Have you ever gotten lost trying to find the sanctuary of a church? Gotten wrong (or no) directions from a church website? Listened to a worship team which seemed to barely know the song in question? I have. My fiancé and I went on a brief church-visiting stint last year, and we definitely had uncomfortable moments in the process.

In his article “Eight Confessions of Church Spies,” Chuck Lawless tackles the impressions that churches often give to outsiders, particularly first-time visitors. Lawless’ church consulting company provides “spying” services, he writes; they send in "spies" to visit churches and take note of how churches can improve from an outsider’s perspective. The results show that often churches have many factors working against them, from outdated, “useless” websites, to poorly secured childcare areas, to weak preaching. Perhaps the biggest shame of all can be found in his second and fourth bullet points, entitled, “Churches are not friendly” and “Churches aren’t prepared for guests.”

Lawless writes,

“Our spies know to take note of how many people greet them apart from a time when the worship leader tells the congregation to welcome one another. More often than not, no one greets our representative before or after the service. Churches are friendly, but most often only to people they already know. I once served as a spy myself, and the church greeter escorted me to the “friendliest class in the church” – where not one of 60+ attendees spoke to me!”

The line between making your church friendly and welcoming to visitors, and obsessing over a consumerist vision of church that feels more like a Starbucks, is a tricky one to walk. No, churches can’t be in the “people pleasing” business. But we still want people to want to come to church, right?

Crosswalk.com and Christianity.com authors offer some suggestions for creating a solid and welcoming church environment. Dr. Julie Barrier writes that breaking down cliques inside a church can happen when we remember to see visitors and members alike as unique, when we ask each other questions, when we comfort each other, and when we make our church a safe place.

On the subject of preaching sermons that will actually hold the attention of parishoners, J. Warner Wallace suggests “reason[ing] through the evidence of Scripture,” and Eric McKiddle writes that pastors much remember to have variety in their sermons, hitting various biblical genres and stepping out of one’s comfort zone.

Finally, Crosswalk blogger Trevin Wax reminds churches that, in addition to having a website where people can learn about your church’s doctrinal statement and church programs, it’s crucial to be aware of the church culture propagated inside the walls of the church itself.

“If your website says “missions” is a core value, and yet the music ministry budget is four times as big as your missions ministry, your church culture doesn’t line up with your stated values…

Look at what your church is doing, the activities your church is involved in. And ask yourself where your practice aligns with your philosophy and theology. What are the signs that your people actually believe the confessional statement about evangelism? Or the core value of hospitality?”

So…is your church prepared for “spies” – or are you lacking in an area crucial for welcoming guests? According to Lawless,

“If there’s good news here, it’s that churches can address these issues – but they must be honest first.”

Debbie Holloway is the Family Life Editor for Crosswalk.com

Publication date: August 14, 2013