First impressions can bridge someone into the life of a faith community; it can also become a stumbling block.
By Heber Ticas, pastor and Superintendent of Latin America.
Maria had lived in isolation for about 13 years before encountering our spiritual family. She had fallen into a deep depression and a sense of emptiness after her husband died. Previously disillusioned with church, she didn’t know where to go to find support, and did not feel she had a sense of belonging anywhere. Rosa, Maria’s neighbor, had sometimes observed Maria watering her plants and always wondered why she was so secluded. Bolstered with faith and hope, one day Rosa overcame her fear of rejection and knocked on her neighbor Maria’s door and invited her to dinner and to participate in the small faith group she was hosting at her house.
She was pleasantly surprised when Maria agreed to come. Maria was quickly assimilated to the environment of the small group, which proved to be a safe zone that afforded her an opportunity to open up and engage. It wasn’t long before these newfound friends invited Maria to the Sunday celebration. Although she enjoyed the relationships she was now forging, she was hesitant to take this next step. Her fear and previous negative experiences with churches dominated her thought process. Her friends were able to work with her fears and she was able to take the plunge into a church environment. Fortunately, the church had an assimilation team and plan in place.
It has been often said that it is difficult for an unchurched person to darken the doors of a congregation. There are many factors that make this statement true. In the church culture in America, Maria’s experience cuts across generations and ethnic backgrounds. In GCI, we believe that our Sunday celebration is the hope venue of a healthy ministry. Our Sunday celebrations are intentional environments where regular attendees and guests can both experience a place of belonging, inspiring worship and inspiring preaching. Our desire is for our congregations to be the healthiest expression of the church of Jesus Christ that they can be. It is vital for us to consider the reception we provide for our guests in our Sunday celebrations.
It has also been said that a first impression can either bridge someone into the life of a faith community or it can become a stumbling block. I strongly believe that our approach to our guests on Sunday morning needs to be a tangible expression of the relationship that is shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These expressions can be tangible in the following manner:
- The way we welcome guests into our fellowship
- The visibility of God’s love shared amongst each other
- The overall worship experience
An intentional assimilation team’s function is to make guests feel welcome, safe, and appreciated. Church experts tell us the first two minutes guests experience will shape their overall impression of a church. If someone is received with warmth, attention and value, most likely their approach to the rest of their experience will be with a positive mindset. This mindset is shaped by the flow of what occurs from the parking lot to the pew/chair. If the joy of receiving a guest was expressed with attention in the parking lot, in the front door and by the one ushering the guest to their seats, any tension a guest possesses can be greatly diminished.
After the first two minutes, a guest will begin determining whether to consider a return visit based on their overall impressions. I regard the physical ambiance of a church facility an important part of a first impression of a visitor, but there is nothing more powerful than observing the love of our Triune God displayed in the way we relate to each other. A common thread in the feedback that I have received from first time guests, is the way we relate to each other and the familial nature of our church. When the body of Christ expresses love and unity, it makes a powerful statement.
What is going through the mind of a first-time guest on their way back home? I pray that as our guests take inventory of their experience in our Sunday celebration, they will feel a burning desire to return and engage further. I pray their overall first impression was one of a healthy environment, in which they can express their faith in community with others, and where they and their children can forge new relationships as they encounter the incarnational love of the Father, Son and Spirit.
Maria is still with us. By the grace of our Lord, and our intentional efforts to create such environments, she was able to relieve her tension and engage with us. I recall Maria inviting my wife and me to her home for dinner some three months after she had been consistently attending our services. I felt as if she had been a church member for ten years. Her love and attentiveness were so vivid that I could clearly see the love of Christ expressed through her. I asked Maria, how was it that she was able to connect to the life of our church with such ease? She shared her story, explaining the fear and tension that she carried into our church service that day, but she concluded by stating; “I have now found a spiritual family with whom I can continue the journey of life.”
I pray that all our GCI churches would consider taking a deeper look at our hope venue and contemplate ways in which we can become more intentional in facilitating these most important bridges for all our guests.