unchurched” visitors, who are staggered over three to six months, depending on the plan a church chooses.
           
According to Melanie Smollen, Faith Perceptions president, each paid guest will attend a service, complete a survey and submit the bulletin, “which is kind of like a receipt showing that they went,” she says. “Once we’ve gotten all 12 visits in, we will aggregate that data using those responses from each survey, and we’ll put together a comprehensive report for the church.” She says this helps pinpoint strengths and areas where visitors may fall through the cracks.
           
Smollen says that what they are doing for Pennsylvania, however, is very different. For the past two years, Pennsylvania has commissioned single visits to various churches throughout the conference. The conference then condenses Faith Perceptions’ extensive report into a one-page summary, minus information identifying the individual church. “We [publish] that on the back page of the conference newsletter that gets sent out every month,” Madding explains.
 
Learning From the “Stings”
The reports are certainly getting a lot of buzz in Pennsylvania. Madding reports that when he visits churches now, members often want to know if they’ve hosted a mystery guest. “Some of the reviews have been a little good, some of them have not been so good,” Madding notes.
           
In Chesapeake, Diego Boquer, who pastors the Glen Burnie and Brooklyn churches in Maryland, says his members learned a great deal from their mystery guest reports. “Some things were confirmation [that] there were things that were dysfunctional and they just needed to be addressed in a very nice and loving way,” Boquer says.
           
Boquer says he understands those who feel a mystery guest’s report seems a bit unfair. “This is just one person’s opinion,” he says. But, he reminds members, “What about the hundreds of people that come only once and never come back? Maybe this one report represents a lot of those numbers,” he explains.
           
Facing uncomfortable realities through someone else’s eyes might be a blessing in disguise, Boquer says. It can alert members that “maybe we’ve been here for such a long time that we cannot see anymore through the eyes of a new person coming in. It’s our blind spot,” he says.
           
When the secret visitor evaluation was revealed at the Glen Burnie church, member Susan Newman said the report got her thinking: “Everyone is really a secret visitor coming in, because they’re making their evaluation even though … they’re not writing it out for us.”
           
Since Glen Burnie’s participation in Chesapeake’s weekend practicum, Newman has delved into the greeting program. She wasn’t comfortable standing at the church doors handing out bulletins and striking conversation out of thin air, but she learned about second-level greeting, which she says is more in line with her personality. Second-level greeters collect completed visitor information cards, which gives her information to begin conversations. She also works with the potluck ministry, dining with the new visitors or making sure they get linked with other members.
           
Newman also reaches out to visitors via text message during the week and invites some visitors for meals outside of church. Newman also found good friends along the way, including some who are now baptized members.
 
Keep Them Coming Back
 “You can’t determine when your visitors are going to come,” says Gibbs. “You get one shot.” And, it can occur when members least expect it, but there are obvious signs: a new face in the congregation, someone furtively glancing around wondering where the hymnals are located, or someone looking out of place during familiar rituals.
           
While churches in both conferences tended to rank high in friendliness, some visitors didn’t see it until after the church service, while some reports indicated guests, like Jane, felt members only greeted them at the front door because it was their job.
           
Madding says he hopes churches will remember that, even if a worship service doesn’t go particularly well, “If those church members are friendly and connect with the guests, they will be willing to come back for another visit,” he says.
           
Gibbs says the visitor program helps churches realize “that we have a very good opportunity through what we do every Sabbath to actually reach out and win souls.”
He adds, “There are people coming through our doors, checking us out, and we have a great opportunity to keep focused on mission. … God sends people and we need to be alert to that and be ready to embrace them. … Bad weather days, good weather days, whatever’s happening, we have to have heart for the stranger in our midst.”
 
Elizabeth Anderson works for WTOP radio in Washington, D.C.  In her spare time she enjoys entertainment writing, and "good news" stories that highlight the best of humanity. She also likes reading and writing articles that approach topics from non-traditional perspectives. 
 
This article is republished with the permission of the Columbia Union Visitor. It appeared in the July 2014 issue
 
 
5 Tips for Creating a Visitor-Friendly Church
 
1. Spruce Up Your Website: “A church’s website is the new ‘first impression’ that visitors receive,” says Gibbs. “Therefore, it is vital that the website be attractive, easy to navigate and have current information.”
 
2. Provide Clear and Ample Signage: Not only should guests be able to easily locate your building from the street, but make sure they also know where to park and how to find restrooms, water fountains, sanctuary entrances, the mother’s room and classrooms.
 
3. Explain Rituals: Note activities that involve standing or kneeling. “Just make sure that you’re sensitive to the guest—that they understand what’s going on,” notes Madding. Also, explain how collected funds will be used. For example, “Please explain … why the children are picking it up and what this offering is for,” suggests Madding.
 
4. Make Your Message Clear: Pastor Boquer says it’s a good idea to “design our worship services in a way that we can encourage nonbelievers or people that are visiting for the very first time” so that they can easily understand the message.
 
5. Be Friendly: “You can have a worship service that just bombs … but if church members are friendly and connect with the guests, they will be willing to come back for another visit,” Madding explains. Also, assign first- and second-tier greeters to connect with guests during their visit—and beyond.