Some Reasons Why Visitors Do Not Stay And What To Do About It

Presbyterian and Reformed congregations occupy an odd space in American Christianity. We do not really belong to American Christianity in significant ways. Our roots are not in the nineteenth-century revivals nor even in the eighteenth-century revivals. We are no part of the Pentecostal tradition. Our roots are in the sixteenth-century Reformation and in the post-Reformation outworking of the the early Reformed theology, piety, and practice. American Christianity has long been dominated by impulses and movements that are hostile to Reformed theology, piety, and practice. So, we do not neatly fit. At our best we are not American revivalists or fundamentalists, i.e., we are neither on a quest for the next great religious experience (usually euphoria), the QIRE, which is so exhausting, nor are we absolutely certain about those things about which certainty is neither desirable nor possible (the QIRC). At our best we are not weird, quirky, or idiosyncratic. At our best we are haven of rest for those who are exhausted by the QIRC and the QIRE. We are a place where weary travelers, who need to hear a word of grace and find a kind face, can find shelter.

We are not always at our best, however. Too often we mirror the twin sisters of American Christianity, the QIRC and the QIRE. Sometimes, however, even if we mostly avoid those two extremes, we face another challenge: confessional Reformed congregations can be a little awkward socially. In this case I do not refer to the way we appear to those who are outside the P&R tradition or even to newcomers. I have addressed those issues before (see the resources below). In this case I am thinking about the fact that, even for those of us who are very familiar with the foibles of the NAPARC world (the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council) world, some of our congregations—too many of them—can be difficult to visit and even more difficult to join. Why is this and what can be done about it?

The Congregation Of The Committed

Confessional P&R congregations are not community churches. They may sometimes bear that name, but our congregations are governed by elders, not by the congregation. The elders (and sometimes the entire congregation) are bound by Scripture as confessed in binding confessions of faith and catechisms. They tend to be doctrinally committed. That very fact and the additional fact that they hold doctrines that represent minority views in American Christianity, tends to draw personalities who are at least potentially interested in doctrines firmly held. Such people tend to be pioneers. This perception is not unique to me. Church growth analysts have been saying this for years. They have tended to counsel church planters to chase such people off and some church-growth oriented pastors actually do that as a matter of principle and practice.

Pioneers can be prickly. They are deeply committed and they expect everyone else to be as committed as they are. They can be impatient: “Why are those others so slow to catch on? Come on!” In the planting of a confessional P&R congregation they are essential but they can be practical liability sometimes. The same dogged determination that drives them to show up in all kinds of weather, to scoop the snow in the church parking lot and mow the church lawn in the heat of summer, to persevere, to attend planning meetings, and to keep the church going (from a human point of view—of course it is the providence of God who sustains and preserves the church) until it can become established and self-sustaining  can also drive visitors, whom the church growth gurus call settlers, away.

Let us consider one personality type. Experience and anecdotal evidence suggests that confessional P&R congregations have a disproportionate number of engineers. A very senior pastor warned me years ago, “Never let an engineer on your session. They tend to read the Bible like a manual.” Now, I have known engineers who did not do that but he was speaking from years of experience. Engineers, accountants, and programmers work with details. They often work alone. In their work, as in surgery and other fields, precision matters. They develop their own way of doing things. A word out of place in computer code or a millimeter here or there can make a big, sometimes unhappy, difference. We should be glad if the surgeon is precise but visitors to church are not engineering projects, spreadsheets, or patients. They are messy human beings with problems (a great number than you will ever know), a past, and confusion. Our pioneers tend to be more interested in ideas and doctrines and, frankly, less interested in people but congregations are built with both. A congregation that does not believe the historic Christian faith is not a church. It might as well be another service organization. Yet, a congregation without people is an oxymoron. People must congregate to make a congregation.

The Congregation Of The Caring

First, let us appreciate the precise pioneers. Without them, where would we be? It is easy to dump on them and yet we rely on them, do we not? Still, it is incumbent upon the pioneers to become aware of their strengths and weaknesses. If one’s interpersonal skills are not polished, perhaps one should not the first to greet guests? Think of the pioneers like single malt whiskey. It is not for everyone. It is an acquired taste.  Some never acquire the taste but no one tastes it for the first time and says, “Yes, I must have more of that!” To be sure, I am speaking of Yanks here, not Scotsman. I suppose a Scotsman has had his first wee dram while teething. Typically, one is more likely to sherry before dinner. So it should be when meeting and greeting guests and visitors. Over time, our guests, as they become integrated into the congregation, will develop an appreciation for the peaty pioneer who keeps the place humming while the rest are drinking coffee.

Little things, like smiles and warm handshakes (or elbow bumps) matter. “No one spoke to me” is one of the worst things a pastor can hear when he follows up with a guest. There are certain subjects one probably should not broach with visitors, e.g., politics or the culture wars. We hope that your guests have come to hear the gospel and, if they have not yet believed, we pray fervently that the Lord is in the process of bringing them to new life and true faith. Now is certainly not the time to try to make sure that they are on the “correct” side of a given issue. It would be a dystopian world indeed, were the nurse at the hospital desk to inquire about your politics before getting you signed in for treatment.

Think about your guests. Is your building amenable to guests? Is there space? Is there an easy, inconspicuous place for visitors to sit or are they forced to make the march of shame to the first row of the congregation? Are there enough bulletins? Guests can tell if you have given thought to them. Is your order of service (liturgy) clear? Do you explain briefly the things that might be unfamiliar? Is there someone assigned to say hello to visitors? It is also important to know when to quit. It might not be a good idea to chase down a fleeing visitor. If your guest is on a dead sprint to her car, that might be a signal or it might have nothing to do with the congregation. She might have received an emergency text message. Say a prayer and wish her Godspeed. If she breaks down in tears after the service, is there someone there who is prepared to help her? Are the deacons prepared? Is there someone with some counseling experience?

There are two other important things you can do for guests and visitors: pray for them before they come and preach gospel when they arrive. The single biggest stumbling block for guests is the impression that a congregation is intended for the folks who are already there. E.g., it will be a great temptation for pastors to opine this Lord’s Day on the things that have transpired in Washington, D. C. this week. Is that the pastor’s vocation? Is that why your guest braved the uncertainty of meeting new people to visit an unfamiliar congregation, to hear amateur social and political analysis from your pastor? I quite doubt it. Conservative P&R types complained bitterly when the mainline pulpits become mouthpieces for liberal culture war points and partisan politics. If it was wrong of them to do that, then it is wrong for conservatives to do it too. Your guest has come, like the Gentiles in John 12:21, to see Jesus. Even if your guest has come for the wrong reason, what they need to hear is Jesus.

Yes, they need to hear the law in its pedagogical use, but the law cannot save them. They need to hear the good news, that Christ came to save helpless sinners, whose lives are a mess, who have wrecked their homes and are estranged from their children. We are awash in pundits explaining who is right and who is wrong in the culture war and in politics but we have precious few people talking plainly and graciously about sin and the free forgiveness that is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Dear P&R congregation, love your neighbor by caring for guests before they arrive, while they are with you, and after they have gone. Perhaps they will not return. Perhaps, even at your best, a confessional P&R congregation is just not their cup of tea. There is not much to be done about that but let them be put off, if they are to be put off, by Christ and his gospel and not by our thoughtlessness, foibles, and idiosyncrasies. Perhaps, however, your guest will see that you love them and will be attracted by your genuine concern for their well being and salvation. That should be our prayer.

© R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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17 comments

  1. hmm, I’m a pioneer. good to know. I definitely make people uncomfortable. I hope to someday overcome the desire to not speak with visitors. lol.

  2. I was greeted at a congregation I was visiting with “You’re in my seat”. I never returned.

    • I’ve seen and heard the same thing, and more than a few times, at more than a few churches. It’s **WAY** more common than I think is widely recognized by Reformed people in newer churches.

      Particularly with churches that have been around for many decades, and in which not just many but most of the members are related to each other and often descendants of the founding members of the church, I can understand why people would be upset that a visitor is sitting in the pew used by three (or more) generations by a certain family.

      But it’s still wrong.

      If we’re going to do that sort of thing, then let’s go back to the **REALLY** old system in the American Reformed tradition in which families would purchase a pew and in some cases pay an annual “pew rent,” and then have the exclusive right to sit in that pew.

      The good thing about that system is it was clear and explicit and often there was a brass or pewter or silver (or sometimes even gold) plaque on the ends of the pew stating that the pew belongs to so-and-so family.

      I’ve seen some of those old “pew plaques” when visiting very old churches. Sometimes they were left in place to commemorate the founding families of a church long after the church ended the “pew rent” system. I’m guessing the different metals of the pew plaques at one time indicated something about the amount of money paid by the person who bought the pew, or perhaps if it was a lifetime purchase or if rent had to be paid annually, but that probably varied from one church to another. I’ve never seen a church that had the pew plaques that actually enforced them, but I’ve certainly heard of churches where families still sat in the pews their ancestors had once purchased.

      If we’re not going to go back to the “pew rent” system — and I don’t know anybody in the modern Reformed world who thinks it’s a good idea — then let’s stop acting like the pew belongs to a certain family.

  3. Agree. Too many Reformed congregation’s welcoming committee’s are like a Laphroig 10 Islay Single Malt instead of a amiable pint.

    • To me, no. I love L10. I prefer Ardbeg 10 for a good Islay, but I love Laphroig. Just not what I’d recommend giving to one to win them over to the strengths of Single Malt Scotches, even Islay’s.

    • Mike – for introducing newcomers to Scotch I have found that Oban makes a nice halfway point between the strong peaty/seaweed flavor of the seaside distilleries and the ones in the highlands that have a much milder taste. ‘Course, on a fixed income I can no longer afford any of them so it’s mostly dreaming…

  4. The PCA and OPC seem quite distinct from URCNA in terms of the authority of pastors and elders. Is this because of the confessional standards?

  5. Regarding friendliness and being human in God’s Church, His Family: My husband and I are very different. He is withdrawn and reflective, I am outgoing and friendly. Together we are some of God’s more peculiar people. We understand one very helpful perspective from God’s Word – we are sinners being sanctified by His Spirit in us whom we have from God.

    We laugh frequently about visitor cards; we do not see the category: ‘regular offenders’. This perspective shifts our perception of His Word and the Reformed standards. We are not perfect, we are in process. We are being sanctified by the Spirit of God whom we have within us from God. We are not our own; we each belong to Christ. Therefore we each honor God with out bodies.

  6. Regarding being a friendly, saved human being in God’s Church, His family: I have a question. If we are chosen, called, regenerated sinners are we to live according to the Gospel God established in Christ’s perfect Obedience of Faith on the Cross by God’s Power.

    I have another question: Is Psalm 32 more than an indicative?
    And another question: Isn’t every elect sojourner, regardless of role, a sinner DESPERATELY in need of sanctification, regardless of role or station.
    And another question: Are all elect sojourners, in every role, called to be open and broken about sin because our practice is in the Theology of the Cross and not of Glory?
    And a next to the last question: Are the sins of leaders overlooked and defined as something else and given a pass?
    And some more questions: Can a ‘church culture’ oppose openness to sin and thereby miss wholeness in Christ?
    An observation: I heard an expression in a PCA we were visiting when we were in need of hearing and seeing Reformed Theology on display. A pastor’s wife and I were talking about openness and she shared her observation of Presbyterians: ‘the frozen chosen’.

    At first I was baffled, my sin was uncovered, then I prayed: God, please protect me from being a ‘frozen chosen’ Presbyterian. And we laughed. We joined His Church because we could see it was safe to be real, to be vulnerable about being a saved, regular offenders. Though I cherish the polity of the ‘P & R Church’, I trust God’s definition of me more. He calls me His beloved child, His elect sojourner, His priest, His heaven-bound citizen, His saved, repentant, regular offender in need of daily assurance that He removed my separation from Him, not me.

    You are a helpful shepherd, Dr. Clark! God loves your devotion to us, His sheep in need of good shepherds who do not use a role of Standard Bearer to hide or cover sin.

  7. Please excuse my lack of question marks.

    Another thought about being a friendly friend in Jesus Christ’s Church.

    Some Christians are just not friendly but this does not prevent me from being a friend in Christ. Eventually the reason for the unfriendliness gets uncovered and can be brought before our Blessed God, the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He Loved us before the foundation of the world in Christ, He Loves us now in our ‘unloving and unloveable’ condition, and He will Love us when Christ returns in His Glory. May Jesus Christ’s love for us display His Kingdom while we wait for His return to fully restore His Kingdom according to God’s Will.

    Dr. Clark, your ideas help me see clearly what it means to live a Biblical Worldview, the distinctive of being Christian, one who bears the image of Christ in a very dark and fallen world. I think I am beginning to understand Biblical Citizenship – it’s living a Biblical Worldview 24/7 – ready and rejoicing in suffering!

  8. While I always enjoy and am edified by your posts here, it’s not too often I have a good chuckle too. You could put me in the “peaty pioneer” engineer category. I doubt that anyone would describe me that way, then again, I doubt if anyone has ever been described that way. Thanks for the laugh and sage advice Dr. Clark.

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