When finally given the opportunity to simply attend, and not preside or preach at a given church on Sunday, two notable Christian leaders found out just how difficult it was to fit into and connect to a new church today.
Having no current pastoral obligations, Geoff and Sherry Surratt, who have both served extensively at churches like Seacoast and Saddleback, visited over the past few months nine different churches, attending as anonymous visitors.
"It has been an eye-opening experience," Geoff Surratt shared on ChurchLeaders.com. Discovering firsthand the obstacles of connecting with a new church, the former Seacoast Church executive pastor shared a few pointers on how to "make your church stickier" and retain visitors.
"None of these ideas are new or revolutionary, but I bet you think your church is a lot better at each one than you really are," the father of two noted. "Trust me on this; they're not."
For example, though most churches thought they were a friendly and welcoming group, in actuality, they had minimal contact with newcomers outside of the front door greeting.
From an outsider's perspective, a church could come off cold and unwelcoming because more often than not their greetings were never extended beyond the initial exchange.
The only interaction newcomers would get after their first step through the door would be during the "forced greeting time," when neighbors only acknowledged their presence whe
n they were directed by their leaders to do so.
"Feeling alone and disconnected is the one experience we've had at almost every church we've attended," Surratt shared, also stating that his wife, an extrovert, felt the same way.
In order to extend the welcome and "friendliness" of the church, he suggested teaching on hospitality, dividing the congregation into sections with chosen leaders responsible for the people who sat in their section, and creating things like a "gorilla greeter" team, made up of people who purposefully sought to find those who were disconnected and connect with them.
Many people seek connection and relationships when they come to church, but are often left alone and desperate for a friend.
"People want to connect, you want people to connect; let's put significant time and energy into making this happen," the Denver resident advised.
Although he was not pushing "consumer Christianity," he felt that churches should be more like car lots, not in an overbearing or forceful way, but with the mentality of "How can I put you in this car today?"
"If the main reason people are showing up at church is to find relationships, there has to be a way to help them connect today. Not next month, not at the pancake breakfast on Saturday, but today."
While friendliness and maintaining relationships are important, clear signs and directions are just as vital for first-timers, Surratt stated.
Marking where the parking lots, worship rooms, restrooms, and other places are located while also detailing programs for guests are things that help visitors navigate the church better.
Though regular churchgoers have ingrained the layout and worship schedule into their memories, no longer even needing to think about where to go and what to do, visitors are usually lost from beginning to end without guidance.
"The bottom line is we should do everything we can to make our church at least as easy to navigate as the local Target."
Additional ways Surratt felt churches could be made "stickier" included better applicable and practical Gospel-centered preaching and more readily accessible volunteer opportunities and resources for newcomers as well.
All in all, Geoff and Sherry Surratt's reflection on their personal experience with the church today is aimed at creating a warmer environment for the first-time visitor, guest, and attendee who feels lonely, needs comfort, or is discovering God for the first time.
Surratt not only seeks to help newcomers but the church as a whole as well to function in love and unity.
Geoff Surratt is currently a freelance Church Catalyst and Encourager and has written three books including Ten Stupid Things That Keep Churches From Growing. His wife, Sherry, was recently named the new president and CEO of MOPS International beginning January.