Anyone who has ever missed a week of school knows what it feels like to be a church visitor walking in on the end of a sermon series.
They look around the room and wonder, “Does everyone else know what he’s talking about? Am I the only one who doesn’t get it?”
Your church isn’t a class people are required to take. There’s no test at the end. So when they don’t know what you’re talking about, it doesn’t take long for people to feel like “I don’t need to be here.”
Don’t get me wrong–sermon series’ are great for new people, assuming they come in at the beginning or don’t have to work to catch up. And a sermon doesn’t even have to be part of a series to leave people behind. But when you want to make new people feel comfortable in your church, there are some things you have to do to help them follow along.
Before we get into that though, I want to make something absolutely clear:
The burden of whether or not people accept Jesus or join your church does not fall on you. That is not your cross to bear (pun fully-intended).
You don’t get to change people’s hearts. You don’t get to save people. And you might not even be able to change someone’s mind. You just get to be part of the process.
Long before a new person walks through the doors of your church, God has been working on their heart and drawing them to him. A lifetime of circumstances completely outside of your control have shaped what they believe about God, what they think of when they hear the name of Jesus Christ, and how they react to what they experience inside your building.
But when God leads them to your church, you have at least the duration of a service to show them what the love of Christ looks like, feels like, and sounds like. You can’t control how they respond to him, but there are practical things you can do to make that love more decipherable.
You can preach the extra mile for people who haven’t been to your church before.
1. Explain everything
In a book, it’s annoying when each chapter spends too much time reiterating things that have already been explained, but imagine that you had to wait an entire week to read the next chapter.
In a sermon series, people need a reminder of the things you said three weeks ago. Even people who heard every sermon in your series may not remember more than your main point in each sermon. And if someone isn’t there for the first few sermons in a series, they’ll be lost without the recap. It’s like starting a book on chapter four.
If you have something relevant to share from a previous sermon, spend a little more time creating that connection. Explain how what you said last week about Abraham’s journey away from his cultural and religious roots relates to your message about his horrifying journey to sacrifice Isaac. Don’t ask people to connect dots they can’t see.
But I don’t just mean that you should explain things you’ve talked about in previous sermons. Your church members have shared knowledge that new people won’t understand without more context. As you talk about people in the congregation or members of your staff, or ministries your church invests in, take the time to explain who those people are and what those ministries do. Inside jokes and references are a guaranteed way to make someone feel like an outsider.
2. Create a progression they can follow
On weekends when you know you’re going to have lots of visitors (like Christmas or Easter), it’s a good time to “start over” and write your sermon for the people who just walked into your church for the first time. Lots of people come to church on these weekends solely because of family traditions, so if you make them feel lost or out of place, they’re gone for another few months (or a year). Keep the conversation within the realm of things you’ve talked about this service so that more of them feel comfortable coming back next week.
It might be tempting to have a sermon series that ends on Christmas or Easter, letting the holiday be the capstone of your message, but the influx of visitors creates a better opportunity to start a new series.
Your Christmas message might lead into a series on the ministry of Jesus, showing people what God really looks like and how Jesus breaks down some of our culture’s stereotypes about God.
A series that starts on Easter might focus on what having a relationship with Jesus means, and why Jesus’ work on the cross is still changing our lives today.
Whatever direction you go, let the weekends where you have the most visitors launch something new for your whole church, so new people can follow along when they come back. Before people leave your service, help cast the vision for what they can expect when they come back—tell them how what they learned this time connects to what they’ll learn next time.
When people have questions like “Yeah, but what about ____?” after your sermon, most of them won’t ask—especially if they don’t know anyone to ask—they just won’t come back. Touching on your next sermon lets you get ahead of questions you didn’t have time to answer in your first message. You might even call out those questions in advance so people know you’re going to answer them next time (or at some point in the near future).
A lot of people who don’t regularly attend church have basic questions about Jesus and Christianity that they never answer through personal study, and when they don’t hear the answer in the one or two times they go to church, it can make them feel like church (or their idea of church) isn’t going to give them what they need.
3. Align every piece of your message
Between your worship service, your sermon, your church design, and your congregation, a newcomer could be introduced to more theological concepts than they can handle in one service. Too many new things at once—especially new things that aren’t explained because everyone else seems to understand them—makes people feel out of place. It feels like you accidentally walked into a 400 level class before taking Christianity 101. That’s why it’s important to thoughtfully consider what each piece of your service is communicating. What’s the big idea you want new people to walk away with?
Most churches align their worship with their sermon on Christmas without even thinking about it. Christmas is your only chance to sing Christmas hymns, everyone is expecting to hear about the birth of Christ, and we all have a general idea of what Christmas “looks like.”
But you should be considering what every piece of your service is communicating all the time. This alignment is extra important when you’re expecting lots of new people.
Major transitions in the themes and ideas you’re communicating can be jarring if they don’t have a clear explanation for what’s going on, or why the stage looks the way it does, or what this song is communicating about God and how that relates to the message. Some of these things are easier for new people to handle on Christmas and Easter because these holidays have become so ingrained in our culture. Non-Christians generally know what a Nativity scene is, or that the cross and crown of thorns have something to do with Easter—even if they don’t really know the context or importance of these symbols.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming people know how all of the pieces of your service fit together, or assuming that they will see the connections between two very different themes. Your entire service should work together to send people one clear message.
What that message is depends on who you’re preaching to and the role your church service is intended to play in evangelizing your community. Your seats are filled with a mix of long-time Christians and new believers. Founding members and first-time visitors. You’re talking to all of them at the same time—you don’t get to write a separate sermon for each group of people.
As you prepare your sermons and think about the new people in your church, just remember—they aren’t required to be here, so if you leave them behind, they probably won’t come back.
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If you need help creating a church culture that cares about visitors, maybe it’s time to build a volunteer team? Can Someone Please Volunteer? is a free ebook I wrote to help you recruit, train, and retain more volunteers. And Proclaim is giving it away for free.