how to be a more welcoming church

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We like to refer to ourselves as professional church visitors.  In the past three years we’ve moved to two new (fairly large) cities and travelled quite a bit, so we’ve visited a lot of churches.  Sometimes our goal was to seek a new church home, other times it was just to find a place to worship while traveling.  Some experiences have been great, others have been terrible.

A month or two after we left Lexington we went back for a weekend to visit friends and attended our old church.  It so happened that the Sunday the sermon was on hospitality and it really hit home with us since we were in the process of “church shopping”.  The lesson was great and brought up some discussion among our friends about what our experiences had been – what things were welcoming and what were turn-offs.  So from all this visiting we have come up with a list of DO‘s and DON’T‘s for how to be a welcoming congregation and how to get visitors to return.

*Note* Before I begin, I just want to say that I am completely guilty of not welcoming visitors to church, so I don’t want this to come across as judgmental or condemning.  I think that many who are “lifers” (a.k.a. raised in the church and haven’t moved around a lot) like me just may not realize how uncomfortable or awkward it can be to be a visitor.  So the purpose of this post is just to give you a visitor’s perspective so that hopefully we can all become more welcoming.

how to be a more welcoming church

Let’s get started with some church visitor DON’Ts:

(all of these except one actually have happened to us)

  • Don’t tell visitors that unless they are a member of “x” church that they’re going to hell (because that is really going to encourage me to come to your congregation!)
  • Don’t reach up, take the visitor’s card they filled out and laid on the side of the pew to be picked up, and proceed to read it read it and discuss it…while said visitors are sitting in the pew directly in front of you. (I still don’t know why they couldn’t just have tapped us on the shoulder, welcomed us, and asked us about ourselves…)
  • Don’t stare at us…we are visitors, not aliens (one lady turned around in her pew and stared at us for over half the service)
  • Avoid awkwardly long handshakes (obviously everyone, not just visitors, could benefit from this.  It’s just really hard to have a conversation with someone while they are still holding your hand after shaking it)
  • Don’t completely ignore visitors (sadly, we went to some places where we were never spoken to)
  • Don’t tickle visitors (I know, right?  Seems absurd.  But I really did have someone come up behind me and tickle me…I really hope she had just mistaken me for someone else.)
  • Don’t walk up to visitors and announce that they are in “your pew” (this one didn’t happen to us, but it happened to family members when they were visiting a church – talk about unwelcoming!  Suck it up and sit in a different pew!)

Ok, I know that seems very obvious (and I wrote that mostly tongue-in-cheek to share some funny stories) but apparently it’s not obvious to some people since all those things happened to us!

Now let’s talk about what you should DO:

First of all, make sure the information in the yellow pages or on your website about services times is accurate.  There were several times that we would show up to a church just to find out we were late or early because the information online or in the phone book was wrong.

Next, make sure you have someone at the door to greet us and offer assistance.  Also, somewhere in the foyer/entry way/wherever people come in, there needs to be a way for visitors to find out where everything is.  We need to know where to go first – Do you have Sunday school, then worship? Worship then Sunday school? A song and a prayer in the auditorium, then Sunday school, then back to the auditorium for worship?  I can’t stand walking in to a church and having no clue where to go since every church is different.

Somewhere visible there should be a list of classes.  The best experience we had was when we walked into a church, the greeter gave us a list of all the classes offered (with descriptions), let us read over them and decide where we wanted to go, and then took us to where that class met.  I like to know what my choices are.  Something that I’ve never seen in any church I’ve ever been to, but that would be really nice, is a map.  Unless your church is tiny, it would be nice to have a well-labeled map so that visitors can find important places such as the auditorium, bathrooms, nursery/cry room, and classrooms.

Once we’re in the building and situated in the correct place, the biggest thing we want is for you to speak to us.  I know it can be awkward, but I would much prefer you attempt a lame conversation than to just be ignored completely.  It also really helps to be greeted by people your own age.  Of course we appreciate the preacher speaking to us and the older members of the congregation coming to greet us, but it’s really great if a younger person comes to greet us.

I know in the past, my main concern was that I would try to welcome someone who had been a longtime member of the church.  But now that I know how it feels to be a neglected visitor, I would much rather take the chance of accidentally greeting someone who wasn’t a visitor than letting a visitor feel ignored.

Not sure where to start?  Try this:

(walk up to visitor, tap on shoulder, etc.)

“Hi, I’m John Smith.  I don’t think I’ve met you before.” (that way if they are a long time member it puts the “fault” of not knowing them on you, rather than just saying “are you new?”).

Hopefully if they aren’t a visitor they will say something like “oh I usually sit over there, or I’ve been out of town, or something like that.  If they are a visitor then the response will probably just be something like:

“Hi, I’m Michael, this is my wife Caitlin.”

Then you could ask something like “Are you new to the area or just visiting today?

We’ll say something like:

“Yes, we just moved to Bowling Green in September and we’re looking for a church home.”

Then from there you could ask what brought us to town, what we do, if we’re students (we got asked this a lot because Lexington and Bowling Green are both college towns), where we’re from originally, etc.

From there, try to find some common ground.  It really makes conversation easier if you find out you know the same people or went to the same school or have similar professions.  Try to find something.

Not too hard, huh?

Just that initial conversation is wonderful.  However, it’s really great if you take it a step further.  Tell us about the upcoming gospel meeting, give us a flyer, and invite us to come to the potluck supper.  Or invite us out to lunch after church (if you aren’t sure if we’re crazies or if you think it might be awkward then get a group to go together).

The welcome that we received at our church in Lexington when we first started going there was one of the best welcomes ever and I have to brag on them for a minute.  The first time we came (a Sunday night, I believe), one of the young men came over to where we were sitting and welcomed us.  When he found out I was a teacher he immediately called over his finance who was also a teacher so we could talk (common ground…).  He gave us his number and invited us to the weekly dinner and devotional that the college and young adult group has.  The next time we were there (a Sunday morning) and different young man invited us out to lunch with a group of young couples.  We immediately felt welcomed and involved.

Finally, make sure to follow up.  Send a card but make sure to specify what church you’re from!  Many churches have cards with their names on them, but if you choose to use your own stationary make sure to write something like “We’re so glad you visited (insert church name here).  Hope to see you again.”.  When you’re visiting a different church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night, it’s nice to know who you’re getting a card from.  You can also give us a call to ask if there is anything we need.  Also, if at all possible try to remember our names and greet us by name the next time we come.  That makes us feel so welcomed and we appreciate that you remember us!

Some good rules of thumb (suggested by our preacher at our former congregations):

  • The 10 foot principle: If I get within 10 feet of another person from the time I get out of my car to the time I get back in my car, I will smile, make eye contact, and say “hello”, whether I know them or not.
  • The 5 minute principle: Immediately following every assembly I will use the first five minutes to seek out someone that I do not know and introduce myself.  I will not discuss business of rush to a meeting.  I will put first things first and be friendly.
  • The 2 person principle: No visitor will sit or stand alone.  I will move to sit/stand with them and talk to them.

One last comment: smaller churches usually do a much better job of greeting visitors than larger churches; and this completely makes sense because visitors stick out more in a congregation with only 100-200 people where everyone knows everyone else, whereas in a larger congregation it’s harder to tell if someone is a visitor or just a member you don’t know.  That being said, sometimes smaller churches can be a little too overwhelming with their greetings.  As soon as that last “Amen” is said, we get rushed from all sides.  We do want to be greeted, but we don’t want to be pounced on.

Whew, that was a long post!  If you’re still with me, thanks for reading!

Feel free to leave a comment below about things that you think are welcoming/not welcoming while visiting churches.