Do You Treat Your Church Newcomers Like Cancer Patients? … I Hope So! (Charles Arn)

Date: October 18, 2013  (Friday)
Time: 02:35 p.m.
Place: California Urology Medical Clinic, Pomona California 

“Dr. Arn…your biopsy came back positive.  I’m afraid you have prostate cancer.”

I thought he must have been talking to someone else in the room.  But we were alone…and the doctor was looking straight at me.

“Are you sure?” was all I could think of to say.

“Well, you are certainly welcome to get another opinion. But these biopsies are seldom wrong.”

“So, now what?” I asked, which led to a 20-minute conversation about what this newly discovered disease was…how far advanced it might be…and what were the options.

To make a long story short, three months after the biopsy report I had an IV in my arm and was being wheeled down the hallway at the City of Hope Medical Center to what would be a 3-hour surgery. (Robotic-assisted laparoscopic radical prostatectomy to be exact.) For those of you (men) who have been there and done that, I won’t remind you. For those who haven’t, I won’t bore you. But as I think back on the events of the past three months, I’d like to share with you what I learned from hospital staff, doctors, nurses, and even patients at the City of Hope about being a newcomer. I realize that a cancer hospital may not be the first place you would look for insights on welcoming church visitors and new members. But then, again, maybe there are more similarities than we might think…

They Anticipated My Uncertainty. Turning into the hospital driveway, I came upon a kiosk with a large sign: INFORMATION. I stopped, rolled down the window, and received a warm welcome from the man inside. I was given a brochure of the hospital, a map, a letter from the CEO, and told of the complimentary valet parking for first-time guests.
APPLICATION QUESTION: What and where is the first contact you have with your newcomers?
Do you control that contact and make a good first impression, or just hope that it happens?

“First time?” I was asked by a smiling lady as I entered the lobby. It must have been my body language. I’ve been told that a good host can spot a newcomer a mile away.

“Yes,” I responded.

She escorted me to the “Welcome Desk” where three people stood ready to help. After explaining that my wife and I were there to see a certain doctor, the host called a man over and told him where we needed to go. Bill introduced himself as a volunteer and said, “Just stick with me and I’ll show you the quickest way.” I learned, in our hallway conversation, that Bill was an 11-year veteran who had fought and won the same battle in which I was now engaged. I felt an instant bond and wanted to ask him a dozen questions.
APPLICATION QUESTION: Do you have volunteers available to help guests find their way?
Do you match newcomers with members who share things in common?

“We Are Family Here”. More than once I heard this phrase spoken by staff, volunteers, and patients. The words appear in the hospital’s literature and billboards around town. After my surgery I reflected on the value of family. My wife had taken time off work, my mom and sister had visited me after surgery. Other family members around the country had kept in regular contact. The faith, hope, and love one finds in a healthy family is a particular blessing in times of need. I thought about those patients who had no spouse to push their wheelchair, no parents or children to visit and pray for them. The City of Hope motto—“We are family here”— makes sense, especially for those who don’t have any other.
APPLICATION QUESTION: Do you intentionally nurture a sense of “family” (i.e., caring, support, love) in your congregation? Do newcomers experience it, or is it just for the old-timers?

Someone to Hold Your Hand. On the second visit I was introduced to my “patient navigator” and given his e-mail and direct phone number. If I had questions, he either knew the answer or would find the right person to call me back. In addition, I received a directory of names and contact information for key people in the hospital.
APPLICATION QUESTION: Do your new members have someone to help them get involved and connected in the early stages of their relationship with your church? More members drop out in their first year than any other time.

A Connection Center. In a 20’ x 40’ open area, plus several private conference rooms, information was available on various support groups that were sponsored by the hospital. A variety of free mini-books were provided on anything related to cancer. I was given a flyer and explanation of when and where the next prostate cancer workshop would be held. There were free DVDs of staff physicians giving lectures on various topics. Times for the new patient/ family orientation were posted. I could pick out a Christmas ornament, hat, or scarf from a collection that had been handmade by volunteers for patients/families. Here I discovered that a social worker had been assigned to me, and a volunteer walked me down the hall for a pleasant introduction.
APPLICATION QUESTION: How do you introduce your church’s ministries, groups, and activities to newcomers? Do you have descriptive literature and knowledgeable volunteers to help newcomers connect to places, people, and events?

Places to Contribute. Sitting in the lobby waiting for my blood work, I was surprised to hear the melodic notes of a harp. (My first thought, as you might suspect, was to check and be sure I wasn’t in heaven.) It turned out the harpist was a volunteer who had been sharing her talent with patients for the past seven years.
APPLICATION QUESTION: Do you have positions where church members can contribute their gifts and skills toward the mission of your church? Create roles that complement the strengths that your members already have.

Well, there is more to say than I have space…or you have time. So, here are just a few final observations:
Great signage all over campus. Do newcomers know how to get where they want to go in your church?
My wife loved the creative and tasteful decorations. How is the interior décor in your facility?
Literature available in multiple locations. Why limit visitor information to one place in your church?
Floors, windows, and walls were spotless. How would the cleanliness of your buildings compare to a hospital?
A website full of helpful information. What do prospective visitors think about your church based on your website?
A billboard near our house says, “At City of Hope, we live to cure prostate cancer.” How does your church communicate who you are and what you’re all about to the community?
Volunteers and staff seemed like they actually enjoyed what they were doing. What’s the attitude your people bring to church?

In my post-operative consultation a week after surgery, the doctor looked carefully at the test results, then turned to me and said: “You’re cancer free.” I must admit that as those words sunk in, I could not hold back tears. It was probably a variety of emotions. But as I look back on that moment, I recall the joy of realizing that I was free from the ravaging effects of cancer. I can’t help but compare the experience to the joy of realizing that, through Christ, we are free from the ravaging effects of sin. And while a good hospital facilitates the healing of our physical body, a good church should facilitate the healing of our spiritual body. More than one person has shed tears of joy upon realizing that they have been healed by Christ…for eternity!

When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.  I have come not to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”  Mark 2:17 (NLT)


As you might guess, this was taken BEFORE surgery! 🙂

Charles Arn is Visiting Professor of Outreach at Wesley Seminary, and co-author of the new book, What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Rules of Thumb for Effective Ministry (recently awarded OUTREACH Magazine’s 2014 Book of the Year in the field of Leadership).

  • Nikki Powers

    I found this blog post through the Wesleyan Pastors facebook group, through a friend of mine, as I am not a Wesleyan Pastor, but am friends with a few of the people in that group. In my adult life I have moved a lot; 8 times since I graduated from Houghton in May 2001. All but one of those moves brought me to a new community and most of them to a new state, as well. As you can imagine, I’ve visited lots of churches in that time, some Wesleyan, some not. We now have a little guy who is 9 months old, but most of the churches I visited I first visited with my husband as a 20 to 30-something couple.

    Reactions from church to church vary widely, and often determine whether or not we come back, more often than the style of service, the size of the congregation, or condition of the building. We’ve been to services where literally no one talked to us, at all. Neither the pastor/pastoral team, nor anyone in the congregation. We didn’t go back. Other times, we have been smothered by people as if they haven’t had a new person come to their church in a very long time. I’ve been asked to teach a Sunday School class at a church that I visited 1 time–seriously! We’ve also been asked to people’s homes for dinner after the service, which we politely decline. We don’t generally go back to these churches, either. This would be even more true now, while I know my own history, they didn’t, and offered me a position in which I would left alone with children. I wouldn’t want my child to be left alone with someone that NO ONE in the church knows anything about. We attended one church in which in order to do anything in any type of leadership position as a lay person you needed to be a regular attender for at least 6 months, so that they could determine your character (and then there was a background check). While we moved again just as we were reaching our 6 months, we thought that that was a wise way to approach what can be a tricky situation at times. BTW, both of those churches were of the same denomination at roughly the same time, and in neighboring towns.

    We do tend to go back to churches who say “hello” to us at the first visit and let us know what we need to know (for instance, now, if and where there is a “cry room” or nursery available so if my little one gets fussy I don’t have to disrupt the entire service because I don’t know where to go). Maybe send a card in the mail to welcome us to come again, etc. If we come back a second time, welcome us again, and then let us know what other ministries are available. If you happen to remember our names, use them, if not feel free to ask again–we likely won’t remember any one’s but the pastor’s.

    Before we even get to the first visit, though, there is the website. In this day and age, if you don’t have at least a very basic website, most new people aren’t going to know you exist unless they happen to drive by your church. You may “steal” people from other churches, but to actually gain members from new people in town or those that haven’t been to church in awhile is unlikely. Things that I like to see on a church website include: pictures of a normal service (what are people wearing, is your congregation all of one ethnicity, or general age group? What I am looking for really is, am I going to fit in?) Now, my husband always wears a shirt, tie, and slacks and I almost always wear a dress or skirt. We don’t care if other people wear jeans, shorts, or suits, but it’s nice to know what to expect. A MP3 or video of an entire service is great, but I know that not everyone has the capability of doing that. What is absolutely essential is: service times, the location of the church, and a phone number and please, keep these up to date! A “we believe” link is also helpful. I can’t tell you how many churches we’ve stepped into in small towns where the only “denominational” churches we could find were too liberal so we started visiting the non-denominational churches, and been completely surprised by what was the norm for that church. (An example, sitting in complete silence for 10 minutes waiting for the Holy Spirit to move someone to speak–apparently, He never did.) Some things that would be better off if they were not there: an out of date calendar of events, if no one has updated it in 3 years, it’s really better if it’s not there. Misinformation of any kind, if you no longer have a kids ministry, don’t advertise that you do, even if it just takes a break for the summer. If you say that I’ll be greeted with a friendly smile, I want to be greeted with a friendly smile, etc.

    If any of you have questions, I’d be glad to answer them.

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  • Rob Pochek

    A great article! I wish you well in your recovery Dr. Arn!

    • Charles Arn

      Thanks, Rob. So far, so good… 🙂