As a "traveling evangelist" I've had the privilege of preaching in churches from coast to coast. And, until I have the microphone on over my ear, most people have no clue that I'll be the preacher that day, so most treat me like a first time visitor. Over the course of many years of visiting churches I have had great experiences as a guest along with some not-so-great ones.
And, lately, my trips to new churches have accelerated in my own city. I hate to use the term "church shopping" but that's what we've been doing as a family for the last several months. The church we've been attending as a family for several years is a great one but it's a 35 minute drive away. So my wife and I decided in September to start looking for a home church in the Arvada area. All the churches we have visited so far have been pretty good.
As a result of my visits to churches over the last several years and, with my family, over the last few months, I did notice some things about how first time visitors must feel when they walk into a brand new church.
Speaking as a visitor, here are some suggestions I would give to pastors when it comes to creating a context that is just the right amount of welcoming.
1. Equip your parking lot team to wave us in with a smile.
The last church we visited was a true blessing. Although it was their very first service as a church they seemed like old pros. The silver-haired parking attendant in the orange vest waved our car in, pointed to the space where we should park and chatted it up with me and my family when we got out of the car. From square one we felt welcome.
2. Have people greet us at the door and offer to answer our questions.
It takes more than just smiling faces and handshakes. Walking into a new church with kids hanging on both arms can feel overwhelming. We don't know where the kids go, where the bathrooms are or even where the church auditorium is. In most of these churches I felt a bit like cattle, meandering toward the right meadow, instead of gently being shepherded by the greeters to our proper destination.
A question like, "May I answer any questions for you?" could go a long way to making a wide-eyed family feel welcomed.
3. Put up dummy-proof signs that are easy to read and understand.
Just this last month I was preaching at a church in Houston I had never been to before. From the time I pulled in I knew exactly where I should park. The signs were big, clear and designed for first time visitors.
Visiting a church creates a certain amount of tension, a low level angst if you will. Good signs, both inside and outside the church, help alleviate that a bit. The last thing you want to do visiting a new church is to screw it up by parking in the wrong space or walking in the wrong door or whatever.
4. Don't point us out in the service.
Speaking of angst, when it comes to welcoming the visitors, my wife and I could feel the blood draining from our faces when we thought the announcement givers at these various churches were going to have us stand and recognize us as visitors (thank the Lord none of them ever did!) I don't know whose idea it was to have visitors stand in a service to be "welcomed" in the first place but, whoever you are, it was a bad idea. We don't want to be pointed out. We don't want to wear a special colored name tag. We just want to check your church out and talk to friendly people along the way who make us feel welcome.
5. Give the gospel clearly enough for us to understand and believe.
Okay, okay, I have already put my faith in Jesus (along with the rest of my family) but I listened to every service with the ears of a lost person. I asked myself, "If I were to come to this service as an unbeliever would I hear the gospel clearly enough to understand the gospel." In most churches there were brief overviews of the gospel but I would say it was only in one church where the gospel was clearly and completely given in a way that unbelievers could easily understand and put their faith in Jesus. This doesn't require an "altar call" but it does require a call from the altar for unbelievers to put their trust in Jesus based on his finished work on the cross for the salvation of their souls.
6. Have a check in system for kids that is hastle-free and quick.
Most of these churches we visited had a quick process for checking in our kids. Some were really quick. Others made us fill out semi-extensive information. Yes, I know this is a must for legal reasons but I would encourage children's ministries to make it as quick and painless as possible for newcomers.
Think about it. If it's your first time at a church you usually show up a few minutes before the service time is scheduled to start. But if it takes 10 minutes to check in your kids you will miss the opening of the service and risk feeling like you are interrupting. All this can make visitors feel uneasy.
7. Beware weird Christian things.
Over the years I've witnessed a lot of weird Christian happenings in churches across America. And, because I was new to most of these churches, I witnessed them from a visitor's vantage point. I've seen leaping, leotard-clad, banner-waving dancers flood the aisles during worship. I literally had no idea what was taking place and could only imagine what an unbeliever would be thinking if it was their first time in church. More recently I watched a lady awkwardly jerk and move (dancing?) across the back of the auditorium during the service. The people around me tried to ignore her but it was hard for us, as visitors, to look away. In other churches I've heard incessant "ameners" who say "amen!" about anything and everything (even during announcements and at the parts of the sermon where a hearty amen doesn't make sense!) I've heard church leaders close the service in prayer and go WAAAAAYYYYY long trying to impress the audience with their use of the old English language. Dost thou knowest what I meanest?
Beware of weird Christian things. I know we're not of this earth but we need to make sure that we're not doing things in our services to perpetuate stereotypes that make Christians look needlessly kookie.
8. Give visitors a pass on the offering plate.
The last church we went to asked the visitors NOT to give anything in the offering plate except a completed information card (name, address, phone number, e-mail, etc.) The pastor reassured the visitors that giving was for their regular attendees only. This gave us a pass when the offering went by. Another way some churches did this was by not passing the plate at all. Some had offering boxes at the exits that church members could put their gifts into on the way out of the service.
9. Don't get too aggressive with the church follow up e-mails.
Okay, I know this can be a sensitive one because we definitely want to follow up with newcomers. But one church I visited literally was relentlessly sending me e-mails, almost daily! That's way too much. Nobody wants spam from a church, either at their annual potluck or in their e-mail box.
10. Call us after, ask about our experience at the church and invite us back.
Not one time at all my church visits was I ever called and invited back personally. That seems weird to me. In every church we registered our kids and wrote down our names and phone numbers as first time visitors. But not one time were we called and followed up. A phone call is more personal than an e-mail. A simple phone call would go a long way in making me think about coming back a second time.
Hopefully these 10 things will help you create a more welcoming church environment for 1st time visitors.