I’m New Here
By Fr. Michael Prokurat
Is God happy when He sends people out into a field
ripe for the harvest and they come back empty-handed?
Did you ever wonder why many visitors who come to your parish once, do not come back? It might surprise us to find that the reason visitors do not return is not because of their attitude, but because of our parish’s attitude toward them, and possibly, my attitude in particular. The purpose of this article is to give some pointers on how to greet visitors to your parish so that they seriously consider participation in the Orthodox faith
I. BEFORE THE VISITOR ARRIVES - Who Should Greet The Visitor?
What is our parish’s present program for greeting visitors? If the answer to this question is “none” then we must also be willing to take a hard look at what that means to the visitor and to us. No present method for welcoming visitors is in fact a programit is the worst program possible. Newcomers know nothing of parish greeting programs, they only know of the reality of being greeted or not. What we don’t do speaks as loudly as what we do. Having no program is a message both to the visitor and to the regular members of the parish that welcoming new people is a low priority on our parish’s agenda.
Some people may think that the priest is the person responsible for greeting visitors, but is this true? The priest can extend a brief greeting to a new visitor at the veneration of the cross, but many visitors do not come to venerate the cross, especially if they are not Orthodox Christians. Secondly, the priest is usually not able to devote a substantial amount of time to visiting at the end of the Liturgy because of the demands of finishing the Liturgy. Even if he were free 15 minutes after the Liturgy, how many visitors stay for that long? THERE IS NO QUESTION THAT PARISHIONERS HAVE THE CHIEF RESPONSIBILITY FOR GREETING VISITORS.
II. WHEN A VISITOR ARRIVES - What to Do?
What happens to first-time visitors to your parish? Are they greeted by an usher or by an appointed person? Does the person next to the visitor in the church introduce him/herself? Does the visitor sign a guest book or fill out a visitor’s card?
Parishioners may say that everyone in the parish is responsible for greeting visitors. This usually means that no one is responsible. Although everyone is supposed to be responsible, the fact of the matter is that new visitors still go ungreeted. When everyone is supposed to be greeting newcomers and no one does, the outcome is the same as if no one in the parish cared. Accountability and responsibility for greeting encourage parish growth and give clergy or staff the opportunity to follow-up. A first time visitor to the parish can be effectively welcomed by an assigned greeter. The greeter can be the key to a good or bad first impression which the visitor will come away with. So what can a good greeter do? The greeter quietly supplies a tremendous amount of information to the visitor. The greeter introduces the visitor to the liturgical prayer of the Church. The greeter supplies basic printed materials to the visitor (more on this later.) The greeter can take the name, address, and telephone number of the visitor. It is extremely helpful to have greeters send a note with the names of the visitors to the priest before the end of the service so that he can mention the visitors’ names during the announcements and draw others in the congregation into the welcoming process. (Most priests like to know the names of the visitors in advance for their own welcome to them.) The greeter also asks visitors to remain after the service to meet the priest and other parishioners and encourages them to keep in touch and return. If the visitors do remain, the greeter should introduce them to other parishioners and to the priest.
What happens the second time the person visits? What kind of impression does this individual come away with after the second or third visit? Who is responsible for extending the fellowship of the People of God on these occasions?
In addition to individuals needing theological identification with the Church, they also need active identification with a parish’s smaller groups: the Church School, Women’s Auxiliary, Youth Group, etc., as well as smaller, less formal groups of friends. For example, it is natural for high school students to feel more comfortable in a parish setting after having met other high school students. Active effort has to be made to introduce visitors to groups or persons in the parish with which they personally identify. The importance of introducing visitors to individuals “like themselves” is a point that cannot be overemphasized.
In approaching someone interested in the Kingdom of God, it is important to recognize our “intercessory” role. We ask the Mother of God and the saints to intercede for us daily, but we frequently underestimate our ability to intercede for those who seek God. Helping a visitor to our church, or assisting someone outside the church walls, might be the only personal access of that individual to the Kingdom of God. What an awesome responsibility! When we remember our Church’s teaching on sin and separation from God, as well as the fact that people without God are considered lost and need this return to the Father, we begin to see how important our role is in bringing that visitor to a full life in Christ, starting with inclusion in our parish.
III. AFTER THE VISITOR LEAVES - How to Follow-up.
After the visitor leaves the service, your work as a growing church continues. Statistics have shown that those visitors who are most likely to join a parish are those who have been contacted by that parish 24 - 48 hours after their visit. This statistical information leads us to examine our own commitment to helping the Church grow by fulfilling Christ’s commission to go and teach and baptize all nations.
“Who is responsible for immediate visitor follow-up?” Some might say that visitor follow-up is the priest’s joband there is truth in that. But a designated parishioner is in a better position than the priest to talk with visitors after the Divine Liturgy, request a card with name/address/telephone number, and ask about their interests, family ties, and what led them to the church. All this needs to be done before visitors leave the church building.
We may also ask, “What kind of impression did our parish make on this visitor?” “How friendly were the parishioners?” “Would they want to become part of this church?” If it appears that everyone in church knows everyone else, and that ail in attendance know exactly “what to do” (even if this were not the case,) it is natural for a visitor to feel isolated, even after the first and second visits. This feeling of isolation can continue through many of the initial visits to a parish if it is not intentionally dispelled by the regular parishioners.
Another important aspect of first impressions has a more theological flavor, and is connected with how a parish community expresses who they are. Did the visitor leave with any printed material? How are visitors supposed to know who you are, and what you are unless you make it available to them? How much money has your parish spent during the past year telling people who you are? This will give an indication of your priority for this item. (Some hints on writing a parish first impression piece are given in an essay entitled, “Tips on Writing a First Impression Communication Piece for Your Parish,” from the Chancery Office, Diocese of the Midwest, address below.) First impression pieces on the Orthodox faith are available in printed form from “The Orthodox Press” (address below).
Lastly, after a visitor leaves our parish we ask, “What will that visitor experience of our parish during this week?” Will the visitor be personally contacted within the next day or two by either the priest or another layperson? Many parishes have drafted a “canned letter” which they send out during the course of the first week to the visitor. This is an additional greeting/reminder/ invitation which positively illustrates the outreach of God’s people to those seeking Him, i.e. the parish to the visitor.
Of course, the “cutting edge” of greeting first-time attenders is a follow-up visit during the first week to their home. This can be done by a member of the parish’s staff or by a “Weeknight Visitation Committee.” Adequately trained laypersons can be just as effective with these personal visitations as the clergy. The entire process of greeting visitors from the first visit to the follow-up is an indication of how effective our parish is in bringing new people to God and to the Orthodox Faith. As the harvesters sent out into the fields, we need to pick the fruit while it is ripe, not after it has fallen to the ground.
Have you ever wondered what someone thinks who walks into your Church for the first time? If you have not, you should. Imagine that you are arriving at a Sunday morning service in your Church for the first time as a walk-in visitor. Center your discussion around the following questions:
1. What are your first impressions of the church based on the building, parking lot, immediate environment?
2. What happens when you first enter the building? What are your impressions based on the people you first meet (ushers, members, greeters, etc.?)
3. Do you feel comfortable or uncomfortable as you first come in?
4. Are you ignored by most of the people?
5. Do you feel like you are wanted, appreciated, cared for? Or is “Good morning!” the first and last greeting you hear?
6. What are your impressions of the service? Or of the Church school?
7. Does there seem to be a spiritual excitement or dynamism within the service and among the people? Or is the service contrived and little more than a series of rituals?
8. When the service is over, what happens?
9. Is it easy to feel like you can become a part of this church, or would it take considerable effort?
10. After you have left, do you have any desire, reason, or need to come back?
11. In the following ten days was any interest shown in you by the pastor or laymen? Did you receive a call, visit, or note encouraging you to visit again?