One of the great privileges of being the pastor of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford, is that almost every Sunday we have visitors. Last Sunday, for instance, was a typical Sunday – to my knowledge we had five visitors. Of these five, one couple was visiting from Kent – the other three were trying us out. Two were Africans, one a Nigerian mature student at the local university, and the other a middle-aged Ghanaian woman who had just separated from her husband. Interestingly, the Ghanaian woman had worshipped with us three times in 2006 and as a result expected me to remember her! We also had an English single mother in her 30s – she and her ten year old daughter were brought along by a friend. Whereas the two Africans were clearly Christians, the English woman appears to be searching for faith. I encourage all visitors to fill in a welcome card – there they give such details as their name and address. They are also asked to tick if they would like more information about Bible study groups or Alpha courses; or if they would like a visit from the church.
But visitors, in our terms at least, are not ‘newcomers’. I define newcomers as people who have come to church for at least three Sundays. At that stage they are clearly expressing an interest in our church – and we in turn of them. This is the point when I often offer to make a visit. So for instance, this week I will have spent two evenings visiting four newcomers – two of them are a couple under 40 years of age; another is a single woman in her late 30s; and the other is a recently retired woman. Last week I spent one evening – and the previous week another evening – visiting newcomers. I guess that obn average I spend at least one evening a week visiting newcomers.
For me, visiting newcomers is a delight. Indeed, almost without exception I visited every newcomer in their home. I know that for some of my peers – ministers who lead churches of a similar size – this reflects a ‘small church’ mentality on my part. This is something they happily delegate to others. It may well be that they are right – I would not, for instance, be surprised if the person who follows me as pastor of this church does not visit newcomers. But throughout my ministry I have loved getting to know newcomers in their homes. The fact is that this is the only way in which a pastor can get to know people. Having a conversation at the church door after a service will yield some information – but it can never take the place of visiting a home. Just visiting a person’s home, looking at the pictures they have on display or perhaps the books they have in a bookcase, will immediately tell me so much about them.
I confess I am pretty direct in my visits. I often begin the conversation by apologising for the fact that I will be somewhat like the Gestapo in the questions I ask. But then, that seems to me to be the task of a pastor. A pastor is not a counsellor, who just listens and responds. A pastor can probe and even challenge. If, for instance, I am visiting a couple who are living together, I will – in a gentle way – make it clear that I do not approve of their living arrangements, and will tell them that I would be delighted to regularise their situation. It is amazing how many weddings eventually then take place! I ask people to tell me where they were born and brought up, and get them to go through their past. Where appropriate I get them to share with me their faith journey. And only then do I begin to talk about our church, what it does in our community, how it functions, and what it might have to offer them. Again, so much depends on the individual, as to how the conversation then proceeds.
When making such visits, I always make notes on index cards I carry around with me. I normally apologise for this practise – it no doubt does seem business like. But then, the reality is that this is no social occasion; I am about my business as a pastor. The following day I then type up my notes in an orderly fashion, and then take whatever action is appropriate. This morning for instance, I have e-mailed my church treasurer asking him to send out a standing order and a gift aid form to one person; I have asked my church centre administrator to send out a copy of our church handbook to another; and I have telephoned a church member to ask her to make a visit for church membership. Sometimes I send out Bible reading notes, or information about the next Alpha course. The actions vary according to the visit.
For me visiting newcomers is not just a delight. It is a vital task. Indeed, visiting newcomers and integrating them into the church fellowship is one of my five key tasks as a senior pastor. For me it is as important as leading the church and expounding God’s Word!. Hey, that might be a discussion starter!