No one likes to feel awkward. Think back to a time when you felt awkward. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, was it? Many people will do everything they can to avoid being put in an awkward situation. And if they do find themselves in an awkward situation, they make sure to steer clear of it the next time. This includes a guest who is made to feel awkward at church.
Now if you are reading this, feeling awkward at church is probably not something you worry about. You know what is going to happen, where to go, have friends and feel right at home. We forget what it’s like to walk into a church for the very first time, not knowing anyone and wondering if you’ll be put in an awkward situation that will make you feel uncomfortable.
We have to remember that we only get one opportunity to make guests feel welcome. If we make them feel awkward on their first visit, they will probably go into flight mode and not return. And then it doesn’t matter how many times we call them, email them, text them or whatever else is part of our “follow-up” plan, they aren’t coming back.
So…how do churches make guests feel awkward? Here are 10 of the most common ways that I have observed.
#1 – Having everyone turn and “say hello to someone near you” during the beginning of the service. A lot of churches do this…even many growing churches. But have you ever stopped to consider that it can make a guest feel awkward? What is meant to be a “church family” moment can be intimidating to both regular attenders and guests. You know what usually happens, you’ve experienced it. The average person turns and awkwardly says “hi, how are you?” to the person behind them and it stops at that. Extroverts love this time during the service, but you have to remember that many of your guests are not extroverts and this places them in an awkward situation. Yes, connections can be made during this time, but you also risk making many guests feel awkward and even more like an “outsider.”
Unawkward Options: (I don’t think unawkward is a word, but I’m going to use it anyway.)
- Make sure you have greeters at the doors to say “hi” to people when they enter. This is more natural and less awkward for guests.
- Greet everyone from the platform and do a general “welcome” to guests.
- Have a person assigned for each part of the auditorium who casually welcomes people and engages them in meaningful conversation before the service starts. This again, will be more natural. This person should be a people person and have the ability to put people at ease and make them feel comfortable.
#2 – Publicly singling out guests. Some churches even go so far as having guests stand or they ask the members to sit down, leaving the guests awkwardly standing and feeling embarrassed. What is meant to make guests feel honored and special usually does the opposite.
- Invite guests to a guest reception after the service where they can meet the pastor and other people in the church. This places the option in their hands instead of forcing them to identify themselves during the service.
- Have a guest card available in the seats that people can fill out if they’d like to. The card should have the option for someone to contact them if they’d like more info.
#3 – Not showing guests where to go. Last summer, I was at Universal Studios. I was looking for the newest Harry Potter area of the park. I walked up and down the street where the entrance was supposed to be, but couldn’t find it. I finally approached one of the staff and asked them where the entrance was. She said, “It’s right back where you were at.” Still confused, I said, “Oh, okay,” and went back to look for the entrance. As I went up and down that part of the street, I felt very awkward. I couldn’t find it! Finally, I peaked around the corner of a brick wall and there was the narrow entrance. Now I know they designed it that way on purpose, to stay true to the book, but man was it awkward looking for it!
I wonder how many times guests have felt the same awkwardness at a church? No directional signs, no hosts to show them the way, no clear visual of what is where. And so guests end up awkwardly driving around the building, not sure which door to enter or they walk through the building, not sure where their child’s class is or which way the auditorium is, too embarrassed to ask someone.
- Have your building areas and entrances clearly marked on the outside.
- Have clear signage that identifies guest check-in.
- Have clear way-finding signage.
- Always walk guests to their rooms.
#4 – Asking guests to raise their hands during a worship moment. I know it’s a good thing to raise your hands during worship. I’m for it and do it. But when you ask everyone to raise their hands, it can make a guest feel awkward. Maybe we shouldn’t put them in that situation.
- Let the Spirit lead people to raise their hands in worship rather than asking them to.
- Don’t create a culture that says people who raise their hands in worship are more spiritual than those who don’t.
#5 – Asking guests to fill out long, detailed check-in forms. Yes, you have to get basic information for a guest family to check their children in, but make sure it’s basic information. The more information you ask them for, the more awkward they will feel.
- Trim down your information gathering to just the bare necessities.
- Use electronic check-in rather than hand-written forms for guests. Most people would rather type than write (and it’s easier to read).
#6 – Making guests wait in line. No one likes to wait in line. Especially guests. And when you make them wait in line, you place them in an awkward situation. Think about how you feel when you’re at a store and need help, but the store clerk is talking with another costumer. You stand there awkwardly, waiting for your turn…trying not to appear too overbearing, while at the same time trying to let the clerk know that you need help as well. That’s how guests feel when we make them wait in line at church.
- Have a separate check-in area for guests.
- Have enough greeters and volunteers so people do not have to wait in line for more than one minute before being helped.
- Acknowledge everyone as soon as they get in line, even if you can’t help them right that moment. A simple “Hi! Glad you’re here! I’ll be right with you!” makes a big difference and will help take the edge off their awkwardness.
#7 – Making guests hunt for a place to park. We’ve all experienced the awkwardness of riding around a crowded parking lot, looking for a place to park. It’s not fun! You do not want guests to experience that feeling at your church. If they do, more than likely they will just drive away.
- Have clearly marked guest parking that is close to the building.
- Staff and volunteers should park in the worst parking spots and save the best parking for guests.
#8 – Not acknowledging guests at all. The flip side of singling out guests is not acknowledging them at all. When a guests walks in a church and is met with stares, but no greeting or even a handshake, they leave with the awkward feeling of not being important enough to even be acknowledged.
This syncs with some of the previous options:
- Make sure you have greeters at the doors to say “hi” to people when they enter.
- Have a person assigned for each part of the auditorium who casually welcomes people and engages them in meaningful conversation before the service starts This person should be a people person and have the ability to put people at ease and make them feel comfortable.
- Invite guests to a guest reception after the service where they can meet the pastor and other people in the church. This gives guests the option to connect and be identified if they’d like to.
#9 – Assuming guests know what regular attenders know. When you don’t communicate details that guests need to know, you can put them in an awkward situation. Here’s an example. You don’t tell a guest father that he will need the security tag to pick up his child after the service. He hands the security tag to his wife and then shows up at pick-up without it. This causes him to be put in an awkward situation and embarrasses him in front of other parents.
- Think through ahead of time the must-know details you need to communicate to guests.
- Train your volunteers to show extra patience and care with guests. The last thing a guest needs in an awkward situation is to be made to feel even more awkward because of an impatient or rude volunteer.
#10 – The church not dressing like people do in everyday life. Here’s an example. When someone in jeans walks into a church full of suits, the person will feel awkward. When someone in a t-shirt is greeted by a bunch of ties, the person will feel awkwardly under-dressed.
- The pastor and staff leading the way by dressing in everyday casual wear…whatever that means in your culture. For a rural church, that might mean jeans. For a church in an area that has lots of businessmen, that might mean khaki’s and a polo shirt. For an area comprised of young adults and college students, it might mean something even more casual.
- Use images of people in casual wear in your branding, advertising, etc.
Are you making guests feel awkward in any of these areas? If so, it might be why the percentage of guests that are returning is low. What changes can you make to take away the awkwardness?
Let’s never forget what it’s like to walk in the doors of a church for the very first time. And let’s do everything we can to create an environment where guests can come and not feel awkward.