Danny Franks: Making the Unchurched Feel Welcome—Part 1

Welcoming guests is one of the most important aspects of ministry. If they don’t feel welcome, they won’t come back.

As an Outreach 100 Fastest-Growing Church for many consecutive years, The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, has figured out a thing or two about retention. In fact, Danny Franks’ first job description at the church back in 2003 was keeping that back door closed. But as the church, pastored by J.D. Greear, grew, visitors faced more obstacles to a smooth, seamless experience. They couldn’t find parking or seating, and they didn’t know where to go once they got inside.

It became clear they needed a team to create structures and systems around hospitality to help first-time guests better navigate their visit and increase the likelihood they’d return. That’s when Franks became pastor of guest services and leader of the church’s new First Impressions team. He built a ministry and a process around ensuring first-time guests felt comfortable and knew the church had a plan for them and wanted them to come back.

Now, Franks has written his first book about the importance of—and how to execute—this critical ministry. People Are the Mission: How Churches Can Welcome Guests Without Compromising the Gospel shows church leaders how to create a culture of hospitality. He explores the practical and spiritual side of welcoming guests thoughtfully and warmly while staying true to the gospel.

Why are you passionate about this aspect of ministry?

When people show up somewhere for the first time, whether it’s at a church or work or school—wherever—they kind of walk around with this low level of anxiety. What if I don’t fit in? What if I don’t know what I’m supposed to do? And so, for me, having a robust guest services ministry is a really easy win for a local church. It helps the church navigate and interpret the experience for guests, think through the experience before we ask guests to think through it, and make sure we are outlining for them very specific steps to take to get acclimated not only to a new facility but really to the family of the church itself.

I think hospitality is one of the most important yet most overlooked things we do in our local churches. Most of the time when we think about church, we’re thinking about what church does for us. We’re not always thinking about how it is serving our larger community. I often ask other church leaders, “If the people you’ve been praying would show up to your church were to show up this weekend, what would they experience? Are they going to feel welcomed, or is it going to confirm all the negative connotations they carry around with them about what church is and is not?”

Begin there. Look at your church through the lens of your closest unchurched friend. And when you do that, there will be a lot of things you’ll want to change. And when that guest finally shows up, you will accelerate those changes, because all the things you’ve missed over the years will suddenly come into focus. You’re going to hear and see everything through your guest’s eyes.

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Do you think most churches invest as much thought into this area as they should?

I think far more churches than we realize don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about this. You know, a lot of times you see two extremes. You see churches who put all their eggs into the guest services basket on the weekend. Everything centers around, Are they going to like us? Are they going to come back? Then, you have churches that want to make sure the content of the weekend is king, whether it’s the sermon or their doctrine or worship. A lot of times, in those cases, guests become an afterthought, and if they find a place to fit, great. If not, well, that’s not really our problem.

So when a church does encounter guests, you say the sermon doesn’t actually start in the sanctuary, it starts in the parking lot. How they experience hospitality either opens them up to hearing the gospel or it shuts them down. So, to that end, how should a leader in guest services be working with leaders in other areas of the church who are responsible for shepherding people beyond that first phase into other aspects of ministry, church participation and membership, to make sure all the pieces work together cohesively?

I do think it all rises and falls on communication and a cohesive plan. Everybody’s got to be functioning out of the same playbook to make sure the message our guests are receiving is unified. If we’re doing a really great job welcoming guests in the parking lot, but then the kids’ ministry doesn’t feel safe or welcoming or the teachers are ignoring new parents’ advice on what their children need, then those other things don’t matter. They’re not coming back.

The same is true of the way we speak to people from the stage. If we use insider language or say things that are not inclusive to people who don’t understand our culture, then it really doesn’t matter what we say on the sidewalk. If our messages don’t match, there’s an incongruity that guests are going to pick up on—and it may be the thing that keeps them from coming back again.

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Guest services cannot be relegated to a single team. It really has to be an ethos that pervades the entire culture of the church. It’s got to be something that the lead pastor believes in just as much as the staff member who’s responsible for it and just as much as the pew-dwelling church member who believes hospitality is their role, whether or not they have an official name tag. Hospitality is something we all do.

In Part 2 of the interview, Danny Franks looks inward at established church members and outward to visitors, and discusses how to approach the biggest when it comes to creating an environment that is welcoming to both.

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