Church Growth: 1st Time Experience at Plantation UMC – Club or Movement?

I recently went to Plantation United Methodist Church in Plantation, FL. I had a good worship experience there, so I want to share with you what happened at this church.

Plantation UMCEntering the Church

Here is a picture of the street view. What’s interesting here is that the church didn’t appear to have any signage on the street. If I didn’t know that the church was there and Waze wasn’t giving me GPS directions, I never would have even known that this is where the church was, so that was very strange.

Plantation UMCThe next picture is a simple, little sign that says, “Church Parking Only.” There were gates at the front and the back of their church parking, so it looks like they close up their parking lot when they’re having service. The interesting thing for me as a first-time guest was that this was the only sign that I saw, and “Church Parking Only” is not a very welcoming sign to first-time guests or to anybody in the community really. I thought that was something I would note. I think it’s very important to pay attention to all of the signage in your church.

Plantation UMCOnce I parked, I started walking to a building with a little sign that says, “Sanctuary.” I don’t know if you can make that out or not in the picture. It was pretty hard to see from the parking lot. There’s another sign there that I think is pointing to the office, and a couple other things that’s too hard for me to read. That was all the signage I saw outside the church. This is bad for first-time guests. You really need to be clear on all your signage, so that you’re welcoming people from the get-go — from your signage out front to the signs as they’re walking into the sanctuary.

Entering the Sanctuary

Plantation UMCWhen I went into the church, there were two ushers standing in the foyer. They were having a conversation, then one of them turned to me, handed me a bulletin, and said, “Good morning!” That was it. I took the bulletin and it was clear where the entrance to the sanctuary was, so I walked in and went ahead to find a seat. I was kind of looking around where to sit; there were plenty of open spots, no big deal, but I was trying to act like I didn’t know what I was doing just to see if that would clue anybody in — it didn’t. So I went ahead and sat down. Lots of people walked by me. There were people sitting in front of me and there were people sitting behind me, but no one really said anything to me. I was probably seated in the sanctuary at least 10 minutes before the service started, and I didn’t get any kind of welcoming. There was a lady who had a mic on, so I figured she was probably part of the staff or part of the worship service. She walked past me one time and kind of looked at me, maybe even smiled. She was busy doing something, so she went on with her business. That was pretty much my experience at the beginning of the service.

Then the service started. This was a contemporary service, and it was their middle service. I found it strange that the band started playing, but the people didn’t sing and there were no words up on the screen. It was like they were playing a prelude to the service, and it wasn’t really intended for the congregation to join in. It’s the first time I’ve experienced that, and it seemed weird to me at the time. It’s like, “Hey, we’re starting worship but you don’t get to participate.” I don’t know. Maybe they’re just trying to make it a little bit more sort of welcoming with some music playing, but it wasn’t instrumental music. I’m just not used to that, so for me as a church-going person, it was a little odd.

Plantation UMCWorship Bulletin

This picture is from their worship bulletin. This is actually the front of their bulletin, which says, “Making Sense of God’s Will” at the top. It has the date, their three pastors listed, the name of their church, address, phone number, and website address. Then it says, “Our vision is to be a church for all people through whom God transforms individual lives in our church, community, and the world. Our purpose is to share God’s love in practical ways, invite people to follow Jesus, connect people to Christ in caring communities. Our mission is crossing the street to reach all people for Jesus.” I saw that “Crossing the street to reach all people” several times during the worship service; I think they had it on one of their slides. I thought it was interesting.

My thought as a first-time guest was — and I know this sounds a little harsh — “Okay, they want to be about crossing the street, but they’re not being very welcoming to people that are walking into their door.” This is the growing trend I’m seeing with churches that are struggling to grow. They’re talking about going out and serving, or reaching people in the community for Christ, things of that nature; but to me, if they haven’t focused on making disciples of the people who walk in their doors, I don’t think the rest of it is going to happen very easily. In other words, if your worship service and your welcoming is not on par with what it should be for a church, then it’s a big problem. Your first-time guests may be people whom you are trying to reach through some mission project out in the community, but then they walk in your door and no one talks to them. I really think that a church has to work on their internal welcoming and messaging, and live up to the messaging that they have.

Another comment about their worship bulletin is that they’re printing their vision, purpose, and mission, and personally, I think that every church should have those. I think they should all focus about around reaching people for Christ, introducing people to God and His love, and a life of peace, joy, and love. However, I don’t think it’s really appropriate to print up your mission statement, certainly not on the front of your bulletin and not on the front of your website either. Because the first-time guest is not going to be on board with your mission; they’re just not going to jump on board with that necessarily, especially if they’re someone who’s not been churched. So I don’t think it’s an appropriate place to put that. I would much rather see the messaging that says, “We love you. God loves you. We’re glad that you are here. We pray that you will have a meaningful worship experience today. If you want to connect with us, you can email our pastor, Pastor Sam.” Make it very friendly and appealing. I think something like that would be a much better way to approach that messaging for first-time guests.

Service Begins

When the service started, the associate pastor welcomed everyone, including first-time guests, which was great. This was really the first time that I had been welcomed at the very beginning of the service. My tip to churches is that you want people to feel welcomed before they sit down or before the service starts. You want people walking up to them, introducing themselves, and having a conversation with them. You can have ushers walk them to their seat, show them around, or answer any questions. Look for those opportunities to welcome first-time guests.

The associate pastor mentioned, “If you’re visiting with us for the first time, on your way out, we have some red water bottles that we would like to give you as a thank you for worshipping today.” I’ve said this in other blog posts that for me as a first-time guest, getting a gift like that — whether it’s a little gift bag or one time we got a bag of popcorn, which was cool, or getting a red water bottle — realistically, those things have not proven to be very meaningful to me, personally. Maybe for some people. It’s much more important to me to actually meet some people and talk to someone in your church and feel like this is an accepting, welcoming, loving congregation, and that I can see myself coming back here, making some friends, and getting involved with this community. That’s much more important to me than the gift.

The other point is that the church was putting the onus on me to go and find the red water bottle after the service. I didn’t go look for it. I actually forgot about it by the end of the service. When I was walking out, I didn’t see any red water bottles; they weren’t immediately noticeable for a first-time guest to go take one. I did see they had a big area right in the middle of the walkway for them to put their attendance pads, so maybe switch those around and put the red water bottles there. But I think it’s much better that if you’re going to give a gift, then give it to the person as they’re walking in. Make sure you’re able to identify first-time guests, and then give them the gift as they’re walking in, rather than telling them that they have to go get it after the service.

Welcoming Time

The next thing to note was they had a time of welcoming in their service, which is really good; I think all churches should do that. It was a really long time of welcoming. It was a little awkward because everyone in the worship service was getting up, going out into the aisle and going around, and saying hello and good morning to everyone. So I probably had at least four or five people come by and say hello and good morning.

The associate pastor, who was the person I saw at the beginning of the worship service had the mic on. She did come over. She saw me and she made a beeline. I think she must’ve made a mental note earlier that I looked like somebody new. She came over and simply said, “Glad you’re with us this morning,” then went off and greeted someone else. A minute or two after that, the time of welcoming was over. I felt like she had an opportunity; there was enough time to have a better conversation with me. I would say to you, if you’re going to have a time of welcoming, make sure that the emphasis is on greeting people that you don’t know.

Now there was one woman who came over and introduced herself, told me her name and asked me my name. But that was it, that was the extent of our conversation. And that was more towards the beginning of the welcoming time. So if you know that there’s 3-5 minutes of welcoming time — that’s what it was — find someone you don’t know. I’m talking to you church members; it’s not just about leadership. If you’re a church member, go find someone that you don’t know, shake their hand, and say, “Hey, I don’t think I know you,” then start a conversation with them. Don’t worry about going to greet or talk to anyone else during that time. Just have a little conversation with them and make them realize that you recognize them as someone not being from the congregation, you recognize them as a guest, and do whatever you can to make them feel comfortable. If you know that they have kids and you know something about the Children’s Ministry, then tell them. “Hey, after service, I can tell you about our Children’s Ministry.” That would be a great thing to do. Tell them, “If there’s something you want to know, after the service, I’ll be glad to give you a tour or answer any questions.” That kind of opens the door for you to be able to come and talk to them again after the service and not feel awkward for either one of you. That’s one of the tips that I give churches: make sure you follow up with that first-time guest after the worship service is over.

Music

The worship was good, the band was really good, the singing was good. The first few songs they sang I didn’t know, so it was hard to get into a spirit of worship when you don’t recognize the songs. But I was singing along. Then they did the “Revelation Song,” which is a really great song that I love. I can’t remember who sings that song [Phillips, Craig and Dean]. It really touched me. I don’t know why, but I got emotional about it. It was really cool. They had two teenagers playing electric guitars — one rhythm guitar, one lead guitar — and the lead guitarist was actually leading the singing of that song, and it was great.

That’s another thing I want to really praise this church for is the presence of children and youth in their worship service. They were all over the place, and they were really participating. It was a good thing. The younger children sang a song; the older children — I’m guessing they were in 5th grade to junior high — were singing. They had a few youth involved in the praise band. I was really happy to see all that.

Also their congregation was very diverse. We have seen that up in the Northeast, that the  congregations would be very diverse, but we hadn’t seen that in other places, so it was really good to see that here in Florida.

Someone mentioned to me that it’s just as easy to get lost in a small church as it is in a really big congregation. You know what’s really interesting about that? I used to say the same thing. I have found that it’s actually easier to get lost in a small church than it is in a really big congregation. That seems to go against everything. I’ve visited maybe 4-5 big churches now, and a lot of small churches during our travels during the last year. The thing about the big churches is they have figured out how to be welcoming, how to make first-time guests feel really welcome and accepted. They really do a good job of not allowing you to get lost in the shuffle. Now I haven’t been there for a second Sunday, a third, and a fourth — maybe that’s different. But as a first-time guest, I usually have a much better experience in the bigger churches than I have in the small churches. That was very counter-intuitive; I never expected to see that at all.

Sermon

Let’s go on with this church. They did have the Bible verses on screen while they were reading the scripture for that day, and I really appreciate that. Some churches will have screens, and they won’t put the Bible verse up there. I think it’s so much easier to read and follow along, so I think that’s really good for everyone, not just first-time guests.

What was weird was that when it came time for the sermon, the pastor seemed to have just appeared out of nowhere. I hadn’t seen him the whole service and all of a sudden, poof, he was there at the podium starting his sermon. He also never introduced himself. The associate pastor had introduced herself at the beginning of the worship service, but the senior pastor did not introduce himself. So as a first-time guest, I had no idea what his name was. I know now his name is Pastor Sam, but only because I looked it up on the website.

The pastor’s sermon was great. It was very interesting. He said during his sermon that the church’s mission is to love God and to serve others, and then later he said that their mission is to go out and make disciples, which is the mission statement of The Methodist Church in general. I thought that it’s interesting that he phrased that in two different ways. Our mission is to love God and to serve others, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that, but I think that leaves out the purpose of introducing people to God’s love so that they can serve others. I think it starts with making disciples, so that we can train people and teach people how loving of a God He is, and then they serve others and part of that serving others may help make new disciples, especially if they’re inviting people to your service.

After the sermon was over, the pastor walked right through the middle aisle to the back of the sanctuary, and I thought he was just leaving the service. I thought it very strange that he appeared for the sermon and then was leaving. I can just picture him going back to his office, drinking coffee or something. I don’t think that’s what happened. I think he was making his way to the back of the church so that at the end of the service, he would already be there to greet people as they were leaving. When I walked towards the back, he said hello or some nicety. It was fine but, again, no conversation happened. He didn’t look at me and say, “Hey, I don’t think I recognize you. What’s going on? What brings you to church today?” to find out a little bit more about me.

Plantation UMCSlides

During the service, they had two projectors and their slides weren’t very well designed. They were your typical, 90s-style, clipart-type of PowerPoint slides. There are some really great tools out there. I think our church uses ProPresenter, which is a pretty reasonable program. There is a cost associated with it, but it’s pretty reasonable. It allows you to produce really professional-looking graphics. So rather than having to hire an expensive graphic designer, that would be a good way to do it. I don’t remember the cost, but it’s pretty nominal for what you get out of it.

The last slide that they showed said “Goodbye” and had some other reading underneath it. It was almost like, “Okay, goodbye, the service is over, get out.” You have to be really careful about the words you use. Think of a better way to present things. Like their sign out front that says, “Church Parking Only.” Maybe if it instead said, “We would love to have you worship with us, but during the week, you can find additional parking here.” I don’t know what the problem was why they put that sign up — are there are other people parking in your parking lot? This church wasn’t in a tourist area; it was across the street from a school. Maybe people from the school were parking there. But you know, is that a terrible thing? Maybe their parking lot got full when they had a funeral one time? That would be a terrible thing. But maybe there are other ways to handle that. Put signs up that morning that you’re going to have a funeral and say, “Funeral Parking Only,” or something like that.

Club or Movement?

This church was another great example of what I call a church club. We learned this several weeks back when we went to another church where it seemed like they had all kinds of things in place to be welcoming, but they never did a good job of welcoming us; at least not until after the service. I really got to thinking about this. I’ve come to this conclusion, and I’ve been praying about it. I’ve actually had this confirmed by other pastors who studied this.

The idea is that the church has become a club. The church has reached someone’s vision of what a church should be in terms of its size and how many people are worshipping there. The church is where we can go and be a family together, all like-minded individuals who all believe in Christ, believe in God’s love, so we want to go there to be nurtured and fed, and quite frankly to see our friends. This is our church family. This is how I’ve come to know my church back home. It is my church family and literally these people are like my family.

The problem with that is we become so centered on that as our purpose, we completely miss the whole idea that we were originally designed to be a movement. That God said, “Your commandment is to go out there and make disciples. To go into the world and make disciples, to baptize them and to teach them.” So in order to baptize new people into the faith, you have to be thinking about how we can become more welcoming and accepting of people who are walking through our doors. How do we design the worship service itself so that it’s more welcoming? And how do we actually lead people into making a commitment to follow Christ, be baptized, and then join into the teaching phase of the life cycle of their relationship in that church and their relationship with God?

This is very important, and I’m just hopeful that through these recordings and blog posts, and through more teaching that we’re going to do — I’m working on a class that’s going to teach churches exactly about how to do this, including all the little things that they can do — that we’re learning along the way of how to be more welcoming to first-time guests, and how to grow the church not for the sake of just growing numerically, but for the sake of the gospel and the sake of actually adding new members into the body of Christ.

This was my personal experience at this particular church. Sadly, it was not a unique experience. We’ve had this experience many, many times before. You can go to churchbuzz.org and look at my blog, and you’ll see different blog posts about churches that are facing the same kinds of issues and then some churches that are really doing things right. Again, they were the bigger churches, for the most part. I think in all cases, they were the bigger churches, because they were growing numerically; they were doing the right things. They weren’t perfect, but they did a lot of things the right way.

Let me know if you have any questions either through chat or online through Twitter @ChurchBuzz, and I’ll be glad to help you with any questions you might have at your church.

God bless you and your church!

Patrick

Summary

  • Pay attention to all of the signage in and around your church, from your signage out front to the signs going into the sanctuary.
    • Make sure that your signs are easy to read and welcoming.
  • Think about how you can become more welcoming and accepting of people who are walking through your doors. Look for opportunities to welcome first-time guests.
    • Make people feel welcomed before they sit down or before the service starts.
    • Church members can walk up to them, introduce themselves, and have a conversation with them.
    • Ushers can walk them to their seats, show them around, or answer any questions.
    • If you’re going to give a gift, give it as they’re walking in and do not have them have to go get it themselves after the service.
    • Design the worship service so it’s welcoming. The pastor can welcome the first-time guests at the beginning of the service.
    • If you’re going to have a time of welcoming, be sure the emphasis is on greeting people who you don’t know.
    • Follow up with first-time guests after the worship service ends.
  • Make your worship bulletin friendly and appealing to first-time guests.
    • Start with a welcoming message.
    • Avoid printing out your mission statement.
  • Encourage children and youth church members to be active participants in the worship service.
  • Use your presentation screen(s) effectively.
    • Design your slides to look professionally done, even without having a graphics designer.
    • Show the Bible verses on screen while the scripture is being read, so it’s easy for all to follow.
    • When flashing messages on screen, choose your words carefully.
  • The church was originally designed to be a movement.
    • Think about how to be more welcoming and accepting of people walking through your doors.

My name is Patrick Steil, and I’m the owner of ChurchBuzz. My wife and I started ChurchBuzz about six years ago. We’ve actually been in business for ourselves more than 21 years now. We started ChurchBuzz with the idea of focusing on helping churches with the technology behind their websites. So that has doing into a whole lot of different things to help churches optimize their websites.

We have six children — six boys total. The oldest four are now in college or working, and our two youngest are 9 and 11. We knew that this was going to be a time in our lives when if we were going to make some big changes, it would be the time to do it. We initially talked about moving. Then we finally came up with this grand idea to spend a year on the road, traveling around in an RV, with the two young boys with us. So that’s what we’ve been doing since August 2015.

Once we really got serious about traveling in an RV, I had this idea: “Every Sunday we’re out, let’s go visit a new church and let’s be first-time visitors.” So we’ve been doing that. If you go to ChurchBuzz.org, you’ll see a bunch of blog posts and a couple of videos on our Facebook page. I hope to get all this material on our website and also on our YouTube channel as well.

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