I grew up in the church, so I was never a visitor. Because of this, I never paid attention to what the church did to make visitors feel welcome or not. However, I recently moved across the country and experienced looking for a new church, so the tables have turned.
For several months, I was the new guy at a different church every Sunday. As a result, I started noticing a few patterns among some of the churches that unintentionally made their newcomers feel a bit awkward.
Here are a few behaviors I experienced that churches should think carefully about when they are planning how to be welcoming to their guests.
1. “Turn to those around you & say hello!”
I am an extremely outgoing person; I can start a conversation with almost anyone with no problem. However, even I have days where I struggle to be outgoing enough to greet those around me during an announced greeting time. Thom Rainer addressed this subject by polling his twitter followers. He asked first-time churchgoers as to why they didn’t return to a church, and the most common response was the standing and greeting time. Crazy, right? To most people who have grown up in church, this time is totally normal.
I’m not saying your church shouldn’t greet visitors. On the contrary, I think churches just need to be sure to be intentional and genuine when interacting with visitors. This will make them feel seen and appreciated. Think outside the traditional “stand and greet” box when considering how to welcome visitors.
2. Lack of Consistency
Recently, I discovered a church that I really enjoyed. The message was gospel-based, there was high-quality worship, and the people seemed genuine and welcoming. However, when I went back the next week, there was a different person preaching a very different message. Personally, this threw me off a bit. Obviously, pastors need to take breaks from teaching from time to time, but the unfortunate timing (and the inconsistency of the message being taught) made me think twice before returning a third time.
If your pastor is taking a sabbatical or is on leave for a few weeks, make sure to acknowledge this to your congregation. Make sure the others who teach or guest preach understand your church’s vision and mission. This applies to worship as well. If your worship style or worship leaders are quite inconsistent week to week, it may throw visitors for a loop.
3. Assuming Everyone Knows the Bible
The goal of most churches is to reach more unchurched people for Christ. However, an unchurched person visiting a church normally doesn’t know the Bible stories, characters, terminology or jokes familiar in the Christian faith. If you want to reach the unchurched, make sure your services aren’t oriented entirely for current believers. In you’re teaching, make sure to remember there may be unchurched people in the chairs who need more context for what you’re saying.
In his book Suburbianity, Bryon Yawn tells this story: One Sunday, he finished preaching, and a young member of his church came to him looking quite upset. The young man explained that he had brought his parents that morning, and it was the first time they had ever been to church. Unfortunately, Byron did not read one piece of scripture that morning. Instead, he had summarized a Bible story he assumed everyone knew. While most of the congregation knew what the pastor was trying to say, the unchurched visitors did not.
Attracting and retaining visitors is a tremendous need in the church, and thus should be approached with intentionality and strategy. While it may look different for every church, one can never go wrong by being aware of some potential missteps.
How can your church better engage its visitors on the weekend?