Wesleyan Wisdom: The harvest that comes from visits with first-timers

Often, I receive emails from people interested in the practice of pastoral calls and receiving of new members—two things that are never optional for parish clergy.

Donald Haynes

Rather than itemize a “this is the way I do it” list, allow me to offer some anecdotal examples of how I approached one-on-one pastoral calling with those who were first time guests in our morning worship service.

Last Sunday one of our relatively new members who sells real estate invited to church a couple to whom she had shown a house on Saturday. As I made my customary rounds through the pews at 10:50, I spotted them. When attendance is 124, spotting guests is easy! Thousands of our United Methodist churches have fewer than 100 people in worship; so greeting individual worshippers is virtually a tactile ministry. I welcomed “Joe and Sue” as first-time guests and explained we were having open communion. At the church door after worship, I addressed them by name and asked if they had signed the registration pad, which they said they did. (Most first-time guests do not sign, but I still ask permission to visit!)

Then I asked, “Would you honor me by allowing me to visit you in your home?” She said they would be delighted. I called Sunday night and we set up Thursday evening. In retirement I serve a church 53 miles from our home, so visiting them required quite a trip, but one that I was delighted to make. She even invited me for dinner at 6:00. In all my years, that was a first!

Upon entering their lovely home, Sue said as I came through the threshold, “We have been married five years and gone to church nearly every Sunday and visited several churches this spring and summer, but you are the first pastor who has ever been in our home.” She said, “Every other church asked us to come back, but you said, ‘May I come to see you?’”

She then asked, “Do they teach pastors in seminary not to visit people’s homes?”

‘Win-win’ situation

The couple had met on eharmony.com. Joe’s first wife had died and Sue was divorced. He was Episcopalian, she was Baptist; they agreed before they married to be United Methodist, but since last spring, they had been “shopping.”

Both are college graduates. She has one daughter; he has a son and a daughter. Neither of his children has accepted the marriage, so there has been plenty of hurt and anger. My visit with them lasted two hours as we talked about their blended family issues, their faith journeys, their reason for looking for a new church home, singing in the choir, and their questions about Kallam Grove Christian Church, where I serve. What, they wondered, is a “Christian Church” if it is not “Church of Christ” or “Disciples of Christ”? They were surprised to learn how Methodist its tradition is, and fascinated to learn that it dates from 1792 and the first division in Methodist history—over polity, not doctrine. They wondered if we accepted membership transfers without re-baptism, if we baptized infants, and if we baptized adults by sprinkling, pouring and immersion. The answer was “yes, yes and yes.” After a prayer, I left, and Joe and Sue assured me they would return. And they did!

I know that our ordination vow to “visit from house to house” is often seen as obsolete and not advisable in contemporary culture, but making pastoral calls on first-time worship guests is a win-win situation. I visit only by appointment, so they know I am coming at the time best suited for their family or personal lifestyle and schedule. Sometimes they prefer meeting at a restaurant, their mom-and-pop business or the church study, but most of the time they love showing you their home.

With some fine tuning, those visits still afford a pastor the best opportunity for “necessary talk.” Wesley discovered its value in Savannah when he was serving the Anglican parish there from 1735-1737. He noted in his diary a greater likelihood of worshippers attending on Sunday if he had visited their homes the previous week. His observation is why we have that vow to this day in the United Methodist Church.

No formula

Two weeks ago a mother brought her little girl to Vacation Bible School, and I asked if I could visit them. She was a single mom whose husband had stripped their bank account, maxed the credit card and left town. The 2-year-old’s toys were everywhere and the dog insisted on jumping into my lap to lick my cheek, but it was a wonderful visit that has resulted in her coming to church the past two Sundays—all smiles! At age 28, she had not been in church since she was a child, but now she wants to bring her little daughter up in the church.

Fundamentalists and very evangelical Christians will not approve of my low-key, relational approach to “pre-churched” or “ex-churched” people. I try to model my conversations after those of Jesus: Meet people where they are, talk their language as best I can, and leave them glad that we met. I do not have a doctrinal formula like “the sinner’s prayer” or “four spiritual laws” or “the Romans Road” to bring them to accept Christ as their savior and Lord in the early stages of our relationship. I am honored to be a guest in their home after they have been a guest at worship. I am cognizant of Jesus’ words, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (John 14:9) Did he not also say, “Learn of me”? Learning is not a sudden experience or a one-shot deal or a series of questions that, if answered in the affirmative, are followed by a strong handshake and the words, “Then, brother, you are a Christian!” Obviously that is the propositional evangelism by which millions are brought to Christ, but my comfort zone is relational evangelism which first establishes personal concern, then trust, then cognitive doctrinal and biblical exploration, and then personal commitment to Jesus.

Let me admit that I bring into church membership a lot of what Wesley called “almost Christians.” I believe our journey of being saved by God’s grace through our co-operant faith has some similarity to falling in love and getting married. Some experience love at first sight; some learn to love the girl next door who hated boys; some come to love through a gradual shift from casual acquaintance, to friendship, to marriage.

Similarly, some Christians from Christian homes cannot recall a time they did not say their prayers, know a table grace, and sing, “Jesus Loves Me.” Others have no childhood Christian memory at all. Some midlife seekers come from substance abuse or criminal behavior and make sudden and lasting commitments to Christ. Some, like my own daddy in 1946, come forward at church, repent and rise with instantaneous inner peace for the first time. We dare not confine the modus operandi of God’s grace!

A wide welcome

Some pastors require committed discipleship to precede membership. I am uncomfortable with requiring a more committed discipleship of new members than we require of our Administrative Committee members. My own experience has been that new members are more active, more inquisitive, and more open to seminars, Bible studies and growth in their faith journey than many third- and fourth-generation members. Admittedly, I love being one-on-one with those of God’s children who are pre-churched or ex-churched.

One recent new member asked if I “preached against divorce.” I explained that divorce is one, and only one, manifestation of brokenness in our lives. We can make a mistake in choosing who we marry just as we make mistakes in other major life decisions. When I’ve shared my conviction about divorce and God’s grace, others have shared some real horror stories. This woman said, “My first husband left me for our best friend. I have been remarried 16 years to a wonderful Christian man. Our church changed pastors last year and at least once a month he says in a sermon, ‘If you are divorced and remarried, you are living in sin.’”

I assured her that she will never hear those words from my mouth. I believe that Jesus’ words on divorce were a statement in a religious culture that allowed men to divorce their wives “because she does not satisfy me” and remarry, but did not allow women any rights. Indeed a woman’s only post-divorce options were begging or prostitution. Jesus’ statement was a major stroke for women’s rights in a very chauvinistic culture.

Pastoral visitation opens many doors and leads to what Wesley repeatedly referred to in his daily schedule as “necessary talk.” That cannot happen between the pulpit and the pew. That level of confidential “soul talk” cannot happen even in the small groups without risk of betrayal. In a stranger’s home, we learn to live out the philosophy of Paul: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (I Corinthians 9:22b)

To the many who have asked how I do it, this is your answer. I do not impose my methodology on anyone. However, one thing is sure: If in our location, our denominational anonymity, and with our lack of contemporary worship, my church can receive 52 new members within 32 months, then any church can grow!

Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: dhaynes11@triad.rr.com.

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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