Do you remember the least favorite of essays you had to write every new school year? “How I spent my summer vacation” or something similar? Were our teachers really that interested in us? Maybe, but probably not. They needed to discover just how much language skill we’d lost over that glorious season of freedom, assessing how hard they’d have to work to get it back.
This is that essay, only birthed from a sabbatical, not summer vacation. Our church grants a two-month paid leave to full-time pastoral staff after five years of service. For me, it was a time to read, visit churches, meet other pastors, rest and travel. I visited five countries, attended 15 worship services, eight conference sessions, 10 pastoral interviews and four church staff meetings.
And just what did I gain from this? I learned that no two churches are alike. I observed that growing churches are the ones empowering 20-somethings to do more than serve—they are entrusting them with significant leadership. I saw that congregational size has little to do with meaningful worship engagement and Holy Spirit presence. I witnessed the global flow of what’s happening in praise and worship. And I discovered that it’s possible to live out of a carry-on suitcase for five weeks.
In the churches I visited, Jesus is central, the Bible is believed and taught faithfully, they are led by good pastors and attended by God’s holy people. All are what we’d call “good churches.” Every visit was meaningful, yet some churches stood out as truly magnetic, stirring a desire to return. Naturally, every congregation welcomes guests with some version of “We hope to see you again,” which is part of good hospitality. But in my visits, I noted five qualities of churches that made me want to return and three habits to fuel those qualities.
First, these attractive churches all had an outdoor presence. There was life outside—people greeting out on the sidewalk or in the parking lot. High quality, clear and obvious signage was well-placed. One church had people holding placards with slogans such as, “We’re glad you’re here” and “We have a place for you.” At least one had music playing. This created anticipation, a sense that something good was about to happen inside this unfamiliar building. An outdoor presence is great hospitality.
The attracting churches also had an energized personal welcome. In addition to scheduled door greeters, it came from the platform and congregation members too. It seemed like they were genuinely glad to have me there, making eye contact and asking my name. And it didn’t end when I sat down. Being included in conversations after the service is where the real impact happened. (The exit matters more than the entrance.) A lively welcome can seem forced, but in my experience, this approach created authenticity. It didn’t need to be overly enthusiastic, just personal and energized.
Third, these “come back” churches offered a quality presentation. The worship teams were noticeably prepared, the preaching was on point, the room temperature, the sound and seating were comfortable, kids well cared-for, directions for children’s ministry clear and print material done with excellence. In an established church, we sometimes fall into what I call the “good-enoughs.” We feel like family, so we put in minimal program effort, or we overlook dilapidated facilities, or no one bothers to replace a burned-out lightbulb. And then we say, “It’s good enough.” But instead, a thoughtful, quality presentation of program and facilities creates an engaging atmosphere.
“A lively welcome can seem forced, but in my experience, this approach created authenticity. It didn’t need to be overly enthusiastic, just personal and energized.”
I consistently witnessed contextual preaching. By this, I mean there was always effective application in the message. Not every sermon was particularly relevant to me, but I could tell the messages were connecting with the local congregation. Some preachers spoke topically, while a couple were technically exegetical. But in each place, faithful biblical teaching connected their particular setting with life application. As a guest, I didn’t mind hearing preaching illustrations specific to that church’s own context because it obviously related for them. And should I return and settle in, that context would become mine as well.
Finally, churches that made me want to return created the opportunity for a meaningful response. These worship services were not a show nor a single-direction download from the platform to the consumer. Each service led congregants to respond in a way that urged us to say, “Yes, Lord, I’m available to you and to your calling.” Whether an opportunity to respond for salvation or to pray with someone on the spot or commit to a clear take-away for the week or accept a place to physically serve, these churches were teaching that for me to follow Jesus requires my availability to him.
Incidentally, not only were these churches attractive to me, they were clearly drawing others. These churches are growing, and that in itself generates more attraction.
Of course, one could push back and say, “There’s no five-point secret to church growth.” I agree. But capable leaders pay attention to people and to practices that help people feel loved and welcomed. Their love for people pushes these leaders to direct them to sound biblical teaching and discipleship.
Even so, while these five qualities were apparent, I don’t believe they were deliberate. Rather, I believe these are inspired practices. I say that because of three fueling habits present in these “come-back” churches.
Prayer: In each place, I saw a faithful practice of prayer. Prayer was happening in and around the service in fervent ways. Prayer gatherings before the service, individual prayer offered during the service, posted prayer meetings through the week and even congregants spontaneously praying with one another in the lobby between services, all said, “Prayer is a priority here.”
Presence: In each of these churches, there was a hunger, a pursuit, a welcoming of Holy Spirit presence in worship, in Word, in service and in fellowship. One church even embedded it into their core values statements, with posters stating, “His presence is our passion.” These churches wanted the powerful presence of Jesus—not a social gathering. God honors our pursuit and desire of him, for he says, “If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me” (Jeremiah 29:13).
Praise: In each place, the congregation participated enthusiastically in corporate praise and worship music. There wasn’t a “sit in the back with arms folded” section—you could actually hear the people singing. They raised their hands. They clapped. Some danced or bowed down. Even in a breadth of styles, from simple acoustic accompaniment to full-stage band, these churches were given to praise.
The layering of praise, presence and prayer then fueled the five qualities of Outdoor Presence (Anticipation), Energized Personal Welcome (Authenticity), Quality Presentation (Atmosphere), Contextual Preaching (Application) and Meaningful Response (Availability).
This is not a formula for church growth. This is not a system for effectiveness. This is not a doctrine for Anabaptists or Charismatics or Neo-reformers. These are habits borne out of a desire to make disciples of all people. A church that chooses to respond obediently to the call of Christ will make adjustments and even wholesale changes to lead those apart from God into a saving relationship with Jesus.
These visits have led me to begin assessing our own “come-back” effectiveness as a church. We want, “We hope to see you again!” to become “It’s great to have you back!”